Mad Men, Obama vs. Dolan

We haven't always been terribly upbeat about Newsweek's religion coverage in the past. And it's hard to tell under its new leadership whether it's really committed to straight reporting or a more op-ed oriented style.

A new piece from Peter Boyer hints at a positive direction, at least as long as the magazine assigns Boyer to the religion beat.

The Mad Men theme is pretty clever (hello, 1960s!), but I wish the cover had instead featured Boyer's profile of Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York. As much as I want to read about sexism, bras and ads (I own a Mad Men dress from Banana Republic), the pieces were no match in substance next to Boyer's reporting. For instance, the lead piece has this unfortunate correction: "A previous version of this article erroneously reported Weiner's parents divorced when he was 10. They have been married for over 50 years."

Boyer's profile on Dolan hooks onto the contraception fight, demonstrating how reporters can use politics to get into religion without letting the political details overshadow the religious ones. Check out the opening paragraph and see if it doesn't make you chuckle.

Just inside the heavy front door of the 19th-century neo-Gothic mansion at 452 Madison Avenue, the official residence of Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York, rests a telling clue about the resident’s personality. Perched on a tray atop a side table in the entry hall is the scarlet red biretta placed on Dolan’s head by the pope last month when Dolan was elevated to the College of Cardinals in Rome. Next to it sits another scarlet hat—a ball cap bearing the insignia of Dolan’s beloved St. Louis baseball team. “I don’t know all the protocol,” Dolan says. “I was told I was supposed to place the Cardinal hat by the entrance, so ...”

Boyer suggests that "Dolan already is, in effect, something like America's pope," a pretty strong description since you probably don't want to throw around the description "pope" too loosely.

But precisely because of that role, Dolan now finds himself having to play against type, leading the high-stakes fight against the Obama administration’s mandate that employers provide insurance coverage for services and products the Church finds morally objectionable—including contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs.

The piece shows why the battle is particularly unusual for Dolan, who is known more for the upbeat and positive face he gives the Church.

Dolan insists that it’s not a fight he wanted. He arrived on the national stage with the reputation of a conciliator, one who believes that the church should not be in the business of weeding out those who dispute some of its teachings. As archbishop of Milwaukee, he disagreed with those bishops who advised punishment of politicians (by denial of holy communion or parishioners’ votes) who supported policies the church opposes. ... [Dolan says,] "I would be one that would much prefer to sit down with people, to say, let’s sit down and talk about this, let me try to be a pastor first, let me try a conversion of heart.” Since Dolan’s rise in the national church, “wafer watches,” such as that to which John Kerry was subjected in his 2004 presidential run, have virtually vanished (much to the relief, perhaps, of Kathleen Sebelius, the Catholic secretary of Health and Human Services, and of Catholic governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Martin O’Malley of Maryland, who signed same-sex marriage legislation into law).

The story takes a step further beyond the 2012 election to put the issue of life ethics in larger context. It spotlights historical figures in the Catholic church had an emphasis on social justice and those who focused emphasized evangelism, drawing parallels between Dolan and Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association, an Obama ally on health care. Boyer also shows why the bishops have raised religious freedom concerns before the contraception issue came up.

But going into that Oval Office meeting last November, the bishops had a lot at stake. They were partners with the government in many of their social projects, and heavily dependent upon government funding. Just a few weeks before the Oval Office meeting, the administration had relieved the conference of its role of overseeing relief for human-trafficking victims because Catholic workers wouldn’t refer victims to abortion or contraceptive services. Now, some bishops worried that many on Obama’s team viewed fundamental Catholic teaching on moral issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, as homophobic, sexist, even potentially illegal.

The piece shows the relationship between President Obama and Dolan, illustrating how the archbishop has the president's attention, at least to some extent.

Dolan admits he felt awestruck about being in the Oval Office, and was impressed by the president; he left the meeting feeling reassured about the regulations. Obama told him, Dolan says, “that he would do nothing to impede the good work of the church in health care, education, and charity, and that he considered the protection of conscience a sacred duty.”

When Sebelius announced the regulations on Jan. 20, Dolan says he was shocked, and plainly felt betrayed. The only exemption from the administration’s mandate that employers provide contraception coverage was for actual houses of worship. To the church, this was a radical state intrusion, defining what constitutes an approved ministry.

Since Dolan doesn't expect to work out the issue with the White House at this point, it will likely remain a political issue going forward.

Meanwhile, Dolan and the bishops will step up a public-relations campaign that will include informational bulletins distributed in churches. Parishes will be encouraged to conduct voter-registration drives and independent activists, such as Deal Hudson, who helped Karl Rove corral the Catholic vote for George W. Bush, are already conducting outreach training sessions in battleground states.

The ending to the profile is as colorful as the opening, but we can't quote everything. Read it all.

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