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Cardinal Dolan's Blackmail for Jesus: The Empire Strikes Back

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If Timothy Dolan, president of the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) and cardinal of the Archdiocese of New York, is to be believed, he's ready to sacrifice the poor -- many of whom are elderly, juvenile, disabled and infirm -- in Christ's name, for the greater good of wining the war against contraception.

Let's go to the Martin Bashir video tape!

Dolan has put us on notice. He may be forced to "limit" support to the impoverished, homeless and hungry in the interest of "religious freedom" for himself and the small percentage of Roman Catholics who share his views on birth control.

How might this "Blackmail for Jesus" strategy unfold in the city Dolan now calls home?

The cardinal would do well to cut smart as he obtains his pound of flesh.

In the tirade at hand, for example, Dolan mentions schools. If he were to close Catholic schools and slash their budgets, he would be hacking away at a system that's already been worked over, kicking schools while they're down. Many Catholic schools have been closed or "merged" with one another in recent years. Morale in many New York parish schools is already poor. And even in the Sodom and Gomorrah of New York City, it is in parochial and diocesan Roman Catholic schools that the seeds for lockstep Catholicism are best sown. Catholic schools keep "cradle Catholics" in the fold. They condition Catholic children to stick with the church, to be tenacious and patient with the church even when the loyalty (loyalty I happen to possess!) brings disgrace.

These schools are the bishops' best bet for ensuring the preservation of "old school" Roman Catholicism which holds fast to the anti-gay, anti-Semitic, anti-woman, anti-sex ethos promulgated by the Magisterium. Keeping New York City Catholic schools flush does not guarantee the bishops new generations of cookie-cutter Catholics as it often does in other parts of the country; but when it comes to large-scale Catholic indoctrination in New York, K-12 Catholic education is still the only game in town.

On the other hand, what kind of Catholics might we expect to find teaching racially diverse populations of students, Catholic and not, often in low income neighborhoods, for low pay? Progressive minded do-gooders, that's whom.

Many educators working in New York City parish and diocesan schools could earn thrice what they currently earn were they to forsake costly and otherwise taxing life in the great metropolis, but they see both Catholic "formation" and creating justice for the poor as essential to their Roman Catholic lives. Whether they are "out" about their religious politics in a "don't' ask don't tell" professional world in which their livelihoods often depend upon their silence on issues matters Catholic and controversial, teachers working in Catholic schools in New York City are more likely to be of the Catholic Worker persuasion than of the Knights of Columbus variety.

Although in affluent white areas of the U.S. Catholic schools do often function as bastions of white, right-wing indoctrination, these too do a solid job educating students in the three Rs at a fraction of what public school systems spend per child. Roman Catholic schools in New York have excelled at teaching the poor to read, write and think, and in my opinion, our Catholic school systems (under the Brooklyn/Queens and New York dioceses) offer some of the the best models for affordable, un-segregated education that can be found anywhere in New York City. It is for this reason that if Dolan's crusade for "religious freedom" should demand that he "limit" support to those his dioceses currently helps, he will probably find a way to spare the schools.

If the cardinal's "Blackmail for Jesus" plan leads him to "86" programs that feed the hungry (off the menu), Dolan could forfeit the last remnants of positive public relations the church in New York still manages to retain. By "limiting" help for the indigent (while funneling cash into lobbying against women's health care coverage -- during a recession!) Dolan will strip away the very aspect of the church that keeps the roughly 85 percent of Catholics who support the use of contraception (still) identifying as Roman Catholic.

When we (the church) abandon the poor, we cut Christ out of the equation.

If he is smart, Dolan's moral austerity plan will target elderly Catholics. Here's why. As anyone who attends weekday morning mass (I often do) knows, aged Catholics tend not to challenge the bishops. Those who are elderly now came of age before the second Vatican Council convened. They don't challenge papal authority so strenuously as younger Catholics do. They are conventionally pious. They near death and grapple with infirmity. They need -- and deserve -- the solace the church at its best is capable of delivering.

If the the pontiff's man in the Apple should find that he has no choice but to to relieve elderly Catholics of their emergency beans for the greater good of Mother Church, there will be no "Occupy Holy Hour." The over-70 set will go gently into enough into the good night -- and with Dolan's blessing. These elder angels will go so far as to forgive the cardinal too, because although the New York's top priest can cut Christ out of the operations over which the hierarchs preside, Dolan's got his work cut out for him if he thinks he'll be able to resect the Christ from the hearts of devout old-timers. In this surgical strike, New York's cardinal hasn't a prayer.

The children, out of whose mouths the hotdog-loving cardinal would take food in Christ's name, are a different story. Like their aged counterparts, they lack a voice. But discouraging contraception among the poor while refusing to feed their hungry babies is not good for the Roman Catholic Church's image, even if God seems to like the idea.

Poor parents of children sacrificed in the war against contraception are not so likely to extend unconditional forgiveness to bishops who would trade the health of their "post-born" children for the theoretically greater good of the "pre-born."

If Dolan's "Blackmail for Jesus" plan has him "limiting" services to needy children, he will lose whatever chance he might have had (I never thought he had a chance) of becoming the first American pope. Does Dolan want to be remembered as the cardinal who took food from children living in poverty during an economic recession amid a juvenile clerical sexual rape scandal to make a point about "religious freedom?" Nah. He wants to be charming.

The immigration piece is complicated, too. Why? Two reasons, one noble and the other self-serving: Catholics who work as advocates on behalf of the undocumented believe that borders should have no bearing on an individual's right to work and eat. Catholics who work with immigrant New Yorkers see their efforts on behalf of the undocumented as a facet of Christ's work on earth. Even some Catholics in miters see it this way too.

Really, the official position of Catholic Church leadership on immigration is more Obama than Romney, and Dolan and his ilk recognize that there is much to be gained (on this side of eternity) by bringing immigrants into parish life. The New York Archdiocese has learned the hard way, from its past complacence in this, not to assume that Catholic immigrants will stay Roman Catholic. In New York City, the Protestant Evangelicals have put the fear of God into the Catholic bishops, who now recognize that providing shelter, food, clothing and legal help to immigrants is a good investment. Newcomers who establish themselves in New York City with the help of Catholic agencies become compliant and often even devout Roman Catholics.

On the other hand, the cardinal's Protestant comrades on the right outside of New York -- the anti-gay and anti-abortion evangelicals -- do not share the Roman Catholic bishops' all-God's-children style of openness to people who cross the border illegally. "Limiting" aid to immigrants would win Dolan support among the "Bring your guns to church/God hate fags" set. If the cardinal were truly interested in ingratiating himself to the fundamentalist Romney supporters (See "The Bishops v. Obama: Campaigning for Mitt,") making immigrants martyrs in his "Blackmail for Jesus" campaign would be a good very way to go.

I've been involved in a few different Roman Catholic-sponsored Social Justice programs for 12 years. Although even our greatest critics will admit that we New York Catholics have a fine track record in supporting New York City's homeless, hungry, infirm, aged, incarcerated and undocumented, but Catholics don't have a monopoly on this work. Half of the social justice work I currently do is sponsored by a Reform Jewish Temple.

If Timothy Dolan were to move forward with his "Blackmail for Jesus" plan, people of all faiths and no religious faith would step up. They would take on those the cardinal would abandon in Christ's name.

Individuals who minister to the indigent, disabled, aged, poor and infirm don't care whether what house of worship supplies the spare room or folding chairs. They don't care what, if any, religious affiliation their clients have. Most of those working at places like Catholic Charities in New York City have no stake in promoting the expansion of an empire. They're too busy trying to build a City of God.

Still, if Dolan does pull the trigger on his "Blackmail for Jesus" retaliation plan, the effects, for those who need Catholic agencies most, will be catastrophic in the short term.

But 60 percent of the Catholic Charities' organization's funding already comes from the government. Much of the other 40 percent comes from corporations with no religious affiliation. I believe the public will respond as it did when Planned Parenthood lost its federal funding in February of 2011, by compensating. The bishops get more than they give from Catholic Charities. The work on behalf of the poor constitutes the bishops' best -- and maybe last -- claim to moral authority. If, in his colossal petulance, Dolan decides carry out his threat to "limit" outreach to the poor, he will be cutting off his nose to spite his jolly red face.