WASHINGTON — Three years ago, the surprise election of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York as the new president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) broke with precedent, upending expectations that the sitting vice president — in this case, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz. — would get the top job.

Media commentators jumped on the news, with reporters characterizing Archbishop Dolan — who would be elevated to the rank of cardinal by Benedict XVI in February 2012 — as the "more outspoken and conservative" USCCB candidate, as a Washington Post story put it.

But the New York archbishop dismissed suggestions that his election signaled a shift in priorities for the nation’s largest religious body.

"You might interpret this as the bishops are tired of short and skinny presidents," the bulky Church leader quipped with a reference to his predecessor, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who, like Bishop Kicanas, has a smaller build.

Thus began the archbishop’s tumultuous tenure at the helm of the USCCB, a period marked by intense media coverage of both his policy positions on issues like President Barack Obama’s proposed military strike on Syria and his outsized personality and gift of humor, recently on display during an appearance on The Colbert Report.

Over these past three years, the USCCB has sought to promote the New Evangelization, culminating in the Year of Faith. But it has also been a time of sharp contrasts between Catholic teaching and the political status quo on issues like the Health and Human Services’ mandate, the advance of same-sex "marriage" through the courts, the state legislature and in the ballot box, cuts in social programs for the needy and comprehensive immigration-reform efforts.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco recalled Archbishop Dolan’s election and suggested that his most daunting challenge was to return the Church to its present position as an "influential protagonist for justice and the common good in our American society."

Three years later, Archbishop Cordileone believes that Cardinal Dolan has accomplished two important goals. He has effectively articulated Catholic teaching, penetrating spiritual indifference in a secular age, and he has kept his brother bishops unified during uncertain times.

"He is affable and engaging while he communicates the timeless truth the Church teaches, which is what we’re all striving to do," Archbishop Cordileone told the Register.

"He has kept the bishops energized and united while addressing the challenges we are facing."


Religious-Freedom Defense

Cardinal Dolan’s dual roles — as USCCB president and New York archbishop — have increased his national impact, even as his "sidewalk savviness" has been repeatedly tested in a series of public exchanges with the Obama administration over the federal contraception mandate.

"Cardinal Dolan’s biggest challenge was keeping the bishops united behind a principled defense of religious freedom in the wake of the Obama administration’s HHS mandate and making that defense credible to the public," George Weigel, the author, most recently, of Evangelical Catholicism, told the Register.

"No one could have done this better than Cardinal Dolan, and he leaves a strong record from which his successor can lead all friends of religious freedom to victory in this crucial matter."

Russell Shaw, the former longtime spokesman of the USCCB and the author of American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, echoed that judgment.

"The one thing that leaps out from the last three years is his taking on the Obama administration over the HHS mandate. I applaud him for that, though not everyone does," Shaw told the Register.

The HHS mandate required private employers to provide co-pay-free coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception, and after the USCCB leadership reviewed the interim final rule, Archbishop Dolan explained his objections in a meeting with President Obama, who reportedly said his administration would address those concerns.

However, the White House approved the law in January 2012 and offered only a limited religious exemption for houses of worship. Church-affiliated universities, hospitals and charities were still required to comply with the law.

The White House then proposed a series of accommodations that the USCCB administrative board judged to be inadequate, and the board pushed for legislative and judicial remedies, even as 2012 election-year politics led some partisan groups to accuse the bishops of conducting a "war on women."

The HHS mandate fight ignited a political firestorm and prompted intense criticism from within the Church, but the USCCB president never backed down.


Building Bridges

Meanwhile, the USCCB began a parallel effort to educate the faithful about past and present threats to the free exercise of Catholics in the land of the free.

The "Fortnight for Freedom," scheduled during the past two years to mark a two-week period of prayer, fasting and education on religious liberty, is one of several initiatives designed to help Catholics wake up to the changes afoot in their country.

During Cardinal Dolan’s tenure, the U.S. bishops also issued a pastoral letter on this issue that has provided a framework for a religious-freedom curriculum in Catholic schools.

"Under Cardinal Dolan’s leadership, the interrelationship between defending vulnerable human life, defending and fostering marriage and family and defending religious liberty was brought out in great clarity," Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the U.S. bishops’ point man on religious liberty, told the Register.

"He has helped us see that the conference is not just an organization that gets involved in one hot-button issue after another, but to see how these issues are related to the Church’s overall mission of evangelization. … We are proclaiming God’s word, worshipping in spirit and truth and aiding those in need."

Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., noted the USCCB president’s embrace of Pope Francis and the fresh challenges he posed regarding the evangelization of Catholics on the "fringes" of the Church.

"Cardinal Dolan has been the right guy at the right time. His stature and joyful personality have provided a bridge between what Pope Francis is doing and the Church in the U.S. He is helping us understand that and respond in a positive way," Bishop Tobin told the Register.

The bridge-building is vital, not only to draw alienated Catholics back to their cradle faith, but to bring immigrant groups, especially Hispanics, into the mainstream of Church life.

With Hispanic immigrants comprising an ever-larger percentage of U.S. Catholics, the cardinal has encouraged pastoral outreach and evangelization, but also advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform.

Cardinal Dolan has argued that the Church should continue to play a central role in helping a new generation of immigrants become "full members of our culture and communities," as he wrote in an Oct. 17 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.

"Comprehensive immigration reform is the way to continue this success."

But recent data suggest that the Church is already losing many immigrants to the secular values that have captured so many other cradle Catholics.

Shaw’s latest book, American Church, provides a pessimistic view of such trends, and he told the Register that Cardinal Dolan has yet to offer a candid, hard-hitting assessment of a way to change the increasingly bleak picture of Catholicism in the United States.


Visibly Engaging Catholics

In public, at least, the USCCB president has opted for a joyful, positive message, and his many supporters will argue that this approach offers the most engaging draw for alienated Catholics.

"His approach is to go to people where they are, speaking their language, aware of their experiences, pain and biases," said Kathryn Lopez, an editor at large of National Review who is working with the Catholic Voices initiative that trains ordinary Catholics to present Church teaching in public forums.

That outsized legacy presents a tall order for Cardinal Dolan’s successor, one of 10 candidates nominated by USCCB members. But whoever is chosen, no one expects the man who made Time magazine’s list of "The World’s 100 Most Influential People: 2012" to fade away.