It was no accident that Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan visited St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., during his first hours on the ground in the archdiocese of some 2.5 million parishioners that, beginning next month, he will lead. Earlier, at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, he told a news conference that increasing priestly vocations was his "first mandate." In archbishop-speak, this means he has his marching orders from Rome.
His task won't be easy. Vocations are way down. St. Joseph's will ordain three priests this year, compared with the 30 or more who were ordained yearly at the high-water mark during the 1960s. To make matters worse, influential dissenters within the church are heavily invested in the archbishop's failure.
Advocates for married priests and the ordination of women have not gone away, and they have made it an article of their particular faith that celibacy and an all-male priesthood are at the root of all church problems, from declining attendance at Mass to the sexual abuse of minors. They have been frozen out of the leadership ranks since John Paul II, the current pope's predecessor, was elected in 1978, but they have "burrowed in" and are thriving at Catholic universities and even a few seminaries. Some, like theologian Richard McBrien, of the University of Notre Dame, have even carved a part-time career out of contradicting the Vatican in the media. In recent weeks he has been quoted twice by the New York Times, criticizing church efforts to revive the sacramental confession of sins.
Nevertheless, Archbishop Dolan has something of a track record as a shepherd of new seminarians. His current, much smaller, archdiocese of Milwaukee will ordain six priests this year -- the most since 1992. The Milwaukee seminary expects to meet or exceed that number in coming years, based on the number of men in its pipeline. Archbishop Dolan also spent seven years as rector of the North American College in Rome, where clerical highfliers are sent for advanced study and grooming. He has written a book full of spiritual advice for aspiring clergymen, "Priests for the Third Millennium," which has been used as a textbook in seminaries. But, above all, the people who know him well say that Archbishop Dolan's charisma and ebullience -- in sharp contrast to the reticent manner of Cardinal Edward M. Egan, the current archbishop of New York -- are bound to be a shot in the arm for the church in its efforts to attract the next generation of clerics.
The viability of a celibate male priesthood is a centerpiece of the agenda first promoted by John Paul II that continues under Benedict XVI. It is an agenda designed to restore the teaching authority (magisterium) of the pope, provide doctrinal clarity and unity, and put an end to the deviations and diversions that sprang up in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. While John Paul and Benedict, until 2005 known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, never publicly criticized Vatican II itself, they clearly took a dim view of the interpretation of the council's work by the church's left wing. "Liberation theology," which was often indistinguishable from Marxism, was the first trend to be squelched. Advocacy for women priests and married priests, and calls for doctrinal change that would better reflect secular society's norms -- on issues such as abortion or same-sex unions -- have been discouraged and resisted at every level. Because personnel moves are policy decisions in any large organization, the past two popes have been scrupulous in appointing bishops with orthodox views. So much so that Father McBrien has stated that John Paul's "most serious deficiency" was "the poor quality" of the bishops he appointed.
It's not always easy to get the balance right in matters of authority and tradition, as the Vatican discovered recently when it badly fumbled an effort to bring some right-wing rebels back into the fold, including one who had denied the Holocaust. And the almost incalculable institutional damage done by the clerical sex scandal also has emboldened the church left and, more important, created a serious credibility problem with people still in the pews. That so much of the criminality occurred decades ago is hardly a defense or a comfort to the many victims. It will be years before the scandal recedes, and it can't be an easy time to be recruiting for the priesthood anywhere in the U.S.
One trend favoring the traditionalists -- often overlooked in the media but much remarked upon in church circles -- is the apparent orthodoxy of the young priests who are being ordained these days. In contrast to the stereotypical generational split that has older people favoring conservative views and the young advocating change, younger priests often tend to be more in tune with Rome than some of their elders were and are. It's not entirely clear why this is, but observers have suggested that the older generation identified so closely with Vatican II that it has had difficulty adjusting to the leadership of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The youngsters, in fact, have been described as the "John Paul" generation in church publications. Like the Marines, they may be few but they evidently are proud.
Still, there is a great deal riding on one obviously affable Irish-American from Milwaukee who appears as comfortable talking sports stats as vocations. Based on reports from the field, Archbishop Dolan will be a conciliator who knows where to draw the line. In an email he once sent his priests in Milwaukee, he said he would support the appearance of most speakers at parishes even if they weren't his "cup of tea," but he made clear that Marquette University theologian Daniel C. Maguire, a pro-choice former priest, was off the list. Mr. Maguire, he noted, was "so radically outside church teaching that his appearance at any parish would be a grave scandal."
Mr. Maguire recently returned the compliment in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, declaring Archbishop Dolan a "backslapping autocrat." Autocrat or not, if he can turn the New York program around in coming years, Rome will be pleased and Rome's dissidents will be stymied.
Mr. Willcox is a writer in Ridgefield, Conn.