Cardinal Timothy Dolan provides a biographer with the opportunity to examine issues affecting the Catholic Church, and—like the subject of any biography—to portray a life with highs, lows, and contradictions. Born in a working-class suburb of St. Louis after World War II, Dolan entered seminary amidst the changes set in place by the Second Vatican Council. Serving as the Archbishop of St. Louis, then Milwaukee, then New York, he grappled with controversies surrounding celibacy, same-sex marriage, abortion, and clerical abuse.
Most of the time, Christina Boyle’s An American Cardinal: The Biography of Cardinal Timothy Dolan merely tells us what a great guy Dolan is. Among other things, he’s a “fun-loving character” with “leadership skills and [the] ability to put other people at ease,” and who, during his doctoral studies, “always appeared to grasp the topics with ease and never seemed to be overly burdened by the workload.” I don’t doubt that Dolan’s an intelligent, diligent individual and an exemplar of Christian love. But that fact alone does not make for a compelling biography. What, for example, did Dolan research while pursuing his doctorate in church history? Did any of the sources he read challenge long-held beliefs? Did he ever struggle with his studies? Boyle is rarely so specific, and An American Cardinal reads like a fawning celebrity profile stretched to fill the better part of 300 pages. It’s a commissioned biography, so this may be the form’s fault as much as the author’s.
Occasionally, Boyle provides a constructive, if not convincing, insider’s perspective on the Catholic Church. In 2007, while Archbishop of Milwaukee, Dolan moved millions of dollars into a trust marked for the preservation of cemeteries, where it was safe from lawsuits from victims of clerical abuse. To the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the action showed that the church was more concerned about looking after its own than administering justice. To Dolan, however, it was necessary (in Boyle’s paraphrase) to prevent “everyday Catholics [from] being made to suffer financially for the sins of a few. Terrible wrongs had been committed, but was this justification for bleeding the church dry?” There are also charming anecdotes, like a young Dolan serving communion to stuffed animals. Such moments, unfortunately, are few and far between.
Boyle’s prose, clunky and cliché, only exacerbates the inanity of her reporting. Dolan and his college classmates “spent a lot of time together, developed firm friendships, and quickly came to know one another’s strengths, weaknesses, and annoying habits.” When he became Archbishop of New York, “[e]veryone was eager to cast their eyes on this man who had been making so many headlines.” Earlier, in St. Louis, “Sister Rosario arrived bursting with a sense of adventure and a sparkle in her eye.” Bursting with a sparkle in her eye? I hope she saw an optometrist.
However poorly, though, this biography presents a truth about the Catholic Church that liberals and Protestants (and those of us who are both) can be loath to acknowledge. There’s more to the church than the social conservatism and clerical abuse we too often know it by. The institution is far from infallible, but it strives for the superhuman generosity and compassion of Christ in the Gospels. Dolan puts it well here, reiterating his church’s commitment to “[t]he unemployed, the uninsured, the unwanted, the unwed mother, the innocent fragile unborn baby in her womb, the undocumented, the unhoused, the unhealthy, the unfed, the under-educated.”
–Published November 4th by St. Martin’s Press