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NY Cardinal Dolan a 'happy warrior' for church

Sunday - 3/3/2013, 11:56am  ET

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, talks during an interview with the Associated Press at the Pontifical North American College, in Rome, Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013. Dolan spoke shortly before he watched Pope Benedict XVI leave the Vatican in a helicopter taking the Pope to Castel Gandolfo. Benedict XVI greeted the faithful for the last time as pope on Thursday, telling tearful well-wishers that he is beginning the final stage of his life as "simply a pilgrim," hours before he becomes the first pontiff in 600 years to resign. (AP Photo/Angelo Carconi)

RACHEL ZOLL
AP Religion Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- Challenging a White House mandate for birth control coverage in health insurance, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan sounded like a general rallying the troops.

"The only thing we're certainly not prepared to do is give in," Dolan said at a national bishops' meeting last November. "We're not violating our consciences."

Weeks earlier, he had appeared in a far less formal setting, at New York's Fordham University with comedian Stephen Colbert. From the 3,000 cheering audience members, one student considering the priesthood asked whether he should date. Dolan said it could help decide the right path, then quipped, "By the way, let me give you the phone numbers of my nieces."

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EDITOR'S NOTE: As the Roman Catholic Church prepares to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, The Associated Press is profiling key cardinals seen as "papabili" -- contenders to the throne. In the secretive world of the Vatican, there is no way to know who is in the running, and history has yielded plenty of surprises. But these are the names that have come up time and again in speculation. Today: Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

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Catholic News Service calls him a happy warrior for evangelization. Kean University historian Christopher Bellitto calls him the bear-hug bishop. Dolan, 63, is an upbeat, affable defender of Catholic orthodoxy, and a well-known religious figure in the United States.

He holds a job Pope John Paul II once called "archbishop of the capital of the world." His colleagues broke with protocol in 2010 and made him president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, instead of elevating the sitting vice president as expected. And during the 2012 presidential election, Republicans and Democrats competed over which national political convention the cardinal would bless. He did both.

But scholars question whether his charisma and experience are enough for a real shot at succeeding Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The thinking ahead of the conclave is Dolan's chances are slim.

"It's not a personal attack on his qualities as a cardinal or individual," said Monsignor Michael Fahey, a scholar at Fairfield University in Conn. "Cardinal Dolan has a knack for getting people to feel relaxed and to laugh and to expect the unexpected, but that is not what the church needs right now."

Dolan spent seven years in Rome as rector of the North American College, considered the West Point for U.S. priests, where he had studied for his own ordination years earlier. However, he never worked in a Vatican office or congregation -- experience that would have helped him develop ties with cardinals from other countries and raise his profile in a conclave.

Benedict made Dolan a cardinal just a year ago. Still, the former pope chose the New York archbishop for the honor of delivering a speech to other church leaders in Rome. His address on spreading the faith was highly praised, and he emerged as something of a star of the event, gaining mention in some Italian media as potentially "papabile," or having the qualities of a future pope.

No American has ever served as pontiff. Some cardinals express concerns a superpower pope and the potential for his actions to be viewed as serving the U.S. instead of the church.

Ahead of this conclave, church-watchers seem split over whether that old assumption still applies. Dolan's credentials as upholder of the faith have been especially burnished by the bishops' ongoing conflicts with President Barack Obama. Obama endorses same-sex marriage, supports abortion rights and included the birth control coverage rule in his health care overhaul.

However, Dolan speaks only halting Italian and a little Spanish, and no French or Latin, a huge drawback for a potential leader of a 1.2 billion-member global church. (By contrast, Benedict speaks eight or so languages.) The cardinal's informality and folksy vocabulary, which help make him so approachable in the United States, could actually undermine his chances in Rome. In recent comments about other challenges the church has survived, Dolan noted that some former popes have been "lemons." When taking the stage to greet Colbert, before about 3,000 cheering students, Dolan jokingly kissed Colbert's ring instead of shaking the comedian's hand.

Along with his humor, Dolan can artfully convey church teaching. He earned a doctorate in church history from The Catholic University of America and sprinkles his speeches with details of the early struggles Catholic immigrants trying to carve a place for themselves in Protestant America. Noting that secularism is growing in the U.S, he argues that broader society is in a "drive to neuter religion" and "push religion back into the sacristy." On his blog, "The Gospel in the Digital Age," Dolan writes on a wide range of issues, from gun control to abortion to the future of Catholic schools.

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