The Political Education of Timothy Dolan

Surely Timothy Cardinal Dolan didn’t expect to find himself the central character in a high-stakes political drama when Pope Benedict XVI tapped him to come to New York from Milwaukee, or when his brother bishops elected him president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But that’s just where he found himself earlier this year when the Obama administration announced its decision to force all employers, including those with religious objections, to provide employees with insurance coverage for birth control, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs.

It’s been a bloody business. In the blink of an eye, the Left has executed a campaign to define the Church as a ridiculous and backward institution. They have controlled the terms of the debate by establishing a false narrative, manipulating their allies in the media, and casting both the bishops and a prominent Catholic presidential candidate as clowns and worse.

Cardinal Dolan, meet Saul Alinsky.

It’s fair to call Alinsky the second-most-famous Chicago-based community organizer in history. His 1971 political masterpiece, Rules for Radicals, provided the blueprint for the Obama way of politics. Among the most well-known of his rules is this: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. The assault on religious freedom and the Catholic Church has unfolded almost exactly along these lines. Let’s go one-by-one.

Pick the target. You don’t have to be a Nobel Prize winner to guess that a reelection strategy based on Obama’s handling of the economy was not on the cards. Moreover, the president’s advisers must have calculated that playing defense against attacks on his unpopular healthcare reform was not a winner either. Like anyone with time to prepare for an unavoidable fight, the Obama campaign team wanted to engage the enemy on favorable terrain. His strategists think if they can paint the Republican field as aspiring theocrats intent on meddling in people’s sex lives then the mere sight of Rick Santorum will make the public want to throw up. And it’s working.

Even those with no interest in the primary race have picked up on the administration’s preferred narrative: They are coming for your birth control. Target acquired.

Freeze it. This was easy enough. The media is staffed almost exclusively by progressive fellow-travelers. Asking for their assistance was probably not even necessary. The media is like a flock of monarch butterflies migrating to ancestral homelands without need of maps. Its receivers are tuned exclusively to the frequencies of the Democratic Party. Flip a switch, and George Stephanopoulos sprouts wings and takes flight toward a distant mountaintop: “Governor Romney, do states have the right to ban contraception? Or is that trumped by a constitutional right to privacy?”

The question seemed oddly peripheral when the former Clinton adviser asked it at a debate on January 7. Less so two weeks later when Obama’s Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced the administration’s contraception mandate. Target frozen.

Personalize it. By defining the issue in terms of contraception as opposed to religious freedom, the fight has personalized itself. Birth control is a personal topic. Most everyone has an opinion on it.

Polls assert that a majority of Americans use it or have used it, and Democrats are banking that this will lend itself to the effort to paint Catholic bishops as hopelessly out-of-step. Target personalized.

Polarize it. The last few months have proved that the authors of the Obama reelection strategy are not above undermining the constitution or destroying American civil society in furtherance of their campaign goals. The groundwork has been laid. From now until November, the task is merely to increase the pressure, bang the drum harder, make the bishops and their flock seem weirder and weirder. Reluctant warriors such as jolly Cardinal Dolan, they assume, will be ill-matched against such sophisticated operators.

“Can you believe these Republican characters, always talking about sex when the economy is falling apart?” Target polarized.

Poor Cardinal Dolan. If he didn’t realize it then, he surely realizes it now: He has been handed the reins of the American Catholic Church just at the moment of its greatest peril. It appears he is beginning to appreciate how serious the danger is. Just last week he told his brother bishops in a letter, “We have made it clear in no uncertain terms to the government that we are not at peace with its invasive attempt to curtail the religious freedom we cherish as Catholics and Americans.”

By Dolan’s own admission, this is something of a departure. “We did not ask for this fight, but we will not run from it,” he wrote.

The bad news for Dolan is this: He is up against geniuses, political geniuses at least. The good news? Jesus was himself a radical. Dolan and the bishops have their own book of rules to guide them.



  1. Matthew,

    Stumbled upon this blog. Insightful analysis, brilliantly written. If you bent left you’d be a guest on the talk shows… Too bad but Am looking forward to more. Thanks for sharing!

%d bloggers like this: