Archbishop Timothy Dolan Speaks

The new president of the U.S. bishops’ conference discusses the unexpected election result and the U.S. bishops’ conference’s mission.

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan addresses members of the media Nov. 16 at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual fall meeting in Baltimore.
New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan addresses members of the media Nov. 16 at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual fall meeting in Baltimore. (photo: CNS photo)

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan was elected the new president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Tuesday, Nov. 16. The election of Archbishop Dolan broke from precedent that held that the vice president of the bishops’ conference, in this case Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas, would succeed the outgoing president, in this case Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, in a vote that would be more of a formality. Archbishop Dolan addressed questions from the media gathered there shortly after his election.

What would be your chief priorities as president of the conference, in the Church and society?

Candidly, I haven’t had time to think about it. Frankly, I was surprised by the election of the bishops. I have immense regard for my predecessor, Cardinal Francis George.

I think what I can safely say is that probably my major priority would be to continue, with all the vigor that I can muster, what’s already been put in place. It’s not like — thanks be to God — we’re in crisis. Things are going well.

Can you address health-care and the possible funding of abortion in the health-care reform bill?

I am highly appreciative of the summary that Cardinal Francis George gave yesterday, which was downright eloquent. I admired the way he handled it.

The bishops of the U.S. are in somewhat of a delicate position in that we have been promoting comprehensive health care, but it wasn’t comprehensive, in that a precious part of those deserving care — those being unborn babies — weren’t receiving it. The bishops were cogent in expressing that.

Cardinal George was so articulate — as was Pope John Paul II — in telling us that although we’re political in the best sense of the word, we’re not partisan. The bishops of the U.S. are not partisan; we are pastors and teachers.

Did you speak with Bishop Kicanas after the election?

I did. I thanked him for his service and told him I held him in high regard.

He told me, “I’m with you all the way.” My one regret is that I’ll have to give up leadership of Catholic Relief Services.

Can you comment on the unprecedented nature of your election, and if there was any outside pressure on the bishops for whom to elect?

Bishop John Carberry was vice president and not elected president. This seems to be somewhat of a surprise.

When I received a letter that my brother bishops had nominated me, I was surprised. I don’t know how to interpret it. It was hardly a landslide election. I can remember three years ago, when Bishop Kicanas beat me for the vice president slot by one vote.

I take it that the bishops don’t like the idea of anyone being a shoo-in.

You presume that we’re sitting around thinking about these things. Most bishops are laudably absorbed in the activities of their own dioceses. When they get here, they take the election seriously.

As to an outside campaign, that wouldn’t be anything new. There’s always been some controversy surrounding the elections. I’ve felt the heel of blog attacks. The bishops bristle if they feel there’s any undue pressure from the outside.

You might interpret this as the bishops are tired of short and skinny presidents.

Robert George has said that it’s a signal from the bishops that they wanted a strong and assertive moral witness, more than they were looking for the dialogue and mediation coming out of the [late Chicago Cardinal Joseph] Bernardin approach.

Robby George is one of my heroes. I don’t know. When you speak about the leadership of bishops, you speak about style.

Bishop Kicanas would be as committed to the ideals of our Catholic faith as I would be. George is bringing up that there is a difference in style.

When I came to New York, I was interpreted quite the opposite — as a congenial and conciliatory kind of guy. You can’t win. I mean it when I say that we don’t sit around thinking about it.

Maybe what George was getting at is that there are many issues that Catholic social teaching can be a witness on. Is this about which issues you’re going to press on? Are the bishops signaling an interest in issues of life, abortion and marriage?

We bishops would bristle at the characterization that there are some bishops who tend to be more pro-life and family issues while others tend to the social-justice issues.

I don’t think that characterization would apply to Bishop Kicanas and myself. I once invited him to speak to one of our town meetings. He addressed pro-life, education, and marriage and family. I don’t find that kind of caricaturing to be accurate.

Are there other bishops who you view as a role model?

Bishop Edwin O’Hara, who I wrote my dissertation on. He was an immensely effective bishop. I’m wearing the pectoral cross of Cardinal John O’Connor. He has been a hero of mine, and my appreciation of him has only grown. He had a pastoral heart and sidewalk savviness, but was as cogent and compelling in preaching faith and morals as anyone.

Register senior writer Tim Drake filed this report from Baltimore.