We cannot leave the job just to ‘fat, balding Irish bishops’

Here’s a quote worth reflecting on — and doing something about — this week: “In the public square, I hate to tell you, the days of fat, balding Irish bishops are over.” 

Those are the (self-deprecating) words of Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (He’s also a man known for his girth, shining pate and ancestral origins in the Emerald Isle.) 

The cardinal was the keynote speaker earlier this month at a convention hosted by the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., on “Catholics in the Public Square: Our Role in Shaping Public Policy.” About 700 people took part, ahead of the mid-March “Catholics at the Capitol,” an annual event at which involved laity meet with their legislators in Albany “to provide a Catholic perspective on pending legislation.” 

Cardinal Dolan emphasized the importance of Catholic laity taking an active role in the public square and fighting for what they believe to be right — “We can be political without being partisan,” he said, according to Catholic News Service. “We ought to bring values and convictions to politics. We will not be misled by people who say we shouldn’t be involved.” 

The punchy quote I opened this column with, instead, came from The New York Times article about his talk. According to the article, Cardinal Dolan said, “We are called to be very active, very informed and very involved in politics.” 

The cardinal said “the best thing [the U.S. bishops] ever did” was to hire an “attractive, articulate, intelligent” laywoman to be their pro-life spokesperson — clearly because as a woman she was a much more persuasive and effective advocate for the unborn than a “fat, balding Irish” cleric could be. 

While priests and bishops “stick to principles,” Cardinal Dolan said, “we leave a lot of the messiness of politics up to you [the laity].” 

But the bishops are the teachers. Cardinal Dolan reiterated to reporters his outrage that officials in President Barack Obama’s administration had suggested that the bishops “listen to the ‘enlightened’ voices of accommodation” within the Church. 

“We kind of got our Irish up,” Cardinal Dolan said, “when leaders in government seemed to be assigning an authoritative voice to Catholic groups that are not the bishops.” 

“If you want an authoritative voice,” he added, “go to the bishops. They’re the ones that speak for the truths of the faith.” 

But it is the laity who need to leaven society. As Pope Benedict XVI told U.S. bishops in January: “Here once more we see the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society.” 

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