When New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan was made a cardinal on Feb. 18, he acquired no new ecclesiastical authority—although he is now one of the 120 men with the right to vote for the next pope. But in becoming a cardinal, the famously gregarious Dolan has finally established himself as America’s most important churchman.
In 2009, Dolan was named archbishop of New York, giving him the most prominent pulpit in the media capital of the world. In 2010, his brother bishops elected him president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the organization through which the bishops conduct their relations with the federal government. This trifecta of appointments places Dolan at the top of the Catholic world in the U.S. at a critical time for the church and its relationship to the surrounding culture.
The Catholic hierarchy is only just emerging from the child-sex-abuse scandal, which has cost it millions of dollars in settlements and a great deal of moral capital with its own flock. The demographic face of the Catholic Church is also changing rapidly. Catholicism remains the largest denomination in the country, largely because of the influx of Latino immigrants. (Dolan took an immersion course in Spanish shortly after he arrived in New York.)
As president of the USCCB, Dolan has been at the forefront of the recent battle with the White House over health-care mandates. That fight saw the conservative bishops and many prominent liberal Catholics united against the president (at least until the birth-control “accommodation” announced Feb. 10), but the polarization of the nation’s political life has nonetheless seeped into the church. “Cardinal Dolan has always been able to navigate this somehow,” says Stephen Schneck, professor of politics at Catholic University. “Maybe it’s his historical perspective that lends him such sure-footedness.”
Dolan’s background as a historian separates him from other bishops, most of whom have degrees in theology or canon law. In his inaugural address as president of the USCCB, Dolan displayed some of the equanimity he learned from history. After listing a number of challenges facing the bishops, he told them, “As Monsignor John Tracy Ellis used to introduce his courses on church history, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, be prepared to discover that the Mystical Body of Christ has a lot of warts.’?”
History also provides lessons. Dolan wrote his doctoral dissertation on Archbishop Edwin O’Hara of Oregon, who in the 1920s had to contend with a Ku Klux Klan–backed proposal that all children attend public schools, effectively closing Catholic schools. O’Hara understood that if he denounced the measure as anti-Catholic, many would take it as a compliment. So, instead, he called it an un-American attack on religious freedom. Sound familiar?
John L. Allen Jr., author of a book-length interview with Dolan, A People of Hope, agrees that Dolan’s historical training is key to understanding him. “There are three parts of his personality,” Allen says. “One is the guy who just got off the phone with a Catholic neoconservative. Another is the guy who believes all evangelization happens best at a BBQ in his uncle’s backyard. And the third is someone who takes the long view and is not overly flustered by the ups and downs of the moment.”
Dolan is fast becoming the face of Catholicism in America, just as Jerry Falwell was for white evangelicals. But unlike Falwell, Dolan isn’t tied to a narrow ideological framework imposed by biblical fundamentalism, and he isn’t a culture warrior. In his struggles with the Obama administration, Dolan isn’t looking for a war, but he is looking for a win.
Michael Sean Winters’s God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right has just been published.