Cardinal Dolan Softens Pope’s Anti-Capitalism Rhetoric

Just a few years ago, Cardinal Timothy Dolan was the “it” boy of the American Catholic church.

He leapfrogged to the front of the line to head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in what was widely seen as a move by the conference to reassert itself in the culture wars. It was Dolan more than any other member of the hierarchy who was responsible for ginning up the “religious liberty” issue, as he dialed up the rhetoric to paint the USCCB’s fight against the ObamaCare contraceptive mandate and efforts to expand same-sex marriage as an apocalyptical battle between believers and the forces of non-secularism.

Dolan modeled himself after another New York Cardinal, John O’Connor, who was the nation’s most famous prelate at a time when members of the hierarchy were media darlings and political forces to be reckoned with, even if their own flock didn’t always follow their lead. It’s a testament to his popularity with the media, and his readiness with a quip, that Dolan remains a favorite on the Sunday morning shows even though he’s no longer head of the USCCB.

But Pope Francis’ kinder, gentler Catholicism has threatened to make Dolan’s bombastic, culture war rhetoric an anachronism and in fact he has noticeably dialed it down these days, reports Sharon Otterman in the New York Times. Nowhere is this more evident than when Dolan talks about same-sex marriage. Where in 2011 Dolan charged that efforts to recognize same-sex marriage were part of a “drive to neuter religion” being pushed by “well-financed, well-oiled sectors” of society, late last year on “Meet the Press” he simply asserted that the hierarchy had been “outmarketed” on the issue. And in March he said, “Good for him,” when questioned about football player Michael Sam coming out as gay.

Despite Dolan’s rhetorical tune-up, he’s no longer the “go-to” American cardinal for the Vatican, says Otterman, as “Francis is elevating different priorities, such as pastoral outreach to the poor and immigration, over the culture war issues of abortion and same-sex marriage.” Francis’ closest advisor is Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, “a Franciscan in robes and sandals who speaks fluent Spanish and champions the poor.”

But like any political faction temporarily out of power, the right wing of the bishops conference continues to advocate for its constituents, specifically the pro-business, anti-gay and –reproductive rights interest of the Republican Party. Dolan penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last week on “virtuous capitalism” to assure conservatives that the pope’s widely hailed tweets on inequality don’t really mean that he’s for “government redistribution of property” or has endorsed “some form of socialism” but is charting a “sound middle course on economic issues.”

Big money donors to the $180 million restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York are reportedly restive about the pope’s economic comments and have hinted that they may withhold funding if the pontiff doesn’t dial it down. Dolan sought to appease them by asserting that the pope’s comments about poverty have less to do with supporting government action to right economic inequality than with concerns about a “throwaway culture” and a “culture of death.”

The use of John Paul II’s seminal anti-abortion rhetoric in the context of speaking about inequality—a trick recently pulled by Pope Francis when he addressed the UN—seeks to signal to conservatives that it’s really a culture war issue after all.

Dolan links the ill-effects of capitalism—“greed, envy misuse of riches, gross luxury and exploitation of the poor”—to “unregulated economic amorality,” not good ol’ American capitalism. In fact, he says, much of the bum rap given to capitalism is due to the amoral form found in many “developing or newly industrialized countries,” where “what passes for capitalism is an exploitative racket.”

The answer to the problems of capitalism, Dolan says, “is not to reject economic liberty in favor of government control,” which he associates with “coercive systems of socialism and collectivism,” but “genuine human virtue,” as epitomized by “individual generosity, private economic development, community and family initiatives,” and last, but certainly least in his eyes, public policies that foster the “legitimate redistribution of economic benefits.”

The American Enterprise Institute or Cato couldn’t have said it better themselves.

Patricia Miller is the author of Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church. Her work on the intersection of sex, religion, and politics has appeared in The Nation, Ms., and Huffington Post. She was the editor of Conscience magazine and the editor-in-chief of the National Journal’s health care briefings.