In the late 90’s, one of my candidates for U.S. Senate spoke for about an hour and a half – including the questions and answers – before a large mixed civic group in the Chicago Metro Area. It was dominated by trade and economic issues. Only one question came about abortion – and the whole time devoted to it was, maybe, two minutes. To read the stories in the Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times and the Daily Herald the next day, you would have thought abortion was the only thing discussed. My candidate was furious and baffled.
It was a useful moment, for it underscored that conservatives and religious folks do not and will not get a fair or honest shake from a media that, when not hostile, just occupies a whole different world. To deal with that, you have to carefully calibrate how you are going to approach each issue. You do not want to say too much – for if you do, the papers can choose the most awkward thing to make into their headlines and quotes. Better to have anticipated questions and have a short, pithy statement that does not easily lend itself to distortion. For example, my candidates always supported gun rights – and the hostile media does not. So to control the narrative, I always encouraged them to simply say, “I just think disarming victims is a dumb way to fight crime.” If there was a follow-up question on the subject, I recommended they smile warmly and say, “I really just think disarming victims is a dumb way to fight crime.” Nothing else. It guaranteed that what our message was would get across – and the only time we got in trouble was when candidates got wordy and tried to expand on that message.
Until you have lived it, it is hard to imagine how tricky it is to have several reporters following almost every public moment you have, especially if they are hostile to what you believe and constantly look for something with which to trip you up. It takes an extraordinary discipline. You must avoid any casual or sarcastic comments; you must contemplate how to say what you mean in precise terms that cannot be mutilated to mean something you did not intend and you must anticipate issues and questions that will arise before anyone else thinks to ask them – along with a precise answer. A huge part of my job was preparing candidates and officials for just such occasions – and many times I was called in quietly to manage a PR crisis behind the scenes for a candidate or official I did not directly work for. I must admit, whenever I had some little state legislator running for his first big office, thinking he knew what he was doing, I always took a little private glee when he first thought he was ruined because of some casual thing he had said – especially if he was one who had always been mouthy about what others in the heat of the spotlight should have done. I would ride privately with them after such a blunder, give them a hearty grin, and say, “Tougher than it looks, isn’t it?” You may think that is cruel, but actually, it heartened them – for my hearty grin told them it was not the end after all, and they almost invariably emerged humbled and ready to take more care that what they said reflected precisely what they meant.
All this is prelude to noting that New York’s Cardinal Archbishop, Tim Dolan, has had a rough couple of weeks. Part of it is of his own making – but in the sense that clumsiness is of our own making, not that he has gone apostate – and part of it is as a result of doing something entirely honorable. Let’s take the clumsy issue first, acting as Grand Marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade after a strident gay advocacy group was invited to march in the parade – and seeming to make statements approving the radical gay agenda.
It seems to me that the balancing of three prime duties were involved here. First was the duty to evangelize, to call things by their proper name and to call Christians to repentance for sins, that they not damage their souls. Dolan has been heartily criticized by many for failing to speak plainly about the sin that is active homosexuality. A round-up of the comments from those who emphasize this position can be found on this CNS News article. Most think he should have bowed out of the parade entirely.
He also has a pastoral duty to all he encounters, to recognize that many will differ from him, particularly those from other faiths or no religious faith. Those who emphasize this duty of his ministry argue that, above all, he must act and speak in a way that does not alienate those who have either strayed or reject the faith, that they not entirely shut themselves off from the Word. This position is eloquently stated by Elizabeth Scalia in her regular column, “The Anchoress,” at the Patheos website.
A third duty that I have not seen remarked on is the duty to act with fortitude, even under hostile circumstances. The aggressive homosexual rights lobby has largely been a mask for a hostile anti-Christian agenda. Already, Christian bakers, photographers, wedding planners and other small businesses have been heavily fined or shut down for refusing to violate their consciences by participating in and celebrating activities they find intrinsically wrong. With Christianity already being assaulted and marginalized throughout America, should the Cardinal Archbishop of America’s premiere city have quit the SAINT Patrick’s Day Parade and conceded that without even a fight? Of course not.
But the criticism centers around the lack of effective fight many think Cardinal Dolan mounted. It is a reasonable criticism. But when making this case, you must remember that the United States Government and the establishment media made a full-scale assault on the rights of conscience of every American with the health care law. It was Cardinal Dolan who led the fight, who held the line, to make sure those rights were defended for all. Throughout, the government offered supposed ‘accommodations’ that were mere fig leafs for abject surrender. Cardinal Dolan would have none of it. He stood strong and did not surrender to the siren song of accommodating himself to a hostile culture that has become increasingly anti-Christian and wants to penalize and punish anyone for actually living that faith.
Has he suddenly gone soft? Of course not. But I refer you back up to the start of this article. Cardinal Dolan is now the most prominent Bishop in America. Everywhere he goes, there are reporters hostile to what he stands for, waiting to trip him up. I credit this clumsiness to sloppy staff work and a lack of preparation in balancing his evangelical and pastoral duties with precision and pithiness. He deserves much of the criticism he is getting on that score, but I am appalled at how many seem ready to toss him aside because of it – especially when it is primarily his efforts that have kept your own religious rights from being tossed overboard. Cut a good man some slack.
In the midst of this rose a controversy over the suspension of the cause for sainthood for the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Sheen was born and ordained in Peoria, Illinois but lived his major public ministry in New York. The Diocese of Peoria, which was managing the advocacy, announced the suspension of the cause because the Archdiocese of New York would not turn the remains of Sheen over to them. Initially, this gave Cardinal Dolan another black eye, making him look petty and grasping, preferring to cause the suspension of the cause of a beloved man rather than cooperate with another Diocese.
A few problems arose with that narrative, though. First, as it turns out, Archbishop Sheen had specifically requested that he be interred in New York. His closest living family members asked that their uncle’s wishes continue to be respected. Also, it is not necessary that his body be moved, for the cause to be continued – only that some first-class relics be obtained, which can be done without disturbing or moving the body. The National Catholic Register covers the dispute comprehensively and concisely. The Diocese of Peoria (which was once my diocese for a brief period in my itinerant political days) has done admirable work on behalf of the cause and borne much of the expense. But it unilaterally decided to shut down the cause in protest of New York refusing to give it the whole body – even though New York offered to be generous in sharing the first-class relics obtained. In short, it was Peoria which said, if it did not get its way, contrary to the late archbishop’s and his family’s explicit wishes, it would take its bat and ball and go home.
I hope that Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky will call his people to order and eschew this brinksmanship. Work with the New York Archdiocese to promote the cause of a beloved son of both dioceses. If not, the New York Archdiocese will certainly take responsibility for advancing the cause alone. In this case, the only thing Cardinal Dolan has done is honor a notable man’s wishes, while trying to cooperate within the framework of those wishes. That is just flat-out honorable.
So, like all of us, Cardinal Dolan may be subject to lapses of judgment. But take care. If you flay him for his misjudgments, you need to remember you are flaying the man who has been the prime bulwark against the government crushing your religious liberty. Judge righteous judgment, as Our Founder once famously said. You could look it up.