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The Archbishop of Charm

If anyone can repair the church’s image, it’s Timothy Dolan. Except there are only so many nice ways to say no.

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The official residence of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, a mini-mansion improbably nestled behind the main sanctuary of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, is decorated largely in early Masterpiece Theatre style—thick red carpet, deep oak paneling, gilded frames, priceless antiques. Here, in the middle of midtown, everything is beautifully still. You can hear the grandfather clock ticking from the next room. A uniformed butler serves a glass of water on a gold-rimmed plate atop a sterling-silver platter.

Then, down the staircase bounds New York’s new archbishop, Timothy Dolan, red-faced and boisterous, who succeeded Cardinal Edward Egan in the post in April. “You want coffee? You want anything in it?” He is a glad-hander and a backslapper, a tall, energetic, portly Irish-Catholic lug who likes smoking cigars and sipping Jameson’s. He makes a point of saying he’d be far happier talking to me at a parish fish fry than here, jamming himself sideways into an ornate, narrow chair. And before long, Dolan is eagerly discussing some of the more controversial issues he’ll have to weigh in on—like gay marriage, blocked during the last legislative session in Albany but almost certain to be reintroduced. As early as his first week, he went on record saying he believed the union between a man and a woman was “hardwired” into us. Now, with a smile, he anticipates the question of where that leaves gay men and lesbians. “Do I hear you saying, ‘Well, if something’s hardwired into us, wouldn’t it be hardwired into them?’ ” he asks.

There is a narrow range of responses that contemporary Catholic leaders have made to a question like this—ranging from a 2006 conference of American bishops concluding that “homosexual acts … violate the true purpose of sexuality,” to the 1990 Catholic Encyclopedia’s declaration that being gay is “not a normal condition, the acts being against nature are objectively wrong.” Dolan goes in another direction. “I would say likewise hardwired into us is the desire for friendship and a desire for companionship,” he says. “And I think the church would say, ‘We must respect that.’ So we would not take that away from anybody, whatever their sexual preferences might be.”

Friendships of the sort that Dolan is describing—leaving aside any sexual component—are all right in his eyes, he explains, as long as they aren’t called a marriage. “We’re more into the defense of marriage itself,” he explains, “so that even though people would have the right to companionship, the right to marriage would only be, by its very definition, between a man and a woman.”

But now Dolan senses that he may have said something disappointing. So he strikes a conciliatory note. “It’s not that we’re saying, ‘You don’t have the right.’ We would say that if people feel that the concomitant rights of friendship and companionship are being violated—for instance, insurance coverage, or the ability of one to visit a sick partner—we would defend those rights. There are ways to ameliorate some of the disadvantages that same-sex couples feel without tampering with the very definition of marriage.”

That, I say, sounds a lot like domestic partnerships.

Dolan straightens up suddenly. “It does sound like that,” he says. “And thank you for pointing that out. Because I wouldn’t want to go there.”

It can’t be easy being leader of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York—expected to play creative defense on every issue that offends the sensibilities of the church, in a city closer to Sodom than to Eden. Yet there may be no religious posting in the United States as prominent or powerful, even today. True, much of the job, which involves serving some 3 million Catholics in 400 parishes from Staten Island to the Catskills, is administrative and ceremonial: There are budgets to balance, schools to run, Masses to lead. Nor is New York the largest American archdiocese; that honor goes to Los Angeles. Even so, the New York position is akin to being American pope. From their pulpits here, Cardinals Francis Joseph Spellman and Terence James Cooke shaped the national discourse. Spellman, who served 28 years, was a virulent anti-Communist and supporter of the Vietnam War; Cooke, who succeeded him in 1968, implemented more-progressive Vatican II reforms. The model of a modern New York cardinal, of course, was John Joseph O’Connor, who sparred jovially with Ed Koch and spoke out against abortion and for the rights of immigrants and the homeless. A polarizing figure, O’Connor nonetheless carved out space in the public sphere for a conversation about morality. He also brought a sense of excitement to the Catholic experience here, helping his diverse and disparate flock believe they were a part of something bigger than themselves.


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