Cardinal Dolan's Contraception Fight With Obama

Dolan says he might take drastic action on the Obamacare rules Allison Joyce / Reuters-Landov

Just inside the heavy front door of the 19th-century neo-Gothic mansion at 452 Madison Avenue, the official residence of Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York, rests a telling clue about the resident’s personality. Perched on a tray atop a side table in the entry hall is the scarlet red biretta placed on Dolan’s head by the pope last month when Dolan was elevated to the College of Cardinals in Rome. Next to it sits another scarlet hat—a ball cap bearing the insignia of Dolan’s beloved St. Louis baseball team. “I don’t know all the protocol,” Dolan says. “I was told I was supposed to place the Cardinal hat by the entrance, so …”

Dolan may have been reared in suburban St. Louis, but he was born for Broadway. An outsize personality of great mirth, and ample girth (“His Immensity,” the priests sometimes affectionately called him), Dolan became a celebrity the moment he arrived in New York, in 2009. The 10th archbishop of American Catholicism’s marquee archdiocese seemed to understand that New York would embrace a prelate who loved to crack wise, welcomed a media scrum, and didn’t have to fake an interest in the Bronx Bombers (the Yankees have asked him to throw out the first pitch on opening day).

Dolan seemed a balm for a Church wounded by scandal, divided within, and growing ever more testily distant from the surrounding culture. He is deeply orthodox, but his gift as a churchman has been an ability to present the faith without stridency, to pose the Church as humanity’s loving advocate, rather than as its judge. “We suffer from the caricature of always being this nagging, naysaying, condemning, shrill voice,” he says, “when really, the Catholic Church is at its best when she calls forth what is most noble and uplifting in the human project.” His brother bishops, in desperate need of an image boost, elected Dolan president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2010—making him the face of the American Church. Rome signaled its endorsement with Dolan’s elevation to cardinal at the first opportunity, giving him a vote in the selection of the next pope, and, technically, making him papabile—a potential candidate for the throne of St. Peter. That’s an unlikely prospect, but in terms of influence and prestige, if not actual ecclesial power, Dolan already is, in effect, something like America’s pope.

But precisely because of that role, Dolan now finds himself having to play against type, leading the high-stakes fight against the Obama administration’s mandate that employers provide insurance coverage for services and products the Church finds morally objectionable—including contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs. The battle, joined in January with the announcement of the policy, shows no sign of abating. In mid-March, the bishops’ group led by Dolan forcefully reasserted its position, declaring that opposition to the Obama regulation will be its top policy priority. In a conversation with Newsweek, Dolan himself made clear his commitment to the fight against what he called “an unwarranted, unprecedented, radical intrusion into the integrity of the church, the internal life of the church.”

Asked how far he would carry the battle, Dolan said that if the administration does not relax its rules for the Church and its affiliated institutions, he might resort to drastic action.

“I’m eager for some type of principled resolution,” he said. “But if forced to give up our work, or get out of them”—the running of Catholic schools, charities, and health facilities—“or do civil disobedience and pay the fines, those might be options that I’d have to look at rather than doing something that I find morally abhorrent.”

dolan-CO07-secondary Keehan: Obama’s go-to Catholic Alex Wong / Getty Images

Dolan insists that it’s not a fight he wanted. He arrived on the national stage with the reputation of a conciliator, one who believes that the church should not be in the business of weeding out those who dispute some of its teachings. As archbishop of Milwaukee, he disagreed with those bishops who advised punishment of politicians (by denial of holy communion or parishioners’ votes) who supported policies the church opposes. “Catholic bishops would unanimously agree in principle, and say abortion is wrong,” he says. “We would disagree on how best to teach that, and we would disagree on whether or not taking punitive measures against Catholic public officials who might have a stance at odds with the teaching of the church, how far we should go in punishing them. I would be one that would much prefer to sit down with people, to say, let’s sit down and talk about this, let me try to be a pastor first, let me try a conversion of heart.” Since Dolan’s rise in the national church, “wafer watches,” such as that to which John Kerry was subjected in his 2004 presidential run, have virtually vanished (much to the relief, perhaps, of Kathleen Sebelius, the Catholic secretary of Health and Human Services, and of Catholic governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Martin O’Malley of Maryland, who signed same-sex marriage legislation into law).

The cardinal’s conciliatory nature is attested to by even his key opponents in the current conflict, including Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association, who has been a reliable Obama ally in the health-care battles, and just as reliable an irritant to the bishops. “He is a good man,” Keenan says of Dolan. “I think he believes that the church is a big tent.” The White House considers Dolan a bishop it can do business with, and still hopes for some sort of compromise. Dolan says an accord may be possible, but not on the administration’s current terms. “The only thing the White House wants to talk about is some tinkering” with tangential issues, Dolan tells Newsweek. “That bothers me.”

The controversy over the Obama health-care mandates has already spilled over into presidential politics, to no one’s obvious advantage, and bears potential consequences for the November election. It may turn out that President Obama’s most formidable opponent next fall will not be the Republican nominee, but the jolly archbishop of New York. Dolan disavows any interest in partisan involvement, but he does note that concerned Catholics do have considerable political leverage. Although Obama easily carried the vote of self-described Catholics in 2008, his advantage among regular churchgoers was razor thin. “Churchgoing Catholics do feel strong about the pro-life issues,” says Dolan. “They also feel strong about the economic issues. And from what we’ve seen in the last three months, they feel very strong about religious freedom. Could those churchgoing, committed Catholics be enough of a swing vote in important states where there is a heavy Catholic population to throw the election one way or the other? They could be, yeah.”

In a sense, the fight over the contraception mandate has its roots in the old divide within the church that began with Vatican II, the ecumenical council convened by Rome in 1962 in the hope of reinvigorating the church. By the time the council concluded in 1965, the agenda had become full-scale reform, and the prevailing reformers imagined a thoroughgoing remaking of the church, informed by the contemporary culture. The progressive ideal, with its strong emphasis on social justice, dominated the American episcopacy for decades, largely shaped by the hand of Joseph Bernardin, the first head of the American bishops conference. Bernardin urged the church to follow “a consistent ethic of life,” by which he meant that Catholics should devote as much concern to such matters as tending to the poor and advocating for peace as they did to protecting the fetus in the womb. One expression of Bernardin’s vision came to life in his own archdiocese of Chicago, in the form of the Developing Communities Project, on the city’s impoverished South Side. In 1984, one of the project’s founders, a Saul Alinsky–trained organizer, traveled to New York and hired a young Columbia University graduate to run the operation. That is how Barack Obama, operating out of an office at the Holy Rosary Church on the South Side, began his career as a community organizer.

By then, among those in the church who believed that the reforms had gone off track was the charismatic Polish pope, John Paul II, and his right-hand man (and eventual successor), Joseph Ratzinger. They began a program of reinterpreting Vatican II, with an emphasis on evangelization, derived from a strongly held orthodoxy. A new generation of churchmen arose, deeply attached to the person, and the theology, of John Paul II, and began to assert itself inside the American church. One of them was Timothy Dolan, whose 1950s upbringing in the Holy Infant parish in Ballwin, Missouri, with its Irish nuns in the classrooms, and its robust community life, instilled in him a lasting vision of the faith as a joyous and liberating thing. “The church is about a yes,” he says. “And the only time she says no is when she detects something negating human dignity.”

These two wings of the church came together in the Oval Office last Nov. 8, when Obama invited Dolan to the White House to discuss the contraception regulations that his administration was drawing up. There had been a tense prelude. The bishops, despite having advocated for universal health care for a century, had vigorously opposed the final version of Obama’s reform because it did not include a specific provision excluding abortion from coverage. Obama and his congressional allies went around the bishops, working instead with sympathetic Catholic figures, especially Sister Keehan, who became the go-to Catholic in the frantic days leading to the passage of the bill. Keehan was given one of the signing pens as a thanks for her efforts.

Dolan saw it as a cynical political move on the president’s part, and a show of disrespect by Sister Keehan.

But going into that Oval Office meeting last November, the bishops had a lot at stake. They were partners with the government in many of their social projects, and heavily dependent upon government funding. Just a few weeks before the Oval Office meeting, the administration had relieved the conference of its role of overseeing relief for human-trafficking victims because Catholic workers wouldn’t refer victims to abortion or contraceptive services. Now, some bishops worried that many on Obama’s team viewed fundamental Catholic teaching on moral issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, as homophobic, sexist, even potentially illegal.

Dolan admits he felt awestruck about being in the Oval Office, and was impressed by the president; he left the meeting feeling reassured about the regulations. Obama told him, Dolan says, “that he would do nothing to impede the good work of the church in health care, education, and charity, and that he considered the protection of conscience a sacred duty.”

When Sebelius announced the regulations on Jan. 20, Dolan says he was shocked, and plainly felt betrayed. The only exemption from the administration’s mandate that employers provide contraception coverage was for actual houses of worship. To the church, this was a radical state intrusion, defining what constitutes an approved ministry. The move was an obvious overreach—even Sister Keehan called it a mistake—and Obama quickly retreated, and ordered a revision. Again the Obama team worked around the bishops, soliciting input from the influential Washington, D.C., nun. The result was the Feb. 10 “accommodation,” as the White House termed it, which shifted the responsibility for providing contraceptive services from employers to their insurers. Sister Keehan immediately endorsed the plan.

Obama telephoned Dolan on the morning he announced the plan. “I said to the president, ‘Sir, are you asking me my thoughts on this? Are you floating this to see if this will work? Or are you telling me this is your decision?’” Dolan recalls. “And he said, ‘The latter.’”

Dolan issued a statement calling the revision a good first step that required further reflection. By the end of the day, after hearing from his staff and fellow bishops, he’d concluded that Obama’s “accommodation” was a distinction without a difference. The shifting of responsibility from employers to insurers was just an accounting trick, Dolan said. Worse, the revision still allowed the government to decide which church-related entities counted as ministries, and didn’t provide an exemption for those entities that are self-insured, as many Catholic institutions are.

White House aides believed that compromise could be reached if Dolan involved himself in talks directly. Dolan says he is open to a resolution, but doesn’t believe it will come from the White House, which seems resolute on its narrow definition of ministries exempted from the mandate. Dolan says that help is likelier to come from Congress or the courts.

Meanwhile, Dolan and the bishops will step up a public-relations campaign that will include informational bulletins distributed in churches. Parishes will be encouraged to conduct voter-registration drives and independent activists, such as Deal Hudson, who helped Karl Rove corral the Catholic vote for George W. Bush, are already conducting outreach training sessions in battleground states. “Even though there are an array of issues that a thoughtful voter, informed by his or her Catholic faith will take into consideration, there are some premiere ones that are non-negotiable,” Dolan says. “And at the top of that would be the defense of the life of the baby in the womb.”

Dolan says that “it’s counterproductive” for church leaders to suggest voting for or against a particular candidate by name. “But, boy, we’ve gotta speak principles,” he adds. “And when you speak principles, usually people know who you’re talking about, when it’s so blatant.”

As his session with Newsweek neared conclusion, Dolan moved the conversation into a room toward the rear of the residence, near a back-door passageway leading to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. With the assistance of a priest, he began to don his vestments in preparation for a ceremony he was to conduct in the cathedral. As he fiddled with the buttons of his scarlet vest—“I’m still learning how to put on these duds”—he stood beneath the portrait of John Hughes, the first archbishop of New York.

It was a striking juxtaposition. Hughes, known as “Dagger John,” was a fiercely combative man, an Irish-born 19th-century crusader who fought nativist mobs and the Protestant establishment in New York at a time when public schools still taught that Catholicism was religious deviance. Before he died in 1864, Hughes laid the cornerstone of the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral, having never been described by the word “conciliatory.”

Nearly dressed, and ready to enter the cathedral, Dolan stood still as the priest draped a large gold pectoral cross around his neck. The cardinal adjusted the cross just below his heart, and asked, “You know who this belonged to?” He nodded up to the portrait of Hughes. “Dagger John,” he said.