Cardinal Dolan Reaffirms: 'Church Is Not a Country Club for the Perfect', But 'Hospital for Sick'

In ZENIT Interview, Holds That We Won’t Compromise, Yet Won’t Drive Away

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The Archbishop of New York has said that even if none of us “live up” to the Church’s ideals, it still welcomes us with open arms.

In a wide-ranging interview with ZENIT this week, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York and prior president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, shares his thoughts not only about the synod, but also on the Church’s proper role and how that is being played out in the pontificate of Francis, as well as how it had been in those of his predecessors.

Moreover, the prelate, a native of St. Louis, candidly speaks about the pastoral challenges of his New York archdiocese, media reports, as well as why it would be fitting for Francis to visit not only the States, but especially New York, in 2015.


ZENIT: What have been your hopes and expectations for the synod? What are you hoping to bring back from it?

Cardinal Dolan: Yeah, Deb, good question. My hope, my expectation, what I am hoping to bring back from the Synod of Bishops on marriage and the family is a ringing encouragement to our wonderfully married couples and to our beautiful families that they are living a life that is pleasing to God, that is consonant with all the beauty of the Gospel, that they are living a life that really is about the closest we can get, on Earth, to coming close to the love and unity of the most blessed Trinity. And that these husbands and wives that are living the kinds of lives that is actually, for the rest of us, an ‘icon,’ is a reflection of  the passion, and mercy, and love, that God has for us.

Now, that’s the majesty, that’s the poetry, that’s the romance and beauty of marriage that is our Catholic tradition – that we get from God. We didn’t make it up. God revealed it to us, through the Bible, and the Church has faithfully transmitted that for 2,000 years.

So my hope is that in a world that asks — what’s the world asking, Deb – can anybody say «forever»? Can anybody stay faithful and in love with the same person? Can anybody really welcome children as a gift, as a blessing, and not as a burden, to a world, in a culture, that often poses those questions?

My hope is that the synod will say ‘You bet your life that people can do it,’ with the grace and mercy of God, that it is a life of extraordinary joy, that it is a life of struggle and challenge. But what in this life that is worthwhile is not?

So if we can give that support and encouragement to our people, “Alleluia.”

ZENIT: Do you have any fears regarding the synod?

Cardinal Dolan: I do. I do. Because another value of the synod, and another extraordinary aspect is that we want to be as clear and as compelling as possible in reaffirming the Church’s timeless teaching on marriage and family, without scaring people off, and without seeming to marginalize, and Lord knows there’s a lot, who are unable to live up to that.

So you know what, Deb, you get this. This is the synod on the family, right, and we usually, when we think of a family, we think of mom, dad, and kids, and rightly so, and the extended family of grandparents, and aunts and uncles, and cousins.

But, guess what else is a family? The Church. The Church is a family. It is a supernatural family. And just like in our natural families, you’ve got the parents who have the challenge of clear teaching and calling to expectation, calling to virtue and responsibility, with firmness, yet being extraordinarily loving and tender with the children.

That’s also the challenge for the Holy Mother Church. So God is our father, who teaches, whose revealed to us about marriage and the Church is our Mother. And both of them have the supreme responsibility of being a strong teacher, just like any parent would. But we’ve also got the strong, the high responsibility of being a tender, loving, welcoming parent.

So how can we, with those unable to live up to the Church’s lofty, noble teaching on the marriage and the family—and you know who I am talking about—cohabiting couples, divorced and remarried, people in same sex unions—that are clearly not consonant with what God has revealed to us about marriage. How can we continue to affirm what God’s taught and told us about marriage, without marginalizing them?

How can we do that in a way in a way that would still invite them to reconsider what God has taught us? And to remind them that even if they are unable to live up to the Church’s teachings, to the teachings of Jesus and his Church, they still look to the Church as their family, as their spiritual home, because that’s true for all of us, right? I don’t live up to the Church, to the teaching of Jesus and His Church on patience. I don’t live up to the Eight Beatitudes. Ok. I don’t know many people that do. But that doesn’t mean that we are out of the Church, does it? So you kind of get the challenge there: How to be a clear teacher and a loving parent.

ZENIT: That leads into my next question. How can the Church concretely welcome those who aren’t quite following the ideal, in terms of those cohabitating, those living in a homosexual lifestyle, using contraception, etc., while still completely being in line with Church doctrine?

Cardinal Dolan: I think we take our cues from the Holy Father, from Pope Francis, who says, ‘Look, what you are saying is that you are a sinner. Well, if you are a sinner, nice to meet you, because so am I. And why don’t you come and join another group, a big group of sinners who are trying their best.’ For conversion of heart, depending on God’s grace and mercy, and slowly, gradually, trying to conform our lives to what Jesus and the Church have taught. It’s an ongoing process, isn’t it? None of us are completely there. We might make progress in one area, then we fall back. That’s why we have the sacrament of penance, isn’t it? And you know what I’d like to say to those people: The Church as the Holy Father [reminds] isn’t a ‘country club for the perfect.’

The Church is the ‘hospital for the sick.’ And if you are sick, morally, or you are sick, spiritually, guess what: You are very much at home in the Church, because we all are. Now yours may be in kind of a dramatic area, where you are visibly at odds with the Church. You are still at home with us.  We’re going to try our best to maybe explain the wisdom of the Church. I true conversion of heart, we’re going to be there when you fail, and I say these to people: ‘Please, don’t feel excluded.’ Make sense?

ZENIT: If there were a change in which those who have been divorced or remarried could receive Communion, what would be your response to that? And also, from your experience, that of the American bishops?

Cardinal Dolan: Well, you know, who I hope you have a chance to speak with would be Archbishop Kurtz […] you did, did you? Good, as he’s really clear on this and he represents the bishops of the United States. He and I have spoken. He’s said to me: “Tim, do you agree that it’s the strong sentiment of our brother bishops that we need to stand firm to the Church’s teaching, while still being very compassionate with those who can’t live up to it … and, by also recommending, as part of the synod, that the Church would continue to refine and expedite the procedures that are already … where people who have had a failed marriage can seek some type of healing and justice, within the Church, and be allowed, and be allowed to enter into a new sacramental marriage. Not that this is… the extreme that we’ve got to avoid is that this becomes Catholic divorce. Without compromising our principles, our theology of the sacrament of marriage is so clear that when we know there’s an element that’s essential to the very nature of marriage, it was missing from the beginning, and if that can be shown with some clarity, then, that
person deserves the mercy of God and the ability to enter into a second marriage. That’s called the Decree of Nullity – as you know.

And the Church, especially in the last half century has had remarkable progress in opening other avenues, where that traditional, classical approach to God’s mercy can be achieved, and I’d like to see that, what I shall say that more expeditious path would even continue, and I think that could be a result of the synod.

ZENIT: What issue, according to you, was the most important to address at the synod? And do you believe there will be a change regarding it? Or that it will or has been addressed?

Cardinal Dolan: You know what, Deb, this might seem contradictory, but I think our most important message is that there can’t be a change. Our sensibility here is to give a ringing affirmation of the nobility, the sacredness, the majesty of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family.

We live in a culture and a world, Deb, that is saying: Can anybody say forever? Is love provisional or is love eternal? Are children a blessing to God that marital love would be always open to? Or are children a burden, somebody who satisfies our needs, instead of challenging us to take care of theirs? Those are questions that cultures are asking, and about the only, [little laugh] about the only recognizable organism, institution, in the world today that is saying, ‘You bet you can’ to every one of those questions is, Guess What, the one, holy, Catholic Apostolic Church. So our sacred responsibility is to reaffirm that. So not to talk about how we can change it, but how we can better affirm the changeless teaching of the Church to a world that is extraordinarily cynical and skeptical about the possibility of eternal, faithful, life-giving love.

ZENIT: And what is your biggest challenge in New York, in particular?

Cardinal Dolan: Probably, Deb, that people tend to see the Church as … Well, I don’t know how to say this. People, the perception is that the Church is always about saying no to stuff. And that’s the danger of the synod. Because they’ll say, ‘Once again, the Church has said ‘No to abortion,’ ‘No to same sex marriage,’ ‘No to contraception,’ ‘No to cohabitation.’

But that’s a caricature that is wrong. The Church is constantly saying, ‘Yes, Yes, Yes,’ to everything that is liberating, true, genuine, in the human condition. So we are saying, ‘Yes to eternal love,’ ‘Yes to new life,’ we’re saying, ‘Yes to the sexual expression of love between a man and woman in life-long, faithful, life-giving marriage.’ We are saying, ‘Yes to the very poetry that the relationship of a man and women in the sacrament of marriage that actually reflects the love that God has for us.’ We’re saying, ‘Yes to the idea that a family is the closest we come in this life to the blessed Trinity.’ And that’s where we’re saying yes too. We only say ‘No’ to something that might negate that. And a ‘No, to a No, is a Yes.” So, I guess if you ask you what is my greatest pastoral challenge, I guess it would be as how to recapture the extraordinarily affirming, healing, compassionate invitation and nature of the Church’s teaching.

ZENIT: And would you say ‘yes’ to the fact that Francis is following in line with his predecessor, Benedict?

Cardinal Dolan: Yes, in fact, get this, get this, Deb: One of the bishops, it was one of the more lighthearted moments at the synod, one of the bishops said, ‘Was anybody like me, here, in the 1984 synod?’. Knowing there weren’t many, he said, ‘Guess what the topic was? Marriage and Family,” and he said, ‘You know, the questions we were talking about then are the same questions we are speaking about now. A beautiful document of St. John Paul II followed, Familiars Consortium.’  So we are in line with tradition. None of this is new, Deb. We are in line with the Church. If you read the Acts of Apostles, if you read the Letters of St. Paul, you can see the Church has been meeting this challenge since Pentecost Sunday. How do we live up to the high demands about what he reveals for man and woman and marriage and family? How do we live up to those ideals? How do we transform culture and society and recall them to what God originally intended for us? That is the great pastoral challenge, not to change, not to dilute, not to compromise, but to hold up, without driving away.

ZENIT: May I ask who the bishop was?

Cardinal Dolan: I don’t think we’re supposed to say. Are you trying to put me on the spot? [Laughs]

ZENIT: No. As a good reporter, I had to ask.

Cardinal Dolan: At the end, I think all those things will come out. I hope.

ZENIT: Ok, Two final questions. Is there anything in the way the media has depicted you or what you have said or done at any point for which you would like to give clarification? 

Cardinal Dolan: Oh [laughs], oh ok. You know, Pope Saint John Paul II taught us that the New Evangelization is always a dare, and that we should never pass up the opportunity to speak the message of Jesus Christ, but we are always setting ourselves up for some misinterpretation. And I guess that’s going to happen. Well, you know Cardinal John O’Connor, my blessed predecessor, used to say, ‘If you bat 750 with the press, you’re doing pretty good.’

You are asking me if periodically I am quoted out of context, or if there’s something I’ve said, that I said, and afterword thought afterwards, ‘O Boy, I wish I wouldn’t have said it that way.”  “You bet. There are.”

But, in general, I don’t feel any regrets or feel any mistreatment, No.

ZENIT: Last question, why, according to you, must Pope Francis visit the United States, especially New York?

Cardinal Dolan: [laughing] Well, far be it for me to tell Him he needs to do anything, It’s his job to tell me that. But he’s the kind of Pope that says speak to me from your heart and speak honestly. And so, you know, I said, ‘Holy Father, we presume you want to come to the United States. It’s the third or fourth largest Catholic community in the world. So we are sure that that’s on your bucket list. And when you come, you do want to come to New York, because it’s kind of a microcosm of the Church of the United States. We also know he’s going to want to come because of the United Nations.

You might remember, Deb, that October 4, 2015, will be the 50th Anniversary of the visit of the soon-to-be Blessed Paul VI to the United Nations. This Pope is big into the history and the precedent. And he likes to do what his predecessors have done. So, I said, ‘By the way, Holy Father, this would be another’. Remember when he went to the Holy Land, remembering 50 years since Paul VI’s visit, and visiting with Patriarch Athenagoras. So I said, ‘Well, you may want to do that because Paul VI did it.’ So there you go. I am trying to get some hooks here. [laughing] 

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Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is Senior Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in 5 languages); Deborah is also NBC & MSNBC Vatican Analyst. She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, often from the Papal Flight (including for historic trips such as to Abu Dhabi and Japan & Thailand), and has also asked him questions on the return-flight press conference on behalf of the English-speaking press present. Lubov has done much TV & radio commentary, including for NBC, Sky, EWTN, BBC, Vatican Radio, AP, Reuters and more. She also has contributed to various books on the Pope and has written for various Catholic publications. For 'The Other Francis': or

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