February 17th, 2012
05:43 PM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN) – At the Vatican on Saturday, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan will be elevated to the College of Cardinals. The move will further cement Dolan's standing as America's top Catholic.
"This is the most exclusive club in the Catholic Church," said John Allen, CNN's Vatican analyst, of Dolan's elevation. As a cardinal, Dolan will join the ranks of those who will choose the next pope. The College of Cardinals was established in 1150. Its main role is to advise the current pope and pick his successor. The elevation alone brings speculation that Dolan himself could one day be elected to lead the global church.
"In many cases you also become, at least informally, a candidate to be the next pope, because the next pope will almost certainly come from the roughly 120 cardinals under the age of 80," Allen said. Once a Cardinal reaches 80, he is no longer able to participate in the election of the pope or enter the secret conclave where cardinals gather when the time comes to select the next pope, typically upon the prior pope's death.
Dolan will remain the head of the Archdiocese of New York, which includes 2.6 million Catholics in Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island and parts of New York north of the Bronx. The diocese also includes St. Patrick's Cathedral, one of the most famous church buildings in the United States, where Dolan often celebrates Mass. He is also head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, putting him in regular touch with President Barack Obama on issues like contraception coverage in the new health care law.
On the streets of New York, Dolan is equal parts pastor, celebrity and politician. He is equally affable and gregarious whether speaking to Mayor Micheal Bloomberg or a New York City firefighter.
Dolan fits well into the culture of New York City. He is regarded by reporters as incredibly media savvy and has the ability to communicate his message in resonating sound bites.
When his elevation was announced, he told reporters it was more about his archdiocese than it was about him.
"It's almost as if Pope Benedict XVI is putting the red hat of the cardinal on top of the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty or home plate at Yankee Stadium," he said.
The New York archdiocese has long been headed by a cardinal, as are many other major metropolitan centers around the world.
When Benedict announced in 2009 that Dolan would be moved from Milwaukee, where he was archbishop, to New York, Allen said "it was written in the stars" Dolan was on his way to becoming a cardinal.
"Had he not been a Catholic bishop he probably would have been a United States senator or a corporate CEO or the host of a late-night TV talk show," said Allen, who is also a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.
"There is no doubt Timothy Dolan of New York is a rapid climber in the Catholic church," Allen said. "Benedict has indicated in every way a pope can he wants this guy to play a prominent role in Catholic affairs not only in the U.S. but around the world."
In his role in New York, Dolan has faced criticism from SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. The organization has called him the "Teflon prelate."
"He's charming and affable but as bad or worse than most bishops when it comes to clergy sex crimes and coverups," David Clohessy, the executive director of SNAP, said in an e-mail after Dolan was installed in New York. "His deceitful and secretive moves to help a serial predator priest quietly resign in August are particularly upsetting."
The group claimed Dolan allowed a prominent priest to resign, despite claims from at least nine men who have accused him of molesting them when they were boys, the group said.
In 2008, Dolan's predecessor found the allegations credible and suspended the priest, the group said.
At the time, Dolan's office declined to respond to CNN's questions about the priest.
But Dolan has responded to allegations of sexual abuse in the broader church and from the pulpit at St Patrick's Cathedral. He has said the church and the pope deserve a critical examination. "All we ask is that it be fair and the church not be singled out for a horror that has cursed every culture, religious organization, institution and family in the world," he said.
Dolan will continue on as president of the bishops conference for two years. The group of bishops addresses many needs of the church, from how to handle changes in the liturgy to acting as the public policy arm of the church.
In January, Dolan burst onto the political stage. After closed-door conversations with the White House going back to November, the cardinal-in-waiting challenged the White House over an insurance mandate from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that forced religious institutions, except for houses of worship, to provide insurance plans that included coverage for contraceptives.
In a video posted on the bishops' website, Dolan called the move a "foul ball." He led the charge to push back against the policy. He and bishops across the country read letters from the pulpit decrying the policy as a violation of religious liberty.
As the debate heated up on the political stage, Dolan kept up the pressure, telling reporters at the opening of a charitable site in New York, "The federal government should do what it's traditionally done since July 4, 1776, namely back out of intruding in the internal affairs of the church."
Eventually, the White House changed course and extended the religious exemption to other religious organizations and will force insurers to provide and pay for contraceptives to people who work for religious organizations who oppose contraceptives.
Supporters of the president's plan have called it an "elegant solution," but some religious conservatives called it a "flawed compromise." Dolan first said it was a "first step in the right direction" but later said the revised policy still raises "serious moral concerns."
"The bishops' role is to protect vigilantly the institution of the church, and what it says, what the theories are for how we should be best as the people of God," Sister Simone Campbell said. Campbell is the executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby in Washington. While the group agrees with the bishops on immigration and poverty, her group opposed the bishops' stand on the HHS policy.
"These very points are the tension points in our church because it's the application of faith to a democratic culture," she said.
While the bishops opposed the Affordable Care Act and the new White House contraception rule, they have worked with the Obama administration on other issues.
“We congratulate Cardinal-designate Dolan on his historic achievement," press secretary Jay Carney said. "The Obama administration has worked closely with the Cardinal-designate Dolan and the Catholic Church on a wide range of initiatives to promote strong communities and serve the common good. We appreciate Cardinal-designate Dolan’s leadership and look forward to continuing to work with him and church leaders to strengthen our nation and promote justice and peace throughout the world.”
The administration is sending several representatives to the Saturday morning ceremony at the Vatican. In addition to Dolan, Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien of Baltimore will also get his red hat and be elevated to a cardinal.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.