The Powers of New York - The Catholic Church

By Sam Roberts (New York Times)
May 5, 2012

Nobody calls the cardinal's residence on Madison Avenue "the Powerhouse" anymore. Mayors no longer consult regularly with the church about appointments to the health and Education Departments, police promotions or Family Court vacancies. Nor has any recent leader of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York been called "the American Pope," as one predecessor was.

But while decades of demographic changes have cost the archdiocese much of its political clout, it does have the newly appointed Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan to its credit. He is personable, persuasive and politically astute, and has an even bigger bully pulpit as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has been battling the Obama administration, with some success, over whether religiously affiliated hospitals and universities should have to provide free birth control for employees.

Still, the church has learned to pick its fights. Last year, it largely sat out the politicking that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage by the State Legislature. But, aligned with other religious groups, Catholic leaders again defeated a bill that would have temporarily lifted the statute of limitations on sex abuse cases — a threat to budgets more than to theology.

"Loss of the statute of limitations literally could have put the church out of business," said James F. Gill, a Manhattan lawyer who has formed Friends of the Catholic Church, a coalition of former public officials and other power brokers, to lobby for legislation that the church favors, including tax credits for businesses that award scholarships to the thousands of students in parochial schools.

Cardinal Dolan recently told Catholics that with the church's fighting the government on several fronts, "we are called to be very active, very informed and very involved in politics."

But will Catholics vote the church line? Does the archdiocese still wield power?

"Not as much as they think they do," said Assemblywoman Margaret M. Markey, a Queens Democrat who sponsored the sex abuse bill, which died in the State Senate. "I have a heavy Catholic population in my district, and I would not be in elected office if the Catholics in my district didn't approve of what I was doing."

James T. Fisher, a theology professor at Fordham University, offered a broader explanation. "Dolan's talking a lot about getting Catholics politically involved," Dr. Fisher said, "but what they really mean is politically involved on the church's agenda, which is a very tall order because the current teaching agenda doesn't correspond to the will of the majority of Catholics."