10/15/2012 05:24 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

Cardinal Dolan Misses the Point

St. Francis of Assisi brought fire to earth. He was a man who kissed lepers, the outcasts of medieval society. Lepers, in Francis' world, lived in encampments on the margins of towns, ringing bells, warning the healthy of their presence, announcing their uncleanness in mournful tones. They were easy prey for the criminal element, or even for local rulers who wanted scapegoats. Some lepers were buried alive, just for sport.

And Francis knelt and kissed them. He embraced them, he loved those whom none could love. And what does that mean in our context? Francis touched the great untouchables -- the schizophrenic homeless, who wander our streets, mumbling their strange hallucinations; convicts rotting in spirit and mind in our supermax prisons, deprived of every elemental decency, even fresh air and natural light; the prostitutes and drug addicts; America's flotsam and jetsam, those whose lives are not profitable and whose existences are disposable by the terms of late modern capitalism.

Francis loved the poor. He ardently believed and taught that those who had nothing more closely resembled Christ. And he wanted to be one of them. He renounced all earthly possessions, even the bread he ate and the ground he slept upon. Jesus practiced absolute poverty, total self-denial, placing his reliance entirely in the hands of a provident God. So, too, would Francis, the perfect imitatio Christi.

Francis despised pride. He had contempt for worldly things. And when he thought pride might get the better of him, or his listeners, he would strip off his clothes and preach naked. Humility. We are never so humble as when we stand naked before the world. This was another of St. Francis's lessons.

These thoughts occurred to me when I read Timothy Cardinal Dolan's message on the Feast of St. Francis in "Catholic New York." For Cardinal Dolan has succeeded in writing an essay on St. Francis that never identifies with the marginalized, brushes quickly past the poor, and does not take up humility (See Timothy M. Dolan, "Cherished Saint Brought Christ to World Around Him," "Catholic New York," Oct. 4, 2012).

What does Cardinal Dolan address instead? The budget deficit. "I am bothered by the prospect of this generation leaving a mountain of unpayable debt to its children and grandchildren." He worries about "debt service."

It is good to pay your bills. But questions about whether to pursue budgetary austerity or Keynesian stimulus are simply not Franciscan in tone or temper. They are matters for prudential judgment, questions best left in the hands of experts. I am a Paul Krugman-reading ultra-Keynesian. Cardinal Dolan may follow some other school of thought. And St. Francis would justly ask, what does this have to do with the poverty of Christ?

Cardinal Dolan fears for the political process. He worries that it is coming "increasingly [to] resemble reality TV shows." And that is a fear I share. My concern, though, goes beyond the simple vacuity of politicians mouthing their sanitized promises. The flood of unregulated money into politics is certainly distorting the process, if not irredeemably corrupting it. When a candidate's anonymous backers can flood the air waves with hundreds of millions of dollars to influence an election's outcome, it is time to ask, in Cicero's famous aphorism, "cui bono?" -- "Who benefits?" Would that Cardinal Dolan had moved beyond a bland and anodyne pox on both houses and asked such a question as that.

Cardinal Dolan frets that "we're at times more willing to cut programs to help the sick, our elders, the hungry and the homeless, than expenditures on Drone missiles." A single sentence, in a two-page document, spoken like a true interest-balancing, finger-to-the-wind politician. We must balance solicitude with the poor with our national-defense needs. No evidence of St. Francis here. Where is the preferential option for the poor, the solidarity with the marginalized?

Finally, of course, the good Cardinal is concerned with abortion. And that is an entirely proper concern for an Archbishop and Cardinal. Like Cardinal Dolan, I am pro-life. Unlike him, however, I have lost faith in three decades' worth of broken promises by the Republican Party to reverse Roe v. Wade. If we are not to have yet another 30 years' worth of sweet nothings, if the pro-life cause is not finally to be washed away by the tide of advancing history, it must become bipartisan.

And before the pro-life movement can become bipartisan, it must first become less partisan. As a first step, Catholic bishops would do well not to issue letters that read like tedious, second-order Republican Party talking points. (And lest pro-lifers think Mitt Romney stands with them, they should consider that he is already promising voters that he will not change the abortion law if elected. See Steve Peoples, "Romney Promises No Abortion Legislation," Yahoo! News, Oct. 10, 2012).

When I read Cardinal Dolan's message, I wept for St. Francis. Cardinal Dolan has domesticated this great Saint, tamed this wild man, reduced him from a radical, destabilizing force of nature into the patron saint of household pets -- the guardian of safely neutered kittens, paper-trained puppies, and gerbils and guinea pigs everywhere.

But I also weep for my Church. For I know that as I write this, Cardinal Dolan is in Rome, participating in the Synod on the New Evangelization. And there is nothing in his Oct. 4 letter that is remotely evangelizing. It is a clerk's report, nothing else. It converts no souls, saves no lives, appeals neither to heart nor mind. It is dull when it is not deadening.

Daniel Burnham, the great city planner of Chicago, once mused, "Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men's blood." Like St. Francis, I want the fire. I want to be stirred. The times call for passion. And so does the witness of Christ. Dream big, Your Eminence, dream big.