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

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.

Born in St. Louis, the oldest of five children, he was drawn to the priesthood almost immediately and entered seminary at age 14. His charisma made him a rising star in the church, where he served as secretary for the pope's ambassador to the United States, and eventually ran the school for American Seminarians in Rome. When he was appointed to lead the archdiocese in Milwaukee, he made a name for himself by donning a Green Bay Packers cheesehead during Mass and joking about his beer preference. Years later, a profile in New York magazine dubbed him "the Archbishop of Charm."

Still, Archbishop Dolan takes his position seriously, and when the subject shifted that afternoon to New York's new marriage law, he grew somber.

"I fought hard, I prayed hard, I cooperated, I spoke, I advocated, I did everything I could," he said. "And I guess I'm the kind of guy that tends to blame himself, and I thought, 'What should I have done better?' "

Of course, it didn't help that plenty of New Yorkers were willing to answer that question for him.

"I got blasted from both sides," he recalled. "There were some on the left who would say, 'Dolan is hung up on this, he's turned into some kind of fanatical crusader ... but then I also got attacked from the right with people saying, 'He didn't do enough, he was playing hooky on this one.' "

As much as the loss still stings, Archbishop Dolan said he tries not to waste time on political postmortems. That question — what happens next? — is still weighing on him. And he's not the only one.

Six states have legalized same-sex marriage since 2004 — all through legislation or court orders — and in each case, the effort to redefine the union was met with ardent, organized opposition, typically led by religious groups. As the latest and largest state to make gay marriage the law of the land, New York provides a compelling case study for what happens to the traditional-marriage movement once its ideals are rejected by the ruling class.

If anyone is qualified to shed some light on the movement's next steps, it's Archbishop Dolan. As the ranking Catholic official in America's media capital, he has spent years on the front lines of the culture war, making the case for Christian family values — and earning plaudits from conservatives across the country.

Robert George, a Princeton professor of jurisprudence whom the New York Times has called "the country's most influential conservative Christian thinker," said Archbishop Dolan's leadership on the marriage issue is widely recognized.

"He is anything but timid," said George. "He has a love for people and a joy in his mission that enables him to speak truth to cultural power, even when others would be intimidated into silence."

To hear Archbishop Dolan tell it, that boldness is needed now more than ever. He believes the passage of New York's new marriage law was just the start to a series of legal fights and culture clashes that will consume both sides of the national marriage debate for years to come. And this time, he won't let anyone accuse him of playing hooky.

Religious freedom

As it's been framed, the debate over gay marriage has so far revolved around the rights of same-sex couples. But going forward, Archbishop Dolan said, he will work to shift the focus onto the First Amendment rights of the church — rights he fears are now in danger.

"One of our arguments has always been that people of principle who feel this violates their deepest-held convictions are going to be forced to the wall," Archbishop Dolan said. "We were told we were being Chicken Littles and that was ridiculous."

But "no sooner was the ink dry," he said, than priests throughout the state started coming to him with stories of couples threatening to sue if they didn't agree to rent out their parishes for same-sex weddings.

Richard Barnes, executive director of the New York Catholic Conference, said threats like those are unlikely to gain legal traction in the near future. A religious exemption in the New York marriage law specifically prohibits lawsuits against churches that refuse to provide their buildings or services for gay weddings. It also protects such religious organizations from being penalized by the state, through loss of aid to church welfare programs, for example.

But there are other areas where religious groups remain vulnerable in New York, said Barnes, and new battlefronts are revealing themselves every day.

For example, if a male employee of the Catholic Church were to take advantage of the new law and marry another man, he would likely be dismissed for embracing a lifestyle that contradicts the religion's teachings, Barnes said. But as it's written, the New York marriage law offers no specific protection for the hiring and firing practices of religious organizations.

"I could foresee the state determining that we can't make decisions on a moral or religious basis as we would have in the past regarding the employment of individuals who are actively defying church tenets," Barnes said. "If that happened, we would be in a position where we were asserting our First Amendment rights in court."

Similar scenarios could play out in religious institutions across the state, from hospitals to halfway houses. What's more, the law protects employees of religious groups from being sued, but it offers no explicit protection for independent practitioners who are personally opposed to same-sex marriage. A wedding photographer who refuses to take work from a gay couple based on his own moral beliefs could be opening himself up to an equal protection lawsuit, as happened in New Mexico. An innkeeper choosing not to allow a gay wedding reception could face similar action, as happened in Vermont.

"My prediction is that we're not going to know the full implications of this legislation for a decade," Barnes said. "Because many of these things may end up in litigation."

These are the issues that keep Archbishop Dolan on guard.

"We have to be particularly vigorous now in the protection of religious freedom," Archbishop Dolan said, "making sure the government does not force us to violate our conscience."

Strengthening individual marriages

While questions of religious freedom keep lobbyists and church leaders busy in the public policy arena, Archbishop Dolan will simultaneously seek to remind his flock what this debate has really been all about: not homosexuality, but the sanctity of marriage.

The archbishop is the first to admit that the institution was deteriorating long before "bride and groom" became "bride and bride." Rising divorce rates, widespread acceptance of premarital sex and a cultural revolt against monogamy all preceded the debate over gay marriage, and Archbishop Dolan wants to make sure those trends are being fought with the same vigor as the headline-grabbing social issues of the day.

"We are, as a people of faith, against any attempt by anyone anywhere to diminish the pure definition of marriage," Archbishop Dolan said. "We're against adultery, we're against a frivolous divorce, we're against cohabitation before marriage."

Combatting these societal threats can be done just as effectively at home as at the ballot box, Archbishop Dolan said. God's vision for marriage is a union between man and woman that is "loving, faithful and forever." And while the New York Legislature may not agree with the church on gender requirements, attaining that marital ideal should still be the top priority in every relationship.

Barnes similarly recognized the need for the traditional marriage movement to turn inward to a certain extent. "I think it is time for people to reinvigorate the institution of marriage at a personal level," said Barnes. "Until we can get to a place where we have strengthened marriage and used our lives as examples, we're not going to get very far."

Making the case

Shortly after the marriage bill passed in New York last summer, Archbishop Dolan, feeling dejected and more than a little anxious about the future, received a phone call from a Catholic bishop in the Midwest. At the time, Archbishop Dolan recalls, "the victors were crowing that now this was inevitable everywhere."

But from his perch in the heartland, the bishop on the line didn't quite see it that way.

"Are you kidding?" he told Archbishop Dolan. "In a way, this is the best thing that could have happened to us. Since the rest of the country can't stand New York, you all crowing about it is gonna make our job a little easier. Who's gonna want to copy you?"

To Archbishop Dolan, the joke underscored another important point: "We can't let our neighbors down."

While opponents of gay marriage may have suffered a defeat in New York, same-sex unions still aren't recognized in the vast majority of the country — and Archbishop Dolan believes he and his fellow New Yorkers can play a vital role in keeping it that way.

"We have to do a better job of getting our point across," Archbishop Dolan said. "I admit that even some of our Catholic people need convincing."

He points to philosophical arguments for traditional marriage, like those advanced by professor George at Princeton, as well as sociological studies that show children are better off being raised in a home with a father and a mother. But ultimately, Archbishop Dolan said, one of the most important points the movement can make is that their opposition to same-sex marriage is not an expression of hatred for gay people.

"They have our love, they have our acceptance, they deserve our dignity and respect," said Archbishop Dolan. "And so we can't allow this ever to be reduced to an anti-gay question."

If traditional marriage advocates can find the right tone in making their case, Archbishop Dolan believes they will ultimately come out on top, especially as the gritty realities of redefining marriage — divorce, custody battles, shifting standards of fidelity — complicate the romantic public perception of the campaign.

"I think now it's still new enough that it's the flavor of the month cause for the culturally elite," said Archbishop Dolan. "I would say it will be more analogous to the Equal Rights Amendment of 30 years ago. Everybody thought that was a shoo-in, and for a while it enjoyed a lot of dazzle, and all of a sudden it faded away."

Of course, some pollsters and political wonks might tell the archbishop he's being a tad optimistic. But to Archbishop Dolan, that's what the church has always been about: good cheer in daily life, strong effort in the face of adversity — and high hopes even after defeat.

"We will never give up on the ideal," he said.

McKay Coppins is a reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, covering politics, religion, and national affairs. He lives in New York City. Email: