Press coverage of New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan’s recent election as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops exemplified what my colleague Meghan Clyne calls “paint-by-numbers” reporting. Like the paint-by-numbers kits that were a fad when I was a kid, paint-by-numbers journalism produces something rather childish and not very pretty. Both unhappy attributes were fully on display as the herd of independent minds tried to cope with the Dolan story, scrambling (and failing) to grasp its dynamics and meaning.
The first paint-by-numbers color in this particularly childish picture was the color “surprise:” it was hard to find a story that didn’t peg Archbishop Dolan’s election that way in the first sentence. And while there was some truth to this — the bishops overturned a long custom of electing as president the outgoing conference vice-president — the real story was that a quiet, extensive, and ultimately successful campaign was mounted, often by younger bishops, to change The Way We Bishops Do Things. You might have thought exploring that dynamic was worth some ink. Evidently, it wasn’t. Why? Might it have been because the Fourth Estate could not concede to having swallowed its unimaginative and rather lazy pre-election reporting, according to which USCCB vice-president Bishop Gerald Kicanas’s ascension to the conference presidency was inevitable?
Paint-by-numbers reporting on the Dolan story also featured those hoary clichés about “liberal” and “conservative” Catholicism. Or, as one let’s-be-clever sound-biter had it, “liberal moderate” vs. “conservative moderate” Catholicism. This is, frankly, getting tedious; its mind-numbing dullness may explain why few serious readers look to the mainstream media for serious coverage of the Catholic Church.
Moreover, running the election of Archbishop Dolan through the usual left/right filters led reporters to miss another big story: the transformation of the U.S. bishops conference from a body focused on institutional maintenance and being “in play” in the great public policy debates of the day to one in which a critical mass of bishops are committed to strengthening Catholic identity, evangelizing a toxic culture, and challenging political realism with a compelling presentation of moral truth.
The Dolan election stories were also notable for paint-by-numbers sourcing and quote-citing, in which the same old same-olds were trotted out to say the predictable things. Paint-by-numbers sourcing also intersected with paint-by-numbers cliche-promoting, as most of the stories I read “balanced” a known-quantity “liberal” commentator with a known-quantity “conservative,” usually in such a way as to signal the reader that the latter was the bad guy.
In the immediate, post-election scrum, I tried to get reporters interested in the true significance of this year’s USCCB election, which was that it marked the end of an era. That era was defined by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who left a deep impress on the bishops conference he served as its general secretary, then its president, then its behind-the-scenes eminence grise. So comprehensive was Bernardin’s influence in defining the culture and the modus operandi of the conference that the Bernardin Era lasted for fourteen years after the cardinal died on November 14, 1996, after a gallant and edifying battle with cancer. But it is now over, because of a generational change in the center-of-gravity of the American episcopate.
That generational change is a matter of Catholic sensibility as well as of age. Like the man they chose to lead them, the bishops who elected Archbishop Dolan combine a sense of excitement about the Catholic possibility in 21st century America with serious reservations about the national drift into a utilitarianism in which “Will it work?” is the only question of moral consequence. The bishops in the Dolan coalition are also willing to challenge the sexual revolution with the tools John Paul II gave the Church in his Theology of the Body; many bishops of the Bernardin Era were deeply shaken by the post-Humanae Vitae chaos in the Church and simply wished (and, in some cases, wish) that the challenging questions engaged by Catholicism’s ethic of love would disappear.
The tectonic plates within U.S. Catholicism’s ordained leadership have shifted. You can’t depict that shift with paint-by-numbers.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.