Nothing Funny about New York Times Coverage of the Catholic Church

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

“Does the New York Times Hate Timothy Dolan?” my friends at “Get Religion” asked a week or so ago.

It’s far from a crazy question.

The New York Times today has a story about requests that a judge recuse himself from a case he ruled on just over a month ago involving the scandalous mess Cardinal Dolan inherited in Milwaukee in 2002. This comes after a longtime New York Times campaign to cast a shadow over Dolan. The Times has repeatedly claimed  that he did something shady, at best, when overseeing the archdiocese of Milwaukee.

In late July, a court ruled that he didn’t do anything wrong and, in fact, did something morally responsible by protecting church-cemetery funds. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported (while the New York Times did not):

In a decision that could have far-reaching implications for religious institutions around the country, a federal judge has ruled against forcing the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to tap its cemetery funds to pay sex abuse claims in its bankruptcy.

In issuing the ruling Monday, U.S. District Judge Rudolph T. Randa said including the funds would violate free exercise of religion under the First Amendment and a 1993 law aimed at protecting religious freedom. Randa cited the Catholic belief in the resurrection, which teaches that the body ultimately reunites with the soul, and the role of Catholic cemeteries in the exercise of that belief under canon law.

“The sacred nature of Catholic cemeteries — and compliance with the church’s historical and religious traditions and mandates requiring their perpetual care — are understood as a fundamental exercise of this core belief,” said Randa in overturning an earlier decision by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Susan V. Kelley.

Then-bishop Dolan couldn’t dishonor the dead because of the crimes of the living. (And the archdiocese certainly shouldn’t have been required to.) He was trying to be a decent steward in the midst of grave poisons that had polluted Church waters.

#more#Tuesday was the first night back for the Comedy Central late-night hosts. Stephen Colbert had on Cardinal Dolan of New York. It’s not every night the first Christian martyr gets namedropped on popular television and yet they wrapped up two segments discussing St. Stephen.

Watching Dolan on Colbert, one understands what’s to hate about Cardinal Dolan, if one doesn’t want to see a Catholic Church of renewal, one where Catholics do the real Christian work of healing and rebuilding and inviting. He’s got an easy and inviting laugh, not as if to laugh things off, but to put one at ease. That’s a threat if you believe that real Catholicism is outside the bounds of sophisticated secular society, more than a safe harbor to fall back on when needed.

I don’t know if the New York Times hates the cardinal archbishop of New York, I’d like to think it is more a widespread media misunderstanding. Its manifestations include not getting how he could both be an advocate for religious freedom and an admirer of Dorothy Day, who is considered more “progressive,” andTime magazine’smissing the heart of the man’s mission.

Dolan and Colbert, who is a practicing Catholic, joked about the media’s perception of the conclave and who “lost,” but what’s really behind this whole discussion is, perhaps, an acknowledgement of the wages of pride and sin. We in the media have to have a certain humility and awareness of our limitations even as we try to shed light on truth. And it’s much easier to discuss with a little self-effacing humor.

In a book-length interview he did while archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergolio, now Pope Francis, was asked what the “worst of all sins” is. He replied:

If I consider love to be the greatest virtue of all, it should logically follow that hatred is the worst of all sins, but what I find most repellant is pride, or arrogance, feeling that one has “made it.” Whenever I’ve caught myself feeling like I have “made it” I’ve felt great inner shame and begged for God’s forgiveness, for no one is free from such things. 

In the 50 years since the opening of the Second Vatican Council, so many headlines about the Catholic Church are about divisions and evil, lists of prohibitions and people who feel excluded. No one is excluded, Pope Francis has insisted. That’s a challenge for those called to live the Gospel and those who want to know it, but feel separated from it for one painful reason or another.

Cardinal Dolan understands this and seems to naturally aim to speak to those both inside — both on fire and lukewarm, both well-catechized and not-so – and outside the Church. (“Matthew, Marketing, Luke, and John,” Colbert calls it.) It is an exercise that reflects something Bergoglio talked about in that same book: “It is not  a good Catholic attitude to go looking solely for the negative, what separates us. That is not what Jesus wants. . . . We must not let ideology trump morality.”

Pope Benedict, who the New York Times was also hostile to, preached the same idea of dialogue on a visit to Spain where, in Cardinal Bergoglio’s telling: 

everyone thought he would criticize the administration of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero because of his differences with the Catholic Church on various matters. Someone even asked him if he had spoken with the Spanish authorities on the subject of marriage between homosexuals. But the pope stated that no, he spoke with them about positive matters and the rest would come later. In some way, he was saying that first you have to emphasize the positive, the things that unite us; not the negative, the things that divide us. You must prioritize the connection between people, the path we walk together. After that, addressing the differences will be easier.

Justice, of course, needs to be served, too, and the truth must be told (always). But no one is going to hear the message if they don’t see Christian joy, if they don’t want to walk through the door of the Church. That crowded St. Peter’s in Rome Colbert talked about has to do with doors opening in renewal. A little of that Franciscum Revolution

The New York Times does still have tremendous influence. It’s worth a prayer that they see the full picture and not get stuck on a judge’s deceased relatives in a continuing series that seems to miss that Archbishop Dolan shares their concern for justice. As frustrating as I found this morning’s Times article, the contrast between it and Colbert’s segment last night was telling. In full knowledge of our sins and imperfections, it’s not just a Christian duty to try to be honest brokers and treat honest brokers with some justice.



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