According to sources on Capitol Hill, Mr. Dolan was furious with the president after the plan to force religious institutions to approve contraceptive coverage was announced.
“He felt like the president had not been honest with him,” said one congressional source.
Just as the furor over the Mr. Obama’s compromise—to require insurance companies, but not the religious institutions themselves to pay for the coverage—was raging on the weekend talk shows, Mr. Dolan was en route to Rome, where he was about to be ordained a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI.
The timing was coincidental, but for someone whose “media savvy” seems to be the first term people use to describe him, it couldn’t have turned out better.
“The fact that the pope makes him a cardinal, it means that when he speaks he does so with the full force of the Vatican behind him,” said John L. Allen, a correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter who has written a book with Mr. Dolan. “Part of the reason this issue got so much play is because Dolan has been an unusually savvy spokesman for the agenda. Bishops put out statements all the time. You don’t often see them put the world on fire like this.”
A year and a half ago, Mr. Dolan was the surprising winner of a contested election to become president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In the previous decades, the group had been a moribund presence on Capitol Hill.
“I was not always impressed by them,” said Congressman King. “They have, for the most been pretty liberal … They would go through the motions on abortion, but other than that they would be really into the social spending, and pretty liberal on international affairs.”
Catholic scholars say this isn’t quite right—that after spending most of the ’70s and ’80s on social justice issues, the bishops have been devoting themselves to “protecting life,” i.e, reproductive policies.
Only before, they didn’t have such a good face.
“Not everyone is a good spokesman, and he is someone people want to follow,” said Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the New York Catholic Conference. “He is committed to protecting the civil liberties of the church and I think he is serious about the degradation of the First Amendment.”
Even supporters of Mr. Dolan say that he was rendered relatively ineffective during the gay marriage debate in New York. And there remains lingering distrust among some conservatives for the bishop’s tacit backing of Obamacare and his support of liberalized immigration measures.
“Dolan is so charismatic that it is more like he is raising the profile of the group than they are raising his profile,” said one longtime Hill staffer. “Before, there would be things they wanted to do but they couldn’t articulate them in the right way. It takes someone like Dolan to step up and say, ‘There is a role we can play here.’”
But in Mr. Dolan conservatives on Capitol Hill feel at last like they have an ally who is, in the parlance of the day, a “severe conservative,” albeit one who cops to indulging the occasional cold beer at a baseball game and doesn’t seem to have ever met a camera he doesn’t love.
“Past presidents of the bishop’s conference have been nice guys, but I don’t think anyone would describe them as media dynamos,” said Mr. Allen. “This is conservatism with a compassionate edge. It’s not the fire-breathing, finger-wagging prophet of doom. He just exudes hail-fellow-well-met, back-slapping, baby-kissing good cheer. He is an up-with-people ambassador. He defies people’s stereotypes of what a conservative religious leader is like.”
Catholic scholars say that Archbishop Dolan remains mostly unknown outside of New York. But that is starting to change, first with his arrival here in 2009, then with his election as head of the Conference of Bishops, and now with his elevation to cardinal and his going toe-to-toe with the Obama administration. Catholics remain some of the quintessential swing voters in the presidential campaign, and if the Obama administration is wining battle after battle, political analysts warn that it may come at the expense of a elevating a new adversary.
“The Catholic bishops were out of front on this in a way that they hadn’t been in a long time,” said Professor Munson. “It was clear that they weren’t going to accept symbolic compromises. It was the first time in a long time you saw them flex their muscles. Who knows how assertive they are going to get.”