To much of the country, Cardinal Timothy Dolan has been the conservative face of the American hierarchy, the happy warrior with a big pulpit who led the American bishops during their toughest battles with the Obama administration over contraception policies and gay rights.
But in his own backyard, the current archbishop of New York is much more of a mediating figure, seen as a community leader as well as a churchman. In recent weeks, he’s increasingly stepped up to help ease the festering racial and political tensions between the police and the people, and even between the police and Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“Historically, the archbishop of New York has been an important civic figure,” said Paul Moses, a journalism professor at Brooklyn College and Catholic writer whose latest book is “An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians.”
After a decade in which Dolan’s predecessor, Cardinal Edward Egan, focused on church administration and avoided the political spotlight, Dolan’s 2009 appointment was aimed at “restoring that role,” Moses said.
It’s a challenging task, to say the least. Dolan has been deeply involved in peacemaking efforts since July, when an African-American man, Eric Garner, died after a white officer used a chokehold to subdue Garner for selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island street.
Anger over Garner’s death inflamed long-standing racial grievances with police, and in August, at the request of the mayor, Dolan hosted a meeting of faith leaders to try to mitigate the passions and head off violence at planned protests.
The situation worsened, however, in the wake of the protests spawned by the August death of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
The controversial decision not to bring charges in Brown’s death, followed by a widely criticized decision in early December not to charge the officer in the Garner case, sparked further protests and scattered violence. The Garner case sent relations between city officials and the police to their lowest level in decades.
When a disturbed man from Baltimore with a long criminal record arrived in Brooklyn on Dec. 20 and ambushed officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos as they sat in their patrol car, shooting both of them dead, the city seemed on the brink of disaster.
In an evocative homily in St. Patrick’s Cathedral the day after the Liu and Ramos murders, at a Mass attended by the mayor and top NYPD officials, Dolan spoke powerfully of his own anguish and his efforts to console the police, but also of his “worry about a city tempted to tension and division” and the need to rise above that moment.
Those were the sort of notes Dolan has struck in various venues in these past months, issuing statements with other religious leaders—including the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is widely disliked by police and their allies — but also speaking on his own to scold both sides in this civic standoff.
In a Daily News column in December, Dolan blasted those who pour “kerosene on the fire” when they “caricature our dedicated police officers as bigots.” At the same time, he said, it was “equally unfair and counterproductive to dismiss our mayor and other leaders as enemies of the police,” and he chided cops who used police funerals to stage protests.
Dolan concluded by calling on his fellow New Yorkers to “tune down the volume and speak calmly,” especially in light of the holiday season.
“When you get to the level of cardinal, there’s a feeling in this country that you are also a public figure, and that role has secular overtones,” said Patrick McNamara, a church historian whose latest book is “New York Catholics: Faith, Attitude and the Works!”
That is especially true in New York, McNamara said, which despite shrinking Mass attendance and a recent flurry of church closings is still a culturally Catholic city. The archdiocese’s 2.8 million Catholics are increasingly diverse, both religiously and ethnically, as is the city—and both are in need of leaders who can transcend many of those differences.
“Dolan realizes that the Catholic archbishop of New York doesn’t belong just to Catholics,” McNamara said. “He knows how to use the office well, as a public office.”
Past archbishops have also recognized that reality. In April 1968, Cardinal Terence Cooke was installed as archbishop the same day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Cooke left the festivities to go to Harlem to plead for peace and racial harmony.
In 1992, Cardinal John O’Connor stood by David Dinkins, the city’s first African-American mayor, who was facing withering criticism from police who felt that Dinkins was taking the side of the family of an immigrant who had been shot and killed by an officer.
Beyond the historical influence of New York’s archbishop, two other factors are also bolstering Dolan’s high-profile role in the current crisis:
One is that Dolan has developed a strong relationship with de Blasio, who was elected last year. Their alliance may come as something of a surprise, since de Blasio is a liberal Democrat and something of a lapsed Catholic. But the two men have found common ground on a range of issues, and that has made Dolan an important go-between.
There’s a precedent for such a relationship: O’Connor, who was widely viewed as a political conservative on the national level, developed a strong alliance and deep friendship with Mayor Ed Koch, also a liberal Democrat, and proof that all politics—secular and religious—are indeed local.
A second factor is that while the NYPD is diversifying and is no longer the largely Irish Catholic fiefdom it once was — neither of the officers shot dead was Irish or Catholic — the force “still has that Irish Catholic DNA,” Moses said.
“Part of that means circling the wagons against attacks,” he said, which is in part a legacy of the history of anti-Catholicism in the city. But it also means that the city’s archbishop still holds enormous sway with the police.
The challenge for Dolan is how he will use his influence and authority. A spokesman for the cardinal said he was heading off on his annual retreat and could not comment, but Dolan has also not been trying to overplay his role.
His is a delicate balance: not wanting to alienate the police who look to him as a defender, but also wanting to promote peace in a city that is home to a growing number of immigrants, many of them Catholics.
“Dolan has to be careful,” McNamara said, “not to tick off his own constituents.”