Is he a culture warrior or a nice guy?

Rarely do the words “unprecedented” and “Catholic bishops” land in the same sentence. But, last week, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) laid aside a precedent when they declined to elevate the body’s vice president, Tuscon Bishop Gerald Kicanas, to the presidency. Instead, the bishops selected New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan by a vote of 128-111.

This choice set alarm bells ringing. In the New York Times, the decision was treated as a sign of growing conservatism among the American bishops, “a signal that the conference wants to be a leader in the culture wars.” By contrast, Dolan's opponent was supposed to represent “the more liberal ‘social justice’ tradition of the American church and is known for advocating dialogue between Catholic liberals and traditionalists.” At the Washington Post’s religion blog, Susan Jacoby wrote, “Dolan's election was a victory for the most orthodox forces within the church.”

Yet that interpretation is far too pat and simplistic. In fact, ideologically, Dolan is a consensus candidate who represents a desire on the part of the bishops to reaffirm their Catholic identity while keeping everyone, left and right, on board. His election also shows that the majority of bishops are keen to have a congenial, media-savvy prelate as their chief spokesman—and while he is known for his eagerness to defend the Church’s teachings and reputation in the public square, he is not a bomb-thrower.

Consider how he differs from the culture warriors: If the bishops had, for example, elected Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput—who has advocated denying Communion to pro-choice politicians—that would represent a genuine embrace of the culture wars, and progressive Catholics would probably be fleeing for their neighborhood Episcopalian Church. But Dolan rejects this practice, insisting that it is better to try and persuade those who disagree with the Church than to impose sanctions. Yes, he has a reputation as someone who believes the Church must get back to basics—to catechetics—and wants to make sure that faithful actually know their faith. But he is not opposed to dialogue with mainstream culture, and he is most concerned that Catholics know their own faith before they enter into such dialogue.

Dolan is a careful balancer of Catholic priorities. When Notre Dame decided to award President Obama an honorary degree, he said it was right to have the president give an address, but wrong to bestow the degree because being pro-life is “very close to the heart of Catholic world view …[and] he has unfortunately taken a position very much at odds with the Church.” And he did not join the widespread calls among Catholics to boycott Notre Dame or cease contributing to the university. He is a Church historian by training, and brings with him a sense of equanimity about the ways of the world and the ebb and flow of the life of the Church.

To be sure, he is more acceptable to the hard-liners among the bishops than Kicanas would have been. Kicanas was a protégé of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, whose career was closely identified with the USCCB. It was Bernardin who, concerned that the Church’s emphasis on abortion was pushing it into a partisanship that was inappropriate for the Church, spoke of a “seamless garment” of pro-life issues, including opposition to nuclear weaponry and concern for the poor. Bernardin was opposed by bishops like Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who didn’t care about how they were viewed politically and wanted a more single-minded focus on abortion. Many of the men Law promoted during his tenure are still bishops and still resent the Conference—and they would have voted against Kicanas precisely because he was seen as Bernardin’s heir. When Kicanas refused to criticize Notre Dame over the Obama invite, he lost any support among those who want a more hard-line approach to modern culture. Finally, some bishops were scared off by last minute charges that Kicanas had recommended a seminarian for ordination who went on to become a sexual predator. Even though the charges were old and Kicanas had not committed any wrongdoing, the bishops worried that they did not need another round of bad press over the issue of clergy sex abuse.

In the end, Dolan’s victory was not so much a rejection of Kicanas as it was a vote for Dolan. Many bishops are media shy and are happy to have a high profile leader of the USCCB to do the talking in front of the cameras. Many see in Dolan’s robust, cheerful orthodoxy the kind of face for the bishops that will help move the Church beyond the self-inflicted horrors of the clergy sex abuse crisis. Most bishops do not want to fight a culture war but they do want to engage the culture, to help the culture resist what Walter Lippmann once termed the “acids of modernity,” eating away not only at the faith, but at the disposition to believe. That is a tall order, and the bishops selected their most engaging member to make their case. 

Michael Sean Winters is a correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter and the author of Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats.

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