Catholic Family News

The Tragic Tale of Timothy Cardinal Dolan

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

~ Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon

In his justly famous Poetics, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle defines a tragic hero as a character who commits an “error in judgment” springing from his hamartia or tragic flaw, a trait which causes the character’s success for the rising action of the play, but, finally and ironically, causes the character’s downfall.

In our weary, anxious, and melancholy age, which due to its farcical character has now been dubbed “pseudo-modern” by British literary theorist Alan Kirby, it is indeed difficult to find an Oedipus, Orestes, Achilles, or any other figure who could justly be called a hero.

Nevertheless, in our absurd era in which the attainment of a heroic ideal is as rare as “a snowbird in hell,” it is still possible to find tragic heroes, that is, men and women whose admirable qualities propel them to success but ultimately cause an “error in judgement”—usually due to the cardinal sin of pride—and bring about the tragic hero’s downfall.

Tragic Figures of Post-Conciliar Catholicism

During the 21st century, in the “conservative” (less extreme liberal) wing of the American Catholic Church, there have been many who have fallen from the heights of power and grace.

Catholic figures who headlined the EWTN evening lineup in the 1990s such as Fr. John Corapi, Fr. Francis Mary Stone, and Fr. Benedict Groeschel, as well as more recent figures like Opus Dei priest Fr. C. John McCloskey, have crashed and burned as the charm and passion  which propelled them to the heights of popularity during the “JPII era” eventually caused their Luciferean fall from grace.

These photogenic and engaging clerics represented the “conservative” proponents of Vatican II who promised to bring about “authentic renewal” and aggiornamento (“updating”) through ressourcement—in other words, a fanciful return to the Church’s “authentic primitive character” that supposedly had been corrupted by the harsh reactionary thinking of the Medieval and “Tridentine” periods.

However, peddling a new relaxed and open Church decorated in smells-and-bells Catholic piety, these priests have ended their careers in disgrace and shame—frequently due to sexual misconduct—precisely because their passionate, “personalist,” and “Christian humanist” approach taught them not to be so serious or fearful of man’s fallen nature.

In the contemporary Catholic hierarchy, which, since the election of Pope Francis, has once again hoisted Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s flag of “Seamless Garment” liberalism and abandoned the moderate Novus Ordo conservatism of the John Paul II and Benedict XVI eras, there remains a powerful hold-out of conservative-leaning Christian humanism who, through his attempts to ingratiate himself to the world and play nice, has caused tremendous shame and scandal for the Church.

That man is Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the tenth Archbishop of New York, and one of the most visible Catholics in America.

Cardinal Dolan Coddles Governor Cuomo

In late January, Cardinal Dolan made headlines for his refusal to publicly excommunicate (or even reprimand) New York governor Andrew Cuomo, a practicing Catholic, who, on the 46th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, signed into law the “Reproductive Health Act”, which grants a pregnant woman “the fundamental right to choose to carry the pregnancy to term, to give birth to a child, or to have an abortion.”

This law, in effect, allows fully developed babies to be grotesquely murdered in their mother’s womb and, as some have argued, provides a springboard for legal persecution of pro-lifers who try to prevent a mother from killing her offspring in utero.

Rather than fiercely condemning Governor Cuomo and preparing the way for ecclesiastical punishment, Cardinal Dolan took a more “pastoral” approach, arguing through his spokesman that “excommunication should not be used as a weapon.” His Eminence even seemed to condescendingly dismiss those who were encouraging him to more direct and visible action against Governor Cuomo, stating, “those who call for someone’s excommunication do so out of anger or frustration.”

Cardinal Dolan then took to social media to send out a barrage of pro-life sentiments and express his displeasure about the law. While such sentiments are seemingly noble, without action, they are ultimately hollow.

Moreover, as evidenced by the reactions to Cardinal Dolan’s weak-kneed platitudes on social media as well as in the Catholic press, a large segment of rank-and-file Catholics firmly believe that His Eminence will do nothing of substance to Governor Cuomo. As we have seen from almost 60 years of bad leadership in the Catholic episcopacy, once again, immoral American Catholic politicians will get away with furthering the moral ruin of our great nation.

Indeed, we have seen this before: pro-abortion “Catholic” (the two are mutually exclusive) politicians have for generations, now, received Holy Communion from liberal Catholic priests and bishops schooled in the Cardinal Joseph Bernardin era of the American Catholic Church.

What is so tragic about Cardinal Dolan, though, is that so many well-intentioned Catholics had placed their hope in him as a marked change of pace from the Bernardin era of Roger Mahoney, John Dearden, and Rembert Weakland.

The Grinning Round Face of American Catholicism

Appointed as Archbishop of Milwaukee in 2002 to clean up the mess made by the disgraced Archbishop Rembert Weakland and later handed the reigns of the New York Archdiocese in 2009, Dolan was in many ways the quintessential post-Vatican II “conservative” (again, less extreme liberal) Catholic prelate.

Like the globetrotting, charismatic John Paul II—himself inspired by John XXIII, the “smiling Pope”—Timothy Dolan, the “smiling Cardinal” seemed ready-made for the limelight, cracking tasteful jokes and extending a welcoming hand and grin to friend and foe alike. While off-putting to some, Dolan’s goofy and perpetually grinning personality were chalked up by many as simply the sanguine eccentricities of Irish American bonhomie.

As he ascended through the ranks of power under the conservative-leaning but fundamentally flawed pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Dolan larded his resume with laudable words and actions that gave him a conservative pedigree and signaled to the Vatican that he could be trusted to be faithful to the Church’s traditional moral teaching.

Cardinal Dolan’s notable books, Priests for The Third Millennium (2000), Called to Be Holy (2005) and To Whom Shall We Go? Lessons from the Apostle Peter (2008), are saturated with humorous and charming personal anecdotes and attempt to present a moderately conservative vision of a Church with a human face while embracing Vatican II’s call to “modernize” (i.e., capitulate to the forces of Modernism condemned by the pre-conciliar Popes).

However, since reaching his nadir of power as Cardinal Archbishop of New York, Dolan has lost the respect and confidence of many Catholics through a series of muddle public statements that seemed to at least give the impression of contradicting Catholic teaching.

While many of His Eminence’s defenders have argued that Cardinal Dolan statements were made in charity and reflected his sanguine Celtic temperament, these defenders, in fact, reveal Cardinal Dolan’s tragic flaw: he, like so many other tragic figures in the conservative wing of the Church, has swallowed the poison of Christian humanism, aggiornamento, and “personalism” and genuinely seems to believe that by being nice and watering down the Church’s teaching, he can make peace with the world.

Dolan’s Many Blunders

In a March 2014 interview for Meet the Press, a little more than a year before the notorious Obergefell v. Hodges decision, Cardinal Dolan praised NFL player Michael Sam for coming out as a homosexual, stating on national television: “Good for him! I would have no sense of judgment on him. God bless ya. I don’t think, look, the same Bible that tells us, that teaches us, well, about the virtue of chastity and the virtue of fidelity and marriage also tells us not to judge people. So, I would say, ‘Bravo!’”

Certainly, Cardinal Dolan does admit that one should follow the teachings of the “Bible,” but the overwhelming majority of the Cardinal’s audience only heard the cheerful “Bravo” and “God bless ya,” which seem to smooth over (and perhaps even eclipse) His Eminence’s haphazardly inserted Biblical admonition.

Cardinal Dolan was further brought down in the eyes of many Catholics when in 2016 he marched in the world-famous St. Patrick’s Day Parade along with the pro-“LGBT” Lavender and Green Alliance. He only added fuel to the fire of Catholic indignation when he told New York’s CBS 2 that there was a “great sense of unity and friendship” at the parade—words echoing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s comments that allowing openly homosexual groups to march in the parade helped to overcome “division.”

As a final coup de grace, in May of last year, Cardinal Dolan, along with Fr. James Martin, S.J., attended the grand opening of the Met Gala’s “Heavenly Bodies” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This gala featured near-nude celebrities sacrilegiously dressed in clerical garb, and the “Heavenly Bodies” exhibit itself featured so-called art work mocking the Catholic Faith, including a “bondage mask” draped with a rosary.

Although marketed by some Catholics as an opportunity to sit among the sinners and evangelize, Cardinal Dolan’s appearance at the Met Gala was a tremendous scandal to the Catholic faithful, many of whom protested the event.

In an interview with Crux, His Eminence stated that the gala was an “upbeat and inspirational evening…and a boost for the Church.” Enamored by the “movers and shakers” who were in attendance, Dolan attempted to deflect his critics who objected to his presence at (and seeming endorsement of) the exhibit, insisting that, while some of the material was “edgy” none of it was “intended…to be offensive.” Moreover, Dolan further assumed that whatever lapsed Catholics attended the event would be “reminded of positive memories of the Church and of devotions, prayers, traditions, and liturgies,” inspiring them to take a fresh look at their childhood faith.

It is difficult to see how celebrities (barely and sacrilegiously) clad in clerical vestments and participating in sinful displays at the Metropolitan Museum of Art will help inspire lapsed Catholics to renew their faith.

Nonetheless, at the Met Gala we once again saw the tragic fault of the smiling Cardinal’s Christian humanist formula: well-meaning platitudes that seem to endorse immoral and/or sacrilegious acts coupled with poo-pooing his critics as delusional fuddy duddies—all, allegedly, in the name of evangelization.

A Real Tragedy and Sobering Betrayal

The Cardinal Archbishop of New York, one of the most powerful positions in the American Church, is a richly symbolic position as much as it is one of real power. Both Catholics and those outside the Church pay more attention to the outward significance of Cardinal Dolan’s actions and soundbites more than they do to his motives or the greater context or His Eminence’s end goal (whatever that might be).

By his more wearisome-than-witty words and never-ending parade of photo ops with immoral celebrities, as well as his glad-handing of non-Catholic mega donors and power brokers, Cardinal Dolan has caused tremendous discouragement and scandal among American Catholics.

His fall is not a cause for celebration, mockery, or the typical “Rad Trad” riposte about bad bishops. On the contrary, it is a real tragedy and a sobering betrayal.

There is a lingering bitterness surrounding the tragic fall of Cardinal Dolan precisely because American Catholics had placed their trust and confidence in Dolan as one of the new “JPII bishops” who, many had hoped, would repair much of the damage done by the Bernardin-era bishops to the Church’s liturgy, theology, morals and overall morale.

The key error and tragic fault of Cardinal Dolan is, on one level, a moral error. As Professor Romano Amerio noted in his invaluable Iota Unum, one of the great corruptions in 20th-century Catholicism was the replacement of the traditional “stoic” and sober personality of the Christian—and the priest, in particular—with the cartoonish “nice guy” façade of so many post-Vatican II clerics.

However, this Mickey Mouse-type personality ultimately flows from an intellectual corruption: the embrace of the lax aggiornamento approach of John XXIII in which so many Catholics were encouraged to make friends with the world and soon found themselves also making friends with both the flesh and the devil.



Jesse Russell, Ph.D. has published on literary theory, religion, semiotics, and politics in a variety of academic and popular journals.