Thursday, October 31, 2002

Meat-and-Potato Catholics
This is from the October 2002 issue of First Things.

(The following report is submitted by our ubiquitous correspondent George Weigel.)

Outraged commentary quickly followed Bishop Timothy M. Dolan’s June 25 remark that his first priority as the tenth Archbishop of Milwaukee would be to talk with those “meat-and-potato Catholics” who are “the strength of any diocese.” Bishop Dolan, whose fondness for the table is not entirely disguised by clerical black, made the comment at a press conference introducing him to his new archdiocese, where he was to be installed on August 28.

Meeting in emergency session, the executive committee of the Catholic Theological Society of America adopted a resolution condemning Dolan’s “insensitivity to our animal companions” and asserting that vegetarianism was “the more excellent way of Christian nutrition.” The Society noted that it had banned steaks from its banquet menus for decades, substituting tofu salads as “more responsive to the moral demands of sustainable development,” a point argued in the Society’s study of eco-ethics, “People Are the Problem.”

In a signed editorial in the liberal Catholic magazine Commonwealth, editor Margaret McGillicuddy Steinflyte claimed that Bishop Dolan’s statement of priorities was “redolent of the boys’ locker-room ambiance of this pontificate.” A “preferential option for ‘meat-and-potato Catholics,’” Ms. Steinflyte claimed, would “disenfranchise” those hundreds of “brie-and-chardonnay, spirit-of-Vatican II Catholics” who form the core of her magazine’s regular readership. In a separate article in the same issue, Commonwealth columnist Paul Bauhaus suggested that the “extravagant carnality” of “Bishop Dolan’s gustatory imagery” and its “attempt to sacramentalize a body function, eating” was in fact a “sly strategy” for “sneaking John Paul II’s theology of the body” into an archdiocese where it was hitherto unknown—“which has certainly been a blessing for Milwaukee.”

A close student of the American hierarchy, Father Thomas Reach, S.J., told the Washington Post that, while it was customary for a “hefty bishop” to follow a “lean bishop” in Milwaukee, he was concerned that Bishop Dolan’s reference to “meat-and-potato Catholics” would “reinforce Milwaukee’s image as a stolid, bowling-alley town—an image my colleagues at Marquette, a university in the Jesuit tradition, have worked so hard to erase.” Moreover, Fr. Reach noted, to “lay such stress on meat and potatoes” was “pastorally insensitive,” given Milwaukee’s “longstanding commitment to frozen custard as the signature local dish.” “Bishop Dolan’s claim to be a man of tradition is somewhat questionable, given his failure to even mention frozen custard at his inaugural press conference,” said Fr. Reach.

Criticism was also heard from Catholic commentators in the secular press. In a bitter attack on Bishop Dolan, James Careall, the Boston Globe columnist, argued that “meat-and-potatoes Catholicism” is inherently anti-Semitic, “as John Chrysostom made unmistakably clear in his fourth-century sermon on Acts 9:9-16.” Veteran Washington Post columnist Mary McGrouchy wrote in a more elegiac mode. “With John XXIII and the Kennedy White House, we thought, we prayed, that we had put ‘meat-and-potatoes Catholicism’ behind us,” Ms. McGrouchy reminisced. “When will Catholicism in America develop even a surface level of sophistication?”

Maureen Dowdy was in a less gentle mood on the New York Times op-ed page. “Bishop Dolan’s adolescent wisecrack is of a piece with President Bush’s fondness for cowboy boots. When are these guys going to grow up?” Following a pattern established in the first months of 2002 on the Times’ op-ed page, Bill Killerbee took Ms. Dowdy one better, with a biting critique of Dolan’s “slash-and-burn ecclesiastical style, reminiscent of such scoundrels of Catholic history as Torquemada and Pope John Paul II.”

This firestorm of deprecation was challenged by Stanislaw Miesozerny, a cattle and dairy farmer in Dodge County, northwest of Milwaukee. “I think what Bishop Dolan said is great,” Mr. Miesozerny, a 1962 Marquette University philosophy major, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Everyone who studies the Summa understands that beef cattle achieve the ‘final end’ of their existence as New York Strips at the Outback. That’s just good Thomism.”

“Besides,” he continued, “these vegans want us to abstain from all milk products. And you know what that means for Wisconsin. I’m looking forward to Archbishop Dolan endorsing our campaign to change Wisconsin’s license-plate slogan. ‘America’s Dairyland’ is a little lame. My meat-and-potatoes Catholic friends think it ought to be ‘Eat Cheese or Die.’”

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