McKay Coppins: Defending the faith: How Archbishop Dolan is redefining the battle over same sex marriage

Published: Saturday, Oct. 29 2011 11:04 p.m. MDT

Often considered America's most influential Catholic, Timothy Dolan is a strong defender of the church's traditional views.

Chris Sheridan

NEW YORK — When Timothy Dolan arrived in New York nearly three years ago to take over the state's Catholic Archdiocese, his "brother bishops" had a bleak warning to deliver.

"We've got a bruising battle coming up over same-sex marriage," he remembers being told in his first meeting with local clergy. "We are not going to relent, we are going to give it everything we've got. But you need to know that the fortune-tellers are telling us that we ain't gonna win."

The Roman Catholic Church had long been at the forefront of the fight over defining marriage in the Empire State, and the issue was reaching a boiling point. Two years earlier, religious groups had successfully lobbied the New York Legislature to defeat a bill that would have expanded the legal definition of marriage to accommodate same-sex couples. But by the spring of 2009, gay-rights advocates had regrouped, and the momentum was beginning to shift in their favor.

"They are much better-oiled," Archbishop Dolan's fellow bishops told him. "They've got the media on their side, they've got politicians raring to go and they have turned this into a chic civil rights issue that is going to be very difficult to defang."

That prophecy was fulfilled on June 24, 2011, when the New York State Senate passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage by a narrow 32-29 margin.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo quickly signed it into law, proudly calling his state "a beacon for social justice" as he basked in the glow of a political victory that his office had, to a large extent, orchestrated. Throngs of celebrators flooded the city's streets, gay-rights leaders throughout the country pledged renewed commitment to their cause, and the New York Daily News splashed a single, screaming word across its front page to commemorate the occasion: "HISTORY!"

Even though he had been bracing for it, the law's passage came as a blow to Archbishop Dolan, one of the nation's most prominent and persistent voices in the cause for traditional marriage. Commonly referred to as "the American Pope," Archbishop Dolan not only leads the New York Archdiocese, but he also serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. More than any other religious leader in the country, Archbishop Dolan has been the public face of the conservative social values his church espouses — and according to New York lawmakers, he had just lost the argument in his own state.

But even as liberal culture warriors declared victory in an emotional and divisive battle, Archbishop Dolan knew the saga was far from over. Yes, the lobbying had ended and the law was settled in New York, but the archbishop couldn't escape one question that kept running through his mind: What happens next?

'Anything but timid'

The walls of Archbishop Dolan's ornate midtown Manhattan office are covered with gold-framed paintings of classically inspired biblical scenes, giving the spacious, museum-like room a thou-shalt-not-touch air of austerity. The mood quickly warms, though, when Archbishop Dolan springs into action. Round, red-faced and jolly, the archbishop bounces from one corner of the room to another, teasing his aides as they struggle to keep pace.

When he plopped down at a large office table on a recent October afternoon for an interview with the Deseret News, he promptly noticed a snag in the cuff of his slacks and sent a staffer searching for scissors.

"Who knows how long that's been there," he said, hunching over to examine the errant threads. "This is why I need a wife — the downfalls of celibacy!"

It was a line he'd likely delivered many times before, but he punctuated it with a belly laugh so loud and sincere you'd think it was the first celibacy joke that had ever occurred to him. This contagious good cheer — along with a well-documented penchant for mild irreverence — has come to define Archbishop Dolan's public persona, and by all accounts it was evident from a young age.