Challenging a White House mandate for birth control coverage in health insurance, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan sounded like a general rallying the troops.
"The only thing we're certainly not prepared to do is give in," Dolan said at a national bishops' meeting last November. "We're not violating our consciences."
Weeks earlier, he had appeared in a far less formal setting, at New York's Fordham University with comedian Stephen Colbert. From the 3,000 cheering audience members, one student considering the priesthood asked whether he should date. Dolan said it could help decide the right path, then quipped, "By the way, let me give you the phone numbers of my nieces."
Catholic News Service calls him a happy warrior for evangelization. Kean University historian Christopher Bellitto calls him the bear-hug bishop. Dolan, 63, is an upbeat, affable defender of Catholic orthodoxy, and a well-known religious figure in the United States.
He holds a job Pope John Paul II once called "archbishop of the capital of the world." His colleagues broke with protocol in 2010 and made him president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, instead of elevating the sitting vice president as expected. And during the 2012 presidential election, Republicans and Democrats competed over which national political convention the cardinal would bless. He did both.
But scholars question whether his charisma and experience are enough for a real shot at succeeding Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The thinking ahead of the conclave is Dolan's chances are slim.
"It's not a personal attack on his qualities as a cardinal or individual," said Monsignor Michael Fahey, a scholar at Fairfield University in Conn. "Cardinal Dolan has a knack for getting people to feel relaxed and to laugh and to expect the unexpected, but that is not what the church needs right now."
Dolan spent seven years in Rome as rector of the North American College, considered the West Point for U.S. priests, where he had studied for his own ordination years earlier. However, he never worked in a Vatican office or congregation — experience that would have helped him develop ties with cardinals from other countries and raise his profile in a conclave.
Benedict made Dolan a cardinal just a year ago. Still, the former pope chose the New York archbishop for the honor of delivering a speech to other church leaders in Rome. His address on spreading the faith was highly praised, and he emerged as something of a star of the event, gaining mention in some Italian media as potentially "papabile," or having the qualities of a future pope.
No American has ever served as pontiff. Some cardinals express concerns a superpower pope and the potential for his actions to be viewed as serving the U.S. instead of the church.
Ahead of this conclave, church-watchers seem split over whether that old assumption still applies. Dolan's credentials as upholder of the faith have been especially burnished by the bishops' ongoing conflicts with President Barack Obama. Obama endorses same-sex marriage, supports abortion rights and included the birth control coverage rule in his health care overhaul.
However, Dolan speaks only halting Italian and a little Spanish, and no French or Latin, a huge drawback for a potential leader of a 1.2 billion-member global church. (By contrast, Benedict speaks eight or so languages.) The cardinal's informality and folksy vocabulary, which help make him so approachable in the United States, could actually undermine his chances in Rome. In recent comments about other challenges the church has survived, Dolan noted that some former popes have been "lemons." When taking the stage to greet Colbert, before about 3,000 cheering students, Dolan jokingly kissed Colbert's ring instead of shaking the comedian's hand.
Along with his humor, Dolan can artfully convey church teaching. He earned a doctorate in church history from The Catholic University of America and sprinkles his speeches with details of the early struggles Catholic immigrants trying to carve a place for themselves in Protestant America. Noting that secularism is growing in the U.S, he argues that broader society is in a "drive to neuter religion" and "push religion back into the sacristy." On his blog, "The Gospel in the Digital Age," Dolan writes on a wide range of issues, from gun control to abortion to the future of Catholic schools.
A St. Louis native of Irish ancestry and the oldest of five children, Dolan began his path to the priesthood as a boy. He said he would set up cardboard boxes with sheets to make a play altar in the basement. He attended a seminary prep school in Missouri and by 1985 earned his doctorate. After working as a parish priest, professor and seminary leader, he served briefly as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of St. Louis before John Paul appointed him in 2002 as archbishop of Milwaukee, which serves about 675,000 parishioners. In 2009, Benedict appointed Dolan archbishop of New York, the nation's second-largest archdiocese after Los Angeles, serving about 2.5 million Catholics.
Like every U.S. bishop in recent years, Dolan has had to grapple with fallout from the clergy sex abuse scandal.
Dolan's predecessor in Milwaukee, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, who had been planning to retire, left abruptly after news broke that the archdiocese had paid a $450,000 settlement to a man claiming Weakland tried to sexually assault him. Weakland admitted an "inappropriate relationship" but denied abuse.
In 2004, Dolan publicly released the names of Milwaukee diocesan priests who had been accused of molesting children. However, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said he said he didn't work closely enough with civil authorities to also identify accused clergy from religious orders.
Days before Dolan left for the conclave, he sat for a deposition with attorneys for people who said they had been abused as children by clergy working in the Milwaukee archdiocese. Dolan's successor in Milwaukee sought bankruptcy protection for the archdiocese from 570 abuse claims. Advocates for victims have accused Dolan of having tried to shield the Milwaukee archdiocese assets, in part by transferring millions of dollars several years ago into a cemetery trust fund and a parish fund. Dolan denies the accusation.
On the final day of Benedict's pontificate, Dolan stood with seminarians on the roof of the North American College and waved as a helicopter flew overhead, carrying the departing pope to what will be his temporary retirement home, the papal retreat in Castel Gandolfo. In his trademark way, he put any talk of his elevation aside, by recalling a conversation with his mother.
She told him, "You better be back in time for St. Patrick's Day because I want to walk down Fifth Avenue with you in the parade."
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