NEW YORK — Walk the streets of Manhattan, especially around St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and ask passersby about Cardinal Timothy Dolan and two things stand out: one, they know who you’re talking about, and two, they like him. Often love him.
Both responses are unusual in the U.S. today: generally, Catholic churchmen are either interchangeable faces to the public, or, if they are known, it’s because of an unflattering headline.
Now Dolan’s extraordinary visibility and popularity are being cited as factors that could make him the first American with a realistic shot at being elected pope when the College of Cardinals gathers in March to elect a successor to Benedict XVI.
But will any of the factors that make Dolan a contender actually help him with the 117 other cardinals huddled in the Sistine Chapel to vote for the pope? He is as orthodox as any of them, but he is also an American, which was always seen as a disqualification. Yet he is head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a player in church circles and secular politics. So maybe this time is different?
Here are some of the pluses and minuses on Dolan’s candidacy:
PRO: He’s an American. Yes, this is supposed to sink any Yankee candidate since the U.S. is a superpower that leaves a huge – and often unpopular – cultural, political, and military footprint around the world. “The Archbishop of the Capital of the World,” the late Pope John Paul II dubbed the late New York Cardinal John O’Connor. But as an American, Dolan is also well known to other churchmen; he travels frequently to Rome (and to other parts of the world) and he brings with him the deep pockets of the American church. U.S. Catholics are now the single largest donor to the Vatican. “For the first time, an American will get taken seriously as a possibility,” said John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter.
CON: He’s an American. Yes, this is still seen as a deal-breaker for the conclave voters, who overwhelmingly represent other parts of the world, namely Europe and Latin America and Africa. America already has an outsize role – now give them the papacy, too? “Many people around the world would think the election was fixed by the CIA or bought by Wall Street,” said the Rev. Tom Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center.
PRO: Dolan is the kind of outgoing, media-friendly guy that the cardinals need after eight years of the bookish, introverted Benedict. Dolan has held his own in the humor department with the likes of Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, and he can slap backs and swap jokes in the press room with the best of them. “My first pastoral letter’s gonna be a condemnation of light beer and instant mashed potatoes,” he quipped after being named to Gotham.
CON: He lacks gravitas. The same everyman exuberance that endears him to the hoi polloi can strike the stodgier College of Cardinals as sophomoric. Asked about his sense of humor, Benedict once said: “I’m not a man who constantly thinks up jokes.” Compare that to Dolan on “60 Minutes” about arriving in New York: “They asked me when I got here, ‘Are you Cardinals, Mets, Brewers, or Yankees?’ And I said, ‘When it comes to baseball, I think I can be pro-choice.’”
PRO: He has pastoral experience in a large diocese. This is huge, especially after Benedict was not just a scholar and theologian, but as someone who spent almost his entire career in academia and the Vatican bureaucracy. Many cardinals feel the church needs a pope who has been a pastor, and who knows how to run a multimillion dollar, multinational operation like the Vatican.
CON: Dolan is not a theologian. While he got the requisite degree in theology in seminary, Dolan’s post-graduate work was in church history, and that is the approach he brings to his writings and his ministry. That works well for the flock, but the cardinals often want a pope who has impressive theological credentials – an intellectual who doesn’t come off as an egghead. John Paul II struck that balance, but Dolan maybe not so much.
PRO: He has Roman experience in that he studied at the Pontifical North American College in Rome – the seminary overlooking the Vatican where bishops send their best and brightest. In 1994, he was named to head the NAC, and spent six years there, learning Italian and making connections. Indeed, the Italians could be more inclined to vote for him than his fellow American cardinals, who might understandably view him as soaking up too much of the spotlight already.
CON: For all that time in Rome, he never held a post in the Roman curia, the centralized Vatican bureaucracy where careers are made (or broken). NCR’s Allen said that is in part why Dolan would be on the “B or C list” of papal candidates. Besides, his Italian is only passable at this point, and to run the Vatican it pays to understand every whisper.
PRO and CON: Dolan has a track record on dealing with sex abuse, and it is as contested as that of any churchman who has headed a diocese at any point in the last 30 years. That’s why the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests singled out Dolan as one of three cardinals they do not want to see become pope. The thing is, criticism from SNAP is like a badge of honor to the cardinals, many of whom could well have worse track records than Dolan.
WILD CARD: Dolan is the Chris Christie of the College of Cardinals, a plus-size prelate who likes to make jokes about his weight and penchant for pasta. But is that what tradition demands? Vatican wags note that the cardinals seem to alternate from thin pope to fat pope. (You can look it up: Pius IX to Leo XIII to Pius X, so it goes.) The question is whether Benedict qualifies as an ectomorph or an endomorph.
The bottom line? The Irish online betting site, Paddy Power, had Dolan at a 40-1 shot this week — the middle of the pack, which seems about right. And on the “Today” show on Monday, host Matt Lauer asked Dolan if he could vote for himself in the conclave.
“No,” Dolan answered. “Crazy people cannot enter the conclave.”
David Gibson is an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He is a national reporter for RNS and has written two books on Catholic topics, the latest a biography of Pope Benedict XVI. Via . Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.