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The men who could be pope: Cardinal Timothy Dolan

A happy warrior who fights with bravery and bonhomie

By on Thursday, 7 March 2013

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York smiles after a meeting at the new evangelisation synod (Photo: CNS)

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York smiles after a meeting at the new evangelisation synod (Photo: CNS)

Watch the Rome Reports video profile.

I met Timothy Cardinal Dolan in Los Angeles. I was in LA to meet some people in the film industry about some screenplay ideas and was invited to the annual prayer breakfast at the new cathedral. Cardinal Dolan was the keynote speaker.

He delivered a rousing, solidly scriptural address calling the crowd of media people to be involved in the new evangelisation with passion, zeal, humanity and good humour.

A genial, red-faced, people-loving prelate, he worked the crowd afterwards, listening carefully to each one, here enjoying an uproarious joke, there paying attention to a prayer request; here making connections with an old friend and there making new friends. He has a reputation as a conservative, but his style is downright Chestertonian. He may not have the paradoxical wit, but he has the same irrepressible optimism radiating through a large and exuberant style. In Los Angeles I saw a natural pastor, disarming in his humour and good-natured joshing, while delivering a dynamic and orthodox message.

Born and brought up in America’s heartland – strongly Catholic St Louis, Missouri – Timothy Dolan is the eldest of five children, and he says he can never remember not wanting to be a priest. The family recall his early interest in the Church and they remember him pretending, like many men called to the priesthood, to celebrate Mass as a child.

Dolan attended a junior seminary and earned his BA in philosophy from Cardinal Glennon College, a seminary in St Louis, Missouri. He must have been one of the “bright sparks” because he was sent to study at the Pontifical North American College in Rome and the Angelicum, where he earned his licentiate in Sacred Theology. After a stint as a parish priest he began a doctorate on the history of the American Catholic Church at the Catholic University of America. He moved from there to teach in seminaries, becoming vice-rector of his own seminary before being appointed rector of the North American College. During his time in Rome he also taught at the Angelicum and the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Pope John Paul II appointed him Auxiliary Bishop of St Louis in 2001 and the next year he was appointed Archbishop of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, taking over from the disastrous Archbishop Rembert Weakland. The archdiocese was reeling from Archbishop Weakland’s bad handling of sex abuse cases, financial mismanagement, nepotism and an autocratic leadership style, combined with modernist theology and moral turpitude. Archbishop Dolan pensioned off bad priests and attempted to turn the diocese around, but after only seven years he was tapped to serve the 2.5 million Catholics in New York City, the second largest diocese in the United States after Los Angeles. Cardinal Dolan visited India and Ethiopia as chairman of Catholic Relief Services. He now serves as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and serves on various committees and commissions including the newly created Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation. He is also a member of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and the Congregation for Oriental Churches.

Is Cardinal Dolan papabile? The general wisdom is that an American could never be pope because it would upset the global balance of power, placing great spiritual power into the hands of a citizen of the world’s only superpower. Cardinal Dolan, however, has good credentials. He’s forged the important Roman relationships as rector of the North American College and John Allen, the veteran Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, says that many meetings with cardinals invariably begin with a light-hearted anecdote about the jovial Dolan. In other words, nobody dislikes him.

One example of the sort of self-deprecating humour for which he’s famous is his quip when asked what he thought of those who were naming him as a possible pope: “They’re the ones who have been smoking marijuana.” When asked if he had ever had a mystical experience like John Paul II, who was found prostrate in prayer in the middle of the night, Cardinal Dolan said if he was found like that it would be because he’d “fallen out of bed from having too many beers”.

Cardinal Dolan’s affability and quick intelligence are perfectly suited for his fame as an expert communicator. Relaxed and jolly in front of the cameras, he overpowers his interviewers with an expansive bonhomie and exuberance. He communicates the Catholic faith with a dynamic optimism, good humour and serious depth at the same time. Cardinal Dolan is not all jokes and anecdotes. He has stood up to President Obama in the controversy over funding of contraceptives and abortion and, Allen notes, “the Church on his watch would not back down from a fight, but it would also not head for the bunkers”. On the world stage Cardinal Dolan would emerge as a beloved, larger-than-life papal rock star, a kind of happy warrior, countering the shy, gentleness of the bookish Benedict XVI.

But Cardinal Dolan’s very strengths are also his weaknesses. When compared to other candidates, he appears to lack gravitas. His academic accomplishments are adequate but not stellar. He’s written about a dozen books, but they are mainly pastoral and devotional works. He’s neither the world-class philosopher that John Paul II was nor the world-class theologian we saw in Benedict. His experience outside the United States is very limited and this is reflected in his poor showing in the language stakes. Compared to someone like Canada’s Cardinal Ouellet, who is a respected theologian, missionary to Latin America and fluent in six languages, Cardinal Dolan comes across as a lightweight.

But popes are not chosen simply for their academic accomplishments or their linguistic abilities. The primary question is not “What does the CV look like?” but “What are the world’s cardinals seeking as they gather in Rome?” If they are looking for a brilliant communicator with the personality and vigour to be a dynamic global evangelist, then Cardinal Dolan could be the man. If they are also looking for an able administrator and an efficient new broom to sweep clean the curia, then Cardinal Dolan could be the man once again. If they are worried about the lack of academic gravitas, it could be argued that the Church has had an able philosopher and theologian and now she needs someone to communicate those truths with energy, zeal, down-to-earth humanity and not a few laughs. Again, Cardinal Dolan could be the man.

Certainly he would be the unexpected choice, but if history teaches us anything, papal elections are unpredictable and if the last few weeks have taught us anything, we’ve been reminded that the venerable institution of the papacy is full of surprises.

Fr Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. Connect with his blog, browse his books and be in touch through his website:

  • mike

    This ‘Teddy-Bear’ like Cardinal may not, indeed have the linguistic skills, but he has the charisma of John Paull II. I am certin is elected Pontiff, he will learn tmany languages-but surley that is not a barrier for election, is it?

  • Benedict Carter

    Dolan cannot keep his mouth shut whenever there is a microphone around, and he just loves being in close proximty to celebs. He’s absolutely awful. 

  • Benedict Carter

    We absolutely do NOT need another JPII. 

  • Elizabeth

    Lord, please not Cardinal Dolan.  Almost anybody but +Dolan (well, maybe not anybody, but you know what I mean).  I pray for a holy, strong, courageous, orthodox, as traditional as possible, LION of a man to be our Holy Father.  I’m afraid Cardinal Dolan’s jovial, glad-handing, affable, everybody’s-my-buddy style is not what our Church needs.  May God’s will be done.

  • James M

     JP2 loused up the Church – & that is being polite. A further dose of him would wreck it beyond recovery.

    “Cardinal Dolan’s affability and quick intelligence are perfectly suited for his fame as an expert communicator.”

    ## So ? That is no reason to elect the man. The Church needs far more than mere this-worldly talents & qualities; it needs Saints. Giving it Popes who have this-worldly abilities, but no habit of supernatural-mindedness, would be a curse. The Church needs  Apostles – not mere communicators: that can be learned – but only God makes Apostles. There is far too much concern for technique, and not nearly enough for tone & substance. Not that anything better can be expected of a priest from the US :(

    “On the world stage Cardinal Dolan would emerge as a beloved, larger-than-life papal rock star…”

    ## God preserve the Church from that – has Fr. Longenecker never heard of disparity of cult, discretio, gravitas, or worldliness ? He may be a convert from US Protestantism, but a Catholic priest should know better. Even if he labours under the disability of being from the US.

  • Elizabeth

    @Parasum:  I have to agree with you.  I don’t think a Pope who happens to be from America would necessarily be a poor choice, but I most definitely agree that Dolan would be a very poor choice…..and that another JPII would be potentially disastrous.  Lord save us from another charismatic Pope in the vein of JPII.  Good Lord, we don’t need a rock star!  We need another Leo or Gregory or Pius.  Perhaps it’s precisely because Fr. Longnecker is a protestant convert that he sees certain things about the Faith in the way that he does.  

  • Gabrielle_fey

    Well, maybe it’s because I watched the CNN interview in Germany, a country where things are very formal, (I am British), but he did come across very well as a spiritual man who can engage with secular society. In the interview with Amanpour he was very savvy and liaised very well with her, unlike the very likeable Cardinal Turkson of Ghana who I feel was treated with such disrespect by this CNN interviewer.
    Maybe Dolan would be a great pope, an American would at least hopefully cut through a lot of red tape. The Holy Spirit will give us the man we need.

  • Benedict Carter

    Yes, Leo XIV or Pius XIII needed right now.

    No more John, Paul, George or Ringo. 

  • Charles

     Although Dolan is enthroned in New York, he would have had the right to comment
    on the disgraceful building that Cardinal, protector of abusers, Moheny
    put up in Los Angeles. A test of true bravery would be to tell the congregation
    to sell off the hideous box like Los Angeles Cathedral and build a real
    Cathedral like St. Patrick’s in New York. It is time the modernist architecture liberal types are pushed out of the church.

  • Benedict Carter

    Not just “pushed”. 

    “Thrown” is the word we are looking for.

  • NYer

    Cardinal Dolan is my bishop and I have met him several times. Do not underestimate his intelligence and seriousness. He does possess a mid-western informality and a large sense of humor that is ever present, but every little joke serves to wake up the listener and is followed by a serious pearl of wisdom. He is a very effective communicator. Perhaps his greatest gift is his contagious sense of joy in the Christian life. Our pope emeritus was obviously very fond of him and put him in important positions at a time when he was planning his resignation.
    I my opinion, Benedict XVI was an extraordinary pope with whom I felt a deep connection…a connection that I am not sure could ever be repeated. I honestly cannot imagine any of the cardinals could compare with him in the beauty of his writing, the depth of his teaching and in his humility. That said, I believe that the next pope will bring his own unique gifts to the papacy and we must be open to him and love him. Cardinal Dolan may lack the elegance of previous popes, but I am sure that the grace of office would transform him into a great pope for our time.

  • NYer

    Another important aspect of Cardinal Dolan:
    He is greatly loved by his flock. Even the local media (except perhaps the NY Times) respect him and give him a fair hearing. If he is not elected (and let’s face it, it is unlikely) his constant presence in this great city will be a tremendous help for the next pope to keep his messages alive on this side of the pond.

  • Cjm1957

    I think we need a simple fisherman, a man with a temper, someone like … let me see … St Peter! He was good enough for the Lord, spoke no languages, especially not Latin but knew how to handle people and to lead.

  • James H

    I see a lot of people longing for another Pius or Leo.

    It’s not going to happen, folks. Such aristocratic Italians have been bred out of Italy by contraception.

    The past is a different country. They do things differently there.

  • Anon

    after our mourning, to whom shall we go?

  • Lepanto

    This is the man who (having been begged by many Catholics not to do so) invited Obama to the recent ‘Al Smith Annual Dinner’ and spent the evening swapping jokes with the arch-supporter of ‘partial birth abortion’. He would be a total disaster but I’m sure that Obama and the abortion supporting, communicating celebs of New York diocese would love it. 

  • James Moriarty

    Tim Stanley on his Telegraph blog calls him “the doyenne of American Catholic conservatives” which suggests that he may be female. This doesn’t seem very likely.