The WWJD Stick
If I were Cardinal Dolan, I'll tell you what I'd do. I'd hold an emergency synod and urge all the bishops and pastors and RCIA leaders to go out to their flocks and tell them, "Stop asking, 'What would Jesus do?'"
I'm not kidding, and I'm not making light out of serious matters. I genuinely wish that someone with some moral authority would tell all the laptop theologians in the world to knock it off. "What would Jesus do?" is not a question that ever sheds light, ever. It's a question that's used as a stick to beat someone into the proper kind of behavior. People never ask that question unless they think they already know the answer -- and the answer is generally, "He'd do the opposite of what you're doing right now. I, on behalf of Jesus, am disappointed in you."
That's what people are doing as they try to shame Cardinal Dolan into un-inviting President Obama to the Al Smith dinner.
My response? The worst possible outcome of this meeting is that someone will take a picture of Dolan and Obama together. What about Catholics who are considering voting for Obama? They're not going to say, "Gee, I was going to write in Joe Scheidler, but since Dolan was in the same room with Obama, I guess it's a-ok to vote for him!"
But I don't even want to talk about the dinner. What I want to talk about is this phrase, "What would Jesus do?" and the picture that was chosen to go along with it in the meme that's circulating around:
In the picture, Herod is laughing himself silly, and Jesus, a prisoner, is deathly serious. On the surface, it's putting Obama in the place of Herod, and the Church in the place of Christ. Fair enough. But the gut-level implication? Bad guys (especially chubby bad guys wearing robes) laugh; good guys are serious. Laughing makes you like Herod; not laughing makes you like Jesus. Well, Cardinal Dolan? Which one are you? You want to be Christlike, don't you?
This is revolting. Let's think for a minute. Cardinal Dolan is known for several things: his orthodoxy, his good nature, his courage, his friendliness, his political savvy, his wit, his theological soundness, and his ability to appeal to people who don't agree with him.
Notice anything there? They are all bound in together. They are all part of the same Dolan package. The parts that some people apparently deplore -- the good humor and the geniality -- are what make the other parts effective.
Now for the main part of my argument: this is what makes him Christlike. Or, at least it means he's doing what Christ would have him do. Because, as others have pointed out, a better question than "What would Jesus do?" is "What would Jesus have me do?" He's being himself. He's being Dolan, like God made Dolan to be (and, Dolan-like, he's clarified his thinking humbly and frankly in a letter that anyone can read). Anyone who says he's being naive or a dupe or a pawn or showing a lack of courage or trying to play some passive-aggressive game of subtly chiding bishops who've acted otherwise -- well, think any of this, and you haven't been paying attention. Those things are not within his character or his past behavior. If Cardinal Dolan is a pushover who's trying to suck up to the Obama administration, he's been doing a horrible job of it so far!
Here's the thing: When we are supposed to imitate Christ, it means taking our particular gifts and putting them in service of the particular situation we've been given. This is what Christ did: He was Himself. What, do you think He didn't have any particular personality? Do you think that every nuance of His behavior was due to His divine nature, and none to His human nature? He was a true man. Dolan is a true man. They each have their own personality.
This reminds me very much of when, from the safety of the comment box, certain readers chide me, saying, "You don't sound very much like Our Lady! Can you imagine Mary saying what you just said?" No. And I can't imagine Mary pumping gas or making out with her husband -- but these are all things that I ought to be doing, because it's what my vocation demands of me. It's who, where, and what I am.
This doesn't mean I'm off the hook. We're all supposed to model ourselves after Mary; we're all supposed to imitate Christ. The way I do try to imitate Our Lady is to be as open as I can to what God is asking of me in a particular situation, and to say "yes" to things that sound unreasonable and ridiculous, if that's what God seems to want. Not what He's asking someone else; not what He might ask me in the future, but what He's asking of me right now, based on the abilities and strengths He's given me.
But! You may say. It's different for a Cardinal! All priests are in persona Christi -- they actually do stand in for Christ, in a very real way. The Pope, also in persona Christi, understood this when he refused to have a picture taken with Nancy Pelosi! He didn't wan to be used as a dupe for a happy shiny photo op. Why did he do that? you may ask.
The answer is, I don't know, and neither do you. Maybe it's because he's the Pope, and it would have signaled something he didn't want to signal. Maybe it's because he's this guy Joseph Ratzinger, and he's not known for being a genial bridge-builder. His strengths lie elsewhere, because he is a different person -- different from Cardinal Dolan, who is also a good man doing a good job.
There are certain things that no Catholic, whether the Pope or a cardinal or a layman in the pew, should ever do. But there is a vast middleground of things that people may or may not do and still be entirely following God's will -- still entirely being as Christlike as they can.
Let Dolan be Dolan! He's good at it. There are lots of ways of being like Christ. One of them is to trust people whose authority is legitimate, and not to get hung up over trivialities. I'll tell you one thing: it's not Christlike to spend our days hunting around for the ways that other people fall short of idea of what God wants from them.