Archbishop Dolan Fires Up Assembly

The Church is 'hardly some ... outmoded club of sticklers.'

Invoking the spirit of Blessed John Paul II, Archbishop Timothy Dolan opened the U.S. bishops’ 2011 fall meeting with a passionate call for his brother bishops to embrace the New Evangelization and grapple more effecitively with the waning numbers of cradle Catholics still practice.

Archbishop Dolan summarized the problem with a quote from Father Ronald Rolheiser’s reflection on an emerging “post-ecclesial era, as people seem to prefer.”

“A King but not the Kingdom,
a shepherd with no flock;
to believe without belonging;
a spiritual family with God as my father, as long as I’m the only child;
‘spirituality’ without religion;
faith without the faithful;
Christ without the Church.”

For Archbishop Dolan, the emerging reality of a fractured and individualized Christian spirituality means that Church leaders must “invite our own beloved people, and the world itself, to see Jesus and his church as one.”

With a spark of humor, the archbishop cast off the mischaracterization of the Church as some “cumbersome, outmoded club of sticklers, with a medieval bureaucracy, silly rules on fancy letterhead, one more movement rife with squabbles, opinions and disagreement.”

While opponents of Catholic moral doctrine point to the clergy abuse crisis as a reason to doubt the validity of Catholic teaching, Archbishop Dolan challenged this stance. He argued that those “who believe in Jesus Christ and his one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church interpret the sinfulness of her members not as a reason to dismiss the Church or her eternal truths, but to embrace her all the more!”


Asked to comment on the Penn State sex-abuse scandal, Archbishop Timothy Dolan acknowledged that church leaders had reason to be humble. But then he proposed an alliance between the Church and educational institutions to combat child sexual abuse.

He noted that Penn State “reopens a wound” for the Church. 

“We are reluctant to offer wisdom,” he said. “What seems to be coming to the fore is that the sexual abuse of minors is widespread. It’s everywhere. More often than not it’s [perpetrated by] people in positions of trust. ... That is what complicated our own crisis.”

“One of the things we have learned is that education is efficacious,” Archbishop Dolan said.

He noted the the Church has “the largest group in the country involved in education, and safe-environment [training].”

Offering “love and prayers” to those suffering from the Penn State scandal, the archbishop proffered a remedy.

“One good thing would be a kind of alliance in a major educational campaign to see that this is faced head on. We must come to this table with wisdom. We’ve learned the hard way.”


During the noon press conference, the archbishop also reported on his recent visit with President Obama. He said the president was “sensitive” to the USCCB’s concerns regarding religious liberty.

Asked to comment on whether all the bishops were on board with this priority agenda issue, Archbishop Dolan said he was impressed with the “unanimity” of the bishops’ support for the establishment of the ad hoc committee on religious liberty.

While election-year politics have led some critics of the Church to argue that the bishops are pulling away from social justice concerns, the archbishop noted that the Church remains deeply committed to caring for the needy. He observed that the bishops’ trafficking victims’ assistance program had been denied funding because of its refusal to provide family planning services. HIs point: the church’s social justice commitments are also not immune from the effort to remove Catholic witness from the public square.


In an address on religious liberty, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., characterized the role of Church teachers as “watchmen” who eschew “partisan” attacks, while defending a fundamental right.

As the U.S. bishops adopt a more aggressive strategy for challenging threats to religious liberty at both the federal and state level, Bishop Lori of Bridgeport, the chairman of the newly established ad hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, took to the podium to advance thel importance of religious freedom.

He kicked off his speech with a note of gloom, asking “whether a genuine understanding of religious liberty still has a chance of shaping our society. For, as one distinguished jurist put it, if liberty dies in the hearts of men and women ‘no constitution, no law, no court can save it.’”

In a reference to recent challenges, including the HHS interim rule requiring the inclusion of contraceptive services in private, employee health benefits and the Justice Department’s attacks on DOMA and its supporters in and out of the Church, Bishop Lori defended the crucial role of Catholic social programs and other organizations that “serve the common good with extraordinary effectiveness and generosity. In the dioceses that we serve, the Church is the largest non.governmental source of education, social, charitable, and healthcare services.”

HIs comments acknowledged that many of his brother bishops will be under pressure to remain silent during a high-stakes election year. But Bishop Lori called on the assembly of bishops to draw the laity into the battle to defend the 1st amendment. Employing the faithful to get the word out, he argued, was a better approach than creating new bureaucracies to address the issue.

The bishops, he said, “cannot do this alone. ... Together we will do our best to awaken in ourselves, in our fellow Catholics, and in the culture at large a new appreciation for religious liberty and a renewed appreciation to defend it.”


If the Supreme Court decided to declare the new health bill unconstitutional, that would solve some thorny problems for the U.S. bishops, at least over the short term.

The HHS mandate to require the inclusion of contraception would disappear, to take just one example. As the bishop continue to debate religious freedom issues at their fall meeting in Baltimore, I asked Rick Garnett—the Notre Dame legal wizard who will serve as a consultant to the Committee on Religious Liberty— to provide his reaction to the news that the high court has agreed to hear arguments challenging the constitutionality of the new health bill

“The justices just wrote the exam questions for a lot of constitutional law teachers. They agreed to take up a number of interesting and important questions that go to the very foundations of our Constitution’s structure. Our Constitution was designed to create a government that is effective and flexible, but also limited. It is just as important for courts to enforce the limits on the national government’s regulatory power and conditional-spending practices as it is for them to enforce individual-rights protections.

“At the same time, as the dissenting judge in the D.C. Circuit’s most recent decision reminded us, the power of judges is also limited, and it could well be that, in the end, the Court will tell us that it is too early to rule on the congressional-power questions.  In that case, the matter will probably be settled then old-fashioned way-by elections.”