Cardinal Dolan: We're not in the business of being "in touch" with popular opinion

It’s amazing how many commentators seem fixated on judging religious institutions through poll questions, but Cardinal Timothy Dolan pointed out the obvious in his Easter appearance on ABC’s This Week. George Stephanopoulos challenged Dolan about a recent poll of Catholics, which showed that 60% felt that the church had fallen out of touch with the views of Catholics in the US.  Dolan reminded viewers that the purpose of the faith isn’t to change teachings based on polls — and that means that sometimes people will find the church “out of touch”:

During an interview for “This Week,” Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos that the Catholic Church’s very nature means it will be — from time to time – out of touch with the concerns of its followers.

“Sometimes by nature, the Church has got to be out of touch with concerns, because we’re always supposed to be thinking of the beyond, the eternal, the changeless,” Dolan said. “Our major challenge is to continue in a credible way to present the eternal concerns to people in a timeless attractive way. And sometimes there is a disconnect – between what they’re going through and what Jesus and his Church is teaching. And that’s a challenge for us.”

Dolan was responding to a question from Stephanopoulos about a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, which found that 60 percent of Catholics “describe the church as ‘out of touch’ with the views of Catholics in America.”

Stephanopoulos also asked Dolan about the church’s position on same-sex marriage.  Dolan explained that the church isn’t anti-anybody, but the sacramental character of marriage has a specific purpose and definition that the church cannot abandon:

Stephanopoulos also asked Dolan what the Catholic Church can say to gays and lesbians, who feel unwelcomed by the Church, which does not support same-sex marriage.

“Well, the first thing I’d say to them is, ‘I love you, too.  And God loves you.  And you are made in God’s image and likeness.  And – and we – we want your happiness.  But – and you’re entitled to friendship.’  But we also know that God has told us that the way to happiness, that – especially when it comes to sexual love – that is intended only for a man and woman in marriage, where children can come about naturally,” Dolan said. “We got to be – we got to do better to see that our defense of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people.  And I admit, we haven’t been too good at that.  We try our darndest to make sure we’re not an anti-anybody.”

This focus on issue-driven polling and religious teachings continues the kind of media approach that became very apparent during the papal conclave.  The pundits seem confused as to the purpose of religious faith in general, and the Catholic Church and the papacy in particular.  They want to keep applying paradigms suited for popular governance to institutions that exist to teach eternal truth — because whether or not one believes in the teachings of the Catholic Church or any other religious doctrine, that’s what they claim to teach. That is why most of them missed what actually was at stake in the Vatican this month, and what the outcome actually means.

The debate over legalizing SSM makes perfect sense in the popular governance/election paradigm.  As people change their minds on any question of government policy, the relative popularity of each position has great significance for politicians and political parties.  For religious institutions, though, that’s at best a secondary issue, and only relevant to whether or not effective catechism (teaching of the faith) is taking place.  A religion that changes doctrine based on popular opinion becomes a club with a high name-recognition value, and has no real long-term purpose.

The issue at the papal conclave was never about whether to change doctrine on marriage.  It was about improving the catechism and expanding evangelization through example and the proclamation of the Gospel, whether or not one finds it “in touch” with current popular opinion.  The election of Pope Francis has already proven successful in drawing attention to the evangelization envisioned by Saint Francis of Assisi, who once said, “Proclaim the Gospel — use words if necessary.”  We shall see if more effective evangelization results, and whether that impacts popular opinion by more effective teaching among Catholics as to the purpose of the sacrament of marriage. Dolan hit this one out of the park.

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