The Cardinal Sees Red

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter J. Boyer

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 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. …