Saturday, February 14, 2009

In the Spotlight: Tim in the Square

Regardless of whether or not he's indeed named to Stateside Catholicism's most storied and influential post in some hours' time, as the focus of these days predominantly rests upon Timothy Michael Dolan, it's worth putting some things on the record.

Why? Because whether his future involves New York, the other oft-floated possibility of Chicago once Cardinal Francis George, now 72, hits the retirement age, or even nothing beyond his current base of Milwaukee and its 850,000 Catholics, the "self-made man" with the boisterous laugh, contagious enthusiasm and ability to keep people's attention (not to mention raise herculean amounts of money without breaking a sweat) is and will remain a figure of outsize clout in the top rank of the US bench, all by force of the ebullient, engaging, personality that's made him a household name to a degree far greater than most of his peers could even imagine.

All that said, most of the curiosity about how the 59 year-old -- or, for that matter, any potential New York appointee -- would tackle what the Vatican still sees as the "Capital of the World" has centered on Dolan's concept of the church in the public square.

The last student of John Tracy Ellis, the legendary historian of American Catholicism who died in 1992, the Milwaukee prelate's take on the intersection of matters internal and external can best be gleaned in three pieces: a late 2007 Q&A on the issues of the day (fullaudio) at Marquette University's Law School in his see, the homily he gave shortly before that at the annual Washington Red Mass in the capital's St Matthew's Cathedral, and the archbishop's April 2008 lecture (video/fulltext) on the nation's first bishop -- John Carroll of Baltimore -- delivered under the dome of the nation's first cathedral, the Premier See's Basilica of the Assumption, the emblem of Carroll's highest ideals for church and country both.

Beyond these, though, any perceptions that a Dolan selection would signal a "soft" line on hot-button questions could use a bit more context.

He's sought to keep the initiative relatively quiet, but the media-friendly prelate's preferred means of interaction with public officials is a twice-yearly seminar he leads on church teaching in public life, to which all officeholders in the Milwaukee area are invited.

In speaking of the sessions behind-the-scenes, the archbishop's said to relish the chance to be able to dig in as a teacher and present the Magisterium both affirmatively and without the backdrop of public controversy -- but with the added coup of avoiding the misperceptions that often come with said firestorms and the coverage thereof. What's more, the practical advantage is just as beneficial, as the programs allow relationships to be built where, when difficulties do arise, tensions can be handled personally and constructively, away from the pulpit and the fray.

In other words, it's a strategy not so much "soft" as "savvy" -- and, arguably, quite successful. The man did study Gibbons, after all, and quite extensively at that.

Lastly, while no shortage of dioceses and church entities have either suspended or curtailed major fund-raising efforts in the current economic climate, the Milwaukee church has proceeded with "Faith in Our Future" -- a five-year, $105 million campaign, the parishes keeping 60% of what their own give. Last week, it was announced that over half the goal had been reached, less than two years into the drive, over half the parishes still to report.

"[People] know there are a lot of reasons they can be ticked off at the church - the clergy sex abuse scandal, parish mergers, school closings, the church is too liberal, it's too conservative," Dolan said as the news rolled out.

"But instead, people are saying, 'She's our family. We love her, we need her, we want her there for our children.'"

And, indeed, few are more credible -- and, ergo, effective -- at hitting that message home than the church historian born in Cardinals' Country.

Yet again, remember well that nothing remains confirmed (...even as this month's phone bill has already gone well past the point of "record territory"). The aim of the above is simply to bring about some fruit from a feeding frenzy, whatever might happen shortly down the line.

As always, stay tuned.

SVILUPPO: While the above sought to hone in on Dolan's approach to matters extra, it admittedly neglected to note his best-known work, albeit internal: Priests for the Third Millennium, published in 2000 at the tail end of his seven-year stint as rector of Rome's Pontifical North American College and since run through numerous printings.

Given the Gotham appointment's super-priority in favor of a cleric able to soothe long-standing tensions in the presbyterate, and the central role of priesthood in the archbishop's ecclesiology and personal trajectory, the text is well worth a read -- and, luckily, most of it's been scanned in as a Google Book.

While we're at it, another key internal text of Dolan's was his 2004 Erasmus Lecture on "The Conciliar Tradition of the American Hierarchy."

Delivered at the invitation of the recently-passed Fr Richard John Neuhaus for his Institute on Religion in Public Life, the talk took place in New York.

PHOTO: Patrice Hudson