Cardinal Tobin and Cardinal Dolan: Opposite Sides or Complex Figures?

The New York Times recently profiled two cardinals as representatives of “opposite sides” in the church.  The story notes that their opposition is symbolized by the fact that the cardinals are separated by the Hudson River:  Cardinal Joseph Tobin in Newark, NJ, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan in New York City, NY. Though several differences exist between the two men, their stances on LGBT issues have been among the most notable.

The Times opened the report by highlighting the books on homosexuality whic Tobin and Dolan chose to endorse. Tobin described Fr. James Martin, S.J.’s new book, Building a Bridge, as “brave, prophetic and inspiring.” For Dolan, the book to read was Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay,  a memoir of a celibate gay man, which the cardinal describes as an “honest account of the genuine struggles faced by those with same-sex attraction.” The Times commented:

“Neither man is out of step with church tenets, and both believe in a kind of ‘big tent’ Catholicism that reaches out to all, church experts said. As bishops, their beliefs are more alike than different.

“But comparisons are inevitable because Pope Francis placed Cardinal Tobin in the same major media market as Cardinal Dolan when he appointed him to Newark in November. There had never been a cardinal in Newark.”

The Times compares the cardinals on a range issues, which you can read in full here. In today’s post, I want to highlight more extensively their records on LGBT issues.


Cardinal Joseph Tobin

On one side, there is the pastoral approach of Cardinal Tobin who was appointed to his current position by Pope Francis a year ago. Tobin recently welcomed a group of LGBT pilgrims to Newark’s cathedral, telling them in a message before the event, “I am delighted that you and the LGBTQ brothers and sisters plan to visit our beautiful cathedral. You will be very welcome!” He then greeted the pilgrims on the day of their visit, an experience one attendee said “felt like a miracle.

In 2016, asked about the spate of LGBT-related church worker firings, Tobin said employment concerns should be charitably dealt with on a case-by-case basis. While not ideal, his willingness to even comment on and show some concern with the firings far surpassed the ongoing silence of his episcopal colleagues.

Tobin’s involvement with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) also reveals his divergent approach on LGBT issues. He publicly challenged the USCCB’s decision this spring to change an ad hoc committee on religious liberty into a permanent one.  Religious liberty lissues often entail LGBT questions. Last year, he criticized the USCCB’s priorities, focusing on marriage and religious liberty, as being inconsistent with Pope Francis’ vision.

When a referendum banning same-gender marriage was proposed in Indiana, Tobin’s response avoided the hyperbolic and pastorally harmful language of so many bishops. Indeed, the archdiocesan spokesperson said Catholics “have the right to make their own decisions on these issues.” He also defended U.S. women religious when the Vatican launched its investigations against them, in part for their support of LGBT equality.

While Tobin defended the church’s teaching on marriage as a heterosexual institution and celibacy as the path to holiness for lesbian and gay people, he also said that he does not presume that anyone who presents themselves as lesbian or gay is sexually active.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan 3

Cardinal Timothy Dolan

On the other side is Cardinal Dolan, whose record on LGBT issues is far more negative. He once wrote an odd anecdote on his blog about having to wash one’s hands before coming to dinner as a child. He then applied that story to lesbian and gay people who should “wash their hands” before coming to church because there should be “no dirty hands.”

Cardinal Dolan has been ambivalent about Pope Francis’ welcoming remarks to  LGBT people. When the pope offered his famous “Who am I to judge?” comment, Dolan parsed that by saying it was acceptable to judge people’s actions even if not their person.

In a 2013 interview, Dolan rejected claims that church leaders were anti-gay because they opposed marriage equality. He added that the hierarchy had just been “out marketed,” and that is why LGBT rights were expanding. That year he also remained silent about a sharp rise in anti-LGBT hate crimes that happened in New York City.

In 2012, Dolan led an apostolic visitation of an Irish seminary that he criticized for being “gay-friendly.” It was under his leadership that year that the USCCB launched its first “Fortnight for Freedom,” which attempts to defend religious liberty, but it also undermines LGBT equality.

But Dolan’s record is not all bad. When the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York first accepted LGBT groups in 2014, the cardinal defended their inclusion, and he withstood criticism from conservative Catholics for marching in those events. On television, Dolan said it was good that NFL draft prospect Michael Sam came out as a gay. In other appearance, he told lesbian and gay people, “I love you, too. And God loves you.

What may be most significant going forward is not their existing records, but this crucial difference noted by The Times:

“Informed by their views and personalities, the two took different paths to the highest reaches of the church. Cardinal Dolan took the route of the institutional insider, becoming a diocesan priest, which does not require a vow of poverty, then earning a doctorate in church history. He served at the Vatican’s embassy to Washington, and later he became the rector of the main seminary for American priests in Rome. . .

“Cardinal Tobin, in contrast, wanted to travel the world as a missionary. He took a vow of poverty and joined the Redemptorists, the religious order that ran his home parish in Detroit and focuses on ministering to those on society’s margins. He became an administrator and ultimately superior general of his worldwide order, based in Rome.”

By elevating Tobin to a cardinal in such close proximity to Dolan, Pope Francis clearly indicated his preference for the cardinal who “smelled like the sheep,” a phrase the pope has used to express the kind of bishop he prefers. It is noteworthy that, this article aside, Cardinal Dolan has not been making national headlines when at one time he was the voice of the U.S. bishops.

My biggest takeaway from The Times piece and reviewing their records is this: though clearly divergent approaches, there is complexity in each cardinal, and in that complexity the possibility that both can grow to become more welcoming of LGBT people. Maybe the best next step for them is to cross the Hudson and to dialogue with one another, sharing the wisdom they have gathered through different paths and finding an approach together for the good of the people of God.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 19, 2017

Related article:

Crux: “Real story on Dolan and Tobin in NY? Try ‘America Past Acrimony’ “

3 replies
  1. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    Thanks for this piece which clarifies with meaningful example where they may stand, Robert. Very helpful as we navigate our way through the mire of church rhetoric.

  2. Leonard Telesca
    Leonard Telesca says:

    Dolan has always be a loud mouth, snake in the grass kinda guy. Dolan definitely doesn’t smell like the sheep, the kind of bishop the Pope wants. He’s the kinda guy, that beds down with Trump or the evangelicals to get his agenda done. He makes me sad to be a Catholic, but a Jesuit priest told me you have to learn to separate the Church and God, in order to move on in you spiritual life.


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