What New York's New Archbishop Means for American Catholicism

A gregarious conservative, Timothy Dolan will lead the New York archdiocese—and the church in America.


NEW YORK—It's hard to overstate how much anticipation had built up among priests, lay Roman Catholics, and Vatican watchers around the naming of the next archbishop of New York, who Pope Benedict XVI announced today will be Timothy M. Dolan, previously archbishop of Milwaukee.

Priests had been E-mailing one another with the latest gossip about which three names appeared on the job's official shortlist, called the terna. In choosing new bishops, the top-secret list is drafted by the Vatican's U.S. ambassador, sent to a committee of bishops in Rome—which can edit the list—and then passed along to the pope, who usually selects bishops from the names on the terna list but who is also free to stray.

"Another morning. More tumbleweeds," the Catholic news and gossip blog Whispers in the Loggia reported last Wednesday, capturing the frustration in Catholic circles over having to wait yet another day for an announcement about New York, which had been expected for weeks. "Stay tuned."

"Same goes for Thursday," the blog deadpanned the following day. "Try to keep calm."

For diocesan priests in New York, that was impossible. "This is the man who will be responsible for crucial decisions in their lives: what parish they'll be sent to, whether or not they'll be made pastor, how major problems will be confronted in their parish," says James Martin, a New York-based Jesuit priest and associate editor at the Catholic magazine America . "When so much authority rests in one man, there's bound to be this kind of breathless anticipation."

In the case of New York, however—where outgoing archbishop Cardinal Edward M. Egan recently submitted his resignation letter to the Vatican upon turning 75 years old, as is the custom for bishops—the drama extended far beyond the borders of the archdiocese and its 2.5 million Roman Catholics. Though there are more Catholics in other archdioceses, like Los Angeles, and though the church is growing much faster in the South and Southwest, New York's archbishop has long held a unique position in American Catholicism.

"The archbishop of New York is the closest thing we have to an American pope," says John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter . "In some ways, he plays the role of leading the American Catholic Church."

In choosing Dolan, Pope Benedict—making his highest-profile U.S. appointment since his 2005 election—signaled that he wanted a warm, media-friendly presence who is theologically and politically conservative but who has taken a less strident approach toward pro-abortion-rights politicians than some U.S. bishops. "He can firmly state the Catholic position but is also someone who dialogues with public officials," says Catholic Church scholar David Gibson. "The pope wanted somebody who is not going to put his foot in his mouth and who will put the church first."

At the same time, Dolan will "put more time and energy into pro-life causes, be instinctually pro-Rome in his thinking and doing business, and will take the liturgical rules more seriously" than other, more liberal finalists for the position, according to Allen.

Dolan's choice carries so much weight for the future of the wider American church largely because of New York's position as the nation's capital for media and culture. When Pope John Paul II met then New York Archbishop John O'Connor in 1983, the pope called him "archbishop of the capital of the world," a reference to Rome, which once held that title. In an interview, Whispers in the Loggia blogger Rocco Palmo noted that as far back as 1875, the Vatican picked New York's archbishop to be the first American cardinal, snubbing Baltimore, the church's first U.S. diocese.

But the anticipation surrounding the selection of New York's archbishop was heightened by the fact that Cardinal Egan has kept a much lower profile than others who've held the post, forgoing the television appearances that were a hallmark of O'Connor, Egan's immediate predecessor. Egan earned praise for reining in the archdiocese's enormous deficit, mainly through the unpleasant work of closing parishes and schools. But he also earned a reputation as chilly and aloof, even among the priests in his archdiocese.