"My major priority," New York's Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan said at his election last week as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, "would be to continue with all vigor I can muster what's already in place. It's not like we're in a crisis."
Hello? The Catholic Church not in a crisis? The moral authority of the Roman Catholic hierarchy is at its lowest ebb since the Inquisition. In the United States, the once-influential bishops have willingly transformed themselves into a mascot-lobby for the Republican right. "We bishops are the teachers," one insisted this week, yet not even conservative Catholics actually take them seriously: Think of those right-wing Catholics on the Supreme Court who uphold the very same death penalty the bishops condemn. Vast populations of Catholic laity—not just liberals—are ashamed of the global episcopate for its persistence in enabling priestly sex abuse.
That continues even now as the world's Cardinals gathered in Rome on Friday for yet another do-nothing red-hat session on the abuse crisis. Meanwhile, the ever-aging priesthood is itself demoralized, a shadow of the clerical elite that once defined the Church. Catholic professional groups openly defy the hierarchy, as, for example, the Catholic Health Association did by supporting President Obama's health care reform legislation, probably providing decisive Catholic legislators with just enough cover to vote yes. Even as the bishops met this week, the National Coalition of American Nuns denounced their silence about the scourge of suicides among young gays—yet what could bishops say, since their ferocious opposition to marriage equality is a pillar of gay demonization? No crisis? The same issue of the New York Times that featured Dolan's election carried news of a growing movement of alternative, lay-run Catholic churches in the Netherlands and Belgium, where one priest said, "Something is beginning to crack."
That his affability is key to his elevation speaks volumes about the grim moralism that has become a mark of Catholic leadership across the last generation.
Archbishop Dolan is popular with his confreres because his fierce fundamentalism on sexual morality comes clothed in what one bishop described as "that jolly outgoing personality." Dolan is famous for being a nice guy. That his affability is key to his elevation speaks volumes about the grim moralism that has become a mark of Catholic leadership across the last generation. Once, affability in bishops went without saying. Think Fulton J. Sheen, whose TV show outdrew Milton Berle; or Francis Spellman handing out his special cigarettes, "holy smokes," to U.S. troops; or Richard Cushing at Fenway Park in a Red Sox hat. Dolan was seen wearing a Green Bay Packers "cheesehead" hat in Milwaukee, but he is no Cushing. The earlier bishops were men of the institution, too, but they were also part of the Church's reckoning, at the Second Vatican Council, with the accumulated cruelty that many doctrines and traditions had inadvertently come to embody. At the Council, ideology was measured by its effect on actual people, and when found to be inhuman was changed. That is the point, of course, of the nuns' protest this week—how the abstractions of Catholic dogma on homosexuality contribute to the moral confusion of anti-gay bullies and the intense suffering of their victims. But Dolan's job, in sync with the mission given to every bishop by Pope Benedict XVI, is to reverse the changes of Vatican II—or what is left of them after the triumphal reaction of the last three decades. Cruelty is sacrosanct.
The election that made Dolan the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was unusual because the favorite for the job, Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, was cast aside—an unprecedented insult to a sitting vice president. But Kicanas was regarded as a "social justice" Catholic, one whose moral concern extended to more than abortion and gay marriage. His rejection by the American bishops was the real sound of something cracking. Timothy Dolan's job is to put the best face on the reactionary hierarchy's slow motion act of self-destruction. The surest sign of this crisis is the jovial conviction that there is no crisis.
James Carroll's recent book is Practicing Catholic , a story of American belief. He is a columnist for the Boston Globe and Distinguished-Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. His other books include An American Requiem , which won the National Book Award, House of War , winner of the PEN-Galbraith Award, and Constantine's Sword , now an acclaimed documentary.