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When Timothy Dolan was elected president of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2010, it caught almost everyone by surprise. The custom had been to select the sitting vice president”which Dolan, at that time, was not. He was, however, the recently installed Archbishop of New York, the most influential pulpit in the nation, and a man of unique gifts. As he is articulate, intelligent and charismatic, with a refreshing love for the Church, it’s easy to see why his fellow bishops broke precedent and elected him.

If the American bishops were looking for a leader capable of communicating the faith in a winsome way to a heavily secularized world, they chose the right man. Since Pope Benedict appointed him Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Dolan has accepted his many challenges with grace and courage.

Dolan has appeared on almost every major media outlet imaginable, patiently and charitably defending Catholic teaching against those who attack and mock it. He has championed human life, social justice, and religious liberty, published several acclaimed books , advanced “affirmative orthodoxy,” and continued a popular blog and twitter account . In a media-saturated age, he has become the media’s go-to man in the American Catholic Church”and not for his own benefit, but for the Church’s.

On Memorial Day, the New York Times published an article noting that even as the Cardinal “has been spearheading the fight” against the new health care law requiring employers, including some that are religiously affiliated, to cover birth control, “the archdiocese he heads has quietly been paying for such coverage, albeit reluctantly and indirectly, for thousands of its unionized employees for over a decade.” Not only that but “the archdiocese’s own money is used to pay for a union health plan that covers contraception and even abortion for workers at its affiliated nursing homes and clinics.”

Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese, told the Times , “We provide the services under protest,” and posted a press release , on the archdiocesan website, asserting that the Times story “incorrectly equates” the archdiocese’s local health care policies with the Health and Human Services mandate which Cardinal Dolan and the Church have been strongly resisting . But the release didn’t deny the archdiocese pays into the fund, so the Cardinal now finds himself accused of being inconsistent.

A number of respected commentators , including Dr. Janet Smith and archdiocesan commentator Ed Mechmann , have defended Cardinal Dolan; they make a number of important points and should be read. But even if one agrees with them that the archdiocese is ultimately free of any wrongdoing, the intricate arguments they make about cooperating and not cooperating with evil are easily lost. As one person commented on the archdiocese’s blog , in response to Mr. Mechmann:

What the archdiocese seems to have forgotten in its responding to this matter is the fact that most people”even well-meaning Catholics”aren’t going to hear such fine distinctions through the din of a media culture . . . In this case, I think the archdiocese is doing a disservice to the non-professional theologian laymen, man-in-the-street, who operates on a simpler level of judgment about these matters perhaps, and is quite liable to see this as hypocrisy indeed.

As for the contention that the archdiocese had no option but to sign the insurance contracts and follow the coercive labor and health care laws in New York state, it is worth recalling the Cardinal’s own words in a speech delivered when he was preparing to receive his red hat. As CNA reported : “The Cardinal-designate’s most sobering words came with his seventh strategy for the new evangelization: the blood of the martyrs. He cited the Pope’s speech for presenting the red biretta to new Cardinals: ‘know that you must be willing to conduct yourselves with fortitude even to the shedding of your blood.’”

No one believes the archdiocese would face those kind of consequences if it were to admit it was mistaken to agree to these insurance contracts in the first place, and refuse to cooperate with them going forward”even if that meant to risk losing some health insurance, and other difficulties. Here, St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians is instructive: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”

William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII . His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here .

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