Whenever he’s asked about becoming the first American pope in the millennia-long history of the Roman Catholic church, Cardinal Timothy Dolan cracks a joke.
“If I am elected pope, which is probably the greatest gag all evening, I’ll be Stephen III,” the New York archbishop, 63, quipped in reference to comedian Stephen Colbert when they shared a battle of wits last September at Fordham University.
Dolan’s bonhomie nevertheless masks management and fundraising skills and a conservative social stance that make him a contender to become the first non-European pope in 1,500 years. He’s ranked 14th out of 207 cardinals in betting company Paddy Power Plc’s list of papal favorites, with 33-to-1 odds of succeeding Pope Benedict XVI, who retired on Feb. 28.
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Cardinals meeting at the Vatican this week to prepare to elect a new pope “are looking for someone who can preach the gospel in a way that is understandable and attractive to people in the 21st century,” Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and Georgetown University professor, wrote in his blog on March 4. “In other words, they want Jesus Christ with an MBA,” Reese said, without citing any names.
At a time when some Catholics are calling for a pope who’s more in tune with modern ways after almost eight years under 85- year-old theologian Benedict, Dolan pens his own blog, The Gospel in the Digital Age. From Rome, Dolan’s also making himself heard on satellite radio and Twitter, where he has more than 80,000 followers.
“To think that there might be a pope from North America, to think that there might be a pope from Latin America, a pope from Asia, a pope from Africa, I think that’s highly possible, don’t you?” Dolan recently told his SiriusXM listeners.
While the status of the U.S. as a superpower has been a handicap for past American papal candidates, it may be seen as less of a problem now as the church battles to regain faithful and donations in wealthy nations after years of abuse scandals.
The U.S. remains the biggest source of church funding, accounting for 60 percent of the global institution’s wealth, according to a study last year by The Economist magazine. That reality may weigh on the 115 cardinals set to pick a new leader after the Vatican ran a 14 million-euro ($18.2 million) budget shortfall in 2011.
A majority of American Catholics said they want the next pope to make church teachings more liberal and that sexual abuse by priests is the biggest problem facing the church, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll published today. Seven out of 10 said the Vatican and Benedict did a poor job handling the abuse scandals, and most want a pontiff who’s “younger, with new ideas,” according to the nationwide phone poll of 1,585 adults conducted Feb. 23-27. The error margin was four percentage points.
Given the public-relations and financial challenges facing the church, “a holy entrepreneur” may be needed as pontiff, R. Scott Appleby, a historian at the University of Notre Dame, said in an interview.
As head of the second-biggest U.S. archdiocese with a flock of 2.6 million Catholics, Dolan has flexed his muscle as both a manager and fund raiser. As president of the powerful U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Dolan fended off criticism from Catholic clergy and lay people after he invited President Barack Obama to a traditional charity fundraiser last year.
While Obama’s views on abortion and gay marriage clash with the church’s, Dolan said he’d eat “all my meals alone” if “I only sat down with people who agreed with me,” according to an Aug. 14 blog post in which he urged “dialog” with the administration.
Dolan’s also had to confront the sex-abuse scandals that surfaced in America more than a decade ago, staining the U.S. church’s reputation and straining its finances. A cascade of claims settled over the years have prompted eight U.S. dioceses to file for bankruptcy since 2002.
Last month, Dolan gave testimony in connection to abuse charges against clergy in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which he led from 2002 until 2009. The cases date to the years before Dolan took over the archdiocese, which sought bankruptcy protection in 2011 amid more than $9 million in legal fees and expenses stemming from the charges.
Dolan has said that investigators asked him about his decision to publicize the names of priests accused of molesting children. His archdiocese also authorized $20,000 payments to abusive clergymen to leave the ministry, saying that the money helped move them out of the church more quickly.
“Does it haunt me? Yes it does,” Dolan said about the scandal in a 2009 interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I’m not afraid to admit that.”
His direct approach could help usher a new era where clerical crimes can be “addressed with the kind of candor and the spirit of repentance that has been lacking,” Appleby said.
Dolan was born in St. Louis, the eldest of five children in a family of Irish descent. From an early age, he’s said he always wanted to be a priest. Dolan went on to study theology in Rome and obtain a doctorate at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He’s served as an aide to the papal nuncio, or ambassador, to Washington and rector at the American seminary in Rome.
While most cardinals have kept a low profile in the run-up to the secret conclave to elect Benedict’s successor, Dolan made headlines by using jokes to deflect questions about his papal chances. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
People who think he will be pontiff “might be drinking too much grappa or smoking marijuana,” he said in a Feb. 28 interview on CNN. “I’ve got a better chance following ‘A-Rod’ at third base for the Yankees than following Benedict XVI as the bishop of Rome,” Dolan told CNN in Rome, referring to Alex Rodriguez of Major League Baseball’s New York Yankees.
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‘Force of Nature’
In a setting where being a favorite offers few guarantees and lobbying for the job is unseemly, Dolan’s self-deprecating tack and resume could play well with fellow voters looking for change but nothing too radical. Cardinals meeting in Rome this week will decide a date for the conclave, from which a new pope should emerge by Easter on March 31, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi has said.
Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana remains the frontrunner for the papacy, with 5-to-2 odds of taking over from Benedict, according to Dublin-based Paddy Power. Italian Cardinals Tarcisio Bertone and Angelo Scola trail him with 7-to-2 odds.
Dolan’s “a breath of fresh air at a time when the chorus of voices clamoring for a change has been growing,” John Allen Jr., author of a biography of Benedict, said in a Feb. 24 op-ed in the New York Daily News. Dolan, whose charisma took Rome by storm last year when he was promoted to cardinal, “is a back- slapping, baby-kissing, beer-swilling force of nature.”
Nonetheless, Dolan remains something of a long shot, Allen said. He lacks the language skills and experience “cardinals typically see as prerequisites for the job” of pope, although “anything’s possible.”
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