NEW YORK – There is no more natural spot for Roman Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan — a proud, ebullient Irish-American — than grand marshal of the city's historic St. Patrick's Day Parade. But the honor now has an added significance: Parade organizers said Wednesday they will allow the first gay group to march under its own banner.
Dolan was quick to issue a statement of support for the parade organizers, accepting their decision. While supporters of gay and lesbian Catholics are cheering, some conservatives want the archbishop to withdraw from the event.
"I think we're seeing the Catholicism of Pope Francis come to the Archdiocese of New York," said J. Patrick Hornbeck, chairman of the theology department at Fordham University. "Cardinal Dolan's statement is welcoming. He did not make this decision, but sees the parade as an opportunity for unity."
Pope Francis last year said church leaders should focus more on mercy than on divisive social issues. He famously said, "Who am I to judge?" when asked about gays and lesbians who are seeking God.
But Pat Archbold, a writer for the theologically conservative National Catholic Register, called Dolan's decision to remain as grand marshal a "total capitulation to gay identity groups."
Dolan said in a statement the parade organizers have "my confidence and support" and he thanked them for keeping the parade "close to its Catholic heritage." He said he and his predecessors have never determined who could march in the parade, but left that decision to the organizers.
However, in 1993, Cardinal John O'Connor opposed the campaign by the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization for permission to march under their own banner. More than 200 gay rights protesters staged a countermarch that year and were arrested.
"Irish Catholics have been persecuted for the sole reason that they have refused to compromise church teaching," O'Connor said. "What others may call bigotry, Irish Catholics call principle."
Dolan's position on the parade is the latest of his gentler comments on gays and lesbians.
Last year, Dolan was asked on ABC's "This Week" about gay and lesbian Catholics who felt rejected by the church. "Well, the first thing I'd say to them is, 'I love you, too. And God loves you. And you are made in God's image and likeness,'" Dolan said.
When Missouri defensive end Michael Sam announced he was gay earlier this year, Dolan said, "Good for him."
"I would have no sense of judgment on him. God bless ya," Dolan said in an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press." ''The same Bible that tells us that — teaches us well about the virtues of chastity and — and the virtue of fidelity and marriage also tells us not to judge people. So I would say, 'Bravo.'"
At the St. Patrick's Day Parade last March, Dolan said he supports individual gays and lesbians participating in the parade and hoped it could be a day of unity and joy. "I know that there are thousands and thousands of gay people marching in this parade," he said. "I know it. And I'm glad they are."
The parade has no direct ties to the church, but celebrates a Catholic saint and has always been a key event for the city's Irish Catholics.
Philip Lawler, the Boston-based editor of the theologically conservative Catholic World News, said Dolan should step down as grand marshal.
"My phone has been ringing off the hook with people who are upset," Lawler said. "Cardinal Dolan said, 'I'm sure there have been lots of homosexuals marching in the parade before,' but homosexuals identifying themselves seems a contradiction in honoring a Catholic saint."
Lawler said the New York parade is more of a civic event that has already lost much of its ties to religion. "Why don't we just admit it has no religious significance?" Lawler said.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Catholic gay rights group, said he thinks Dolan feels freer to take positions like his stand on the parade now that he is no longer the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"I think he's able to be more of a pastor to the people of New York than he had been when he was on the national stage, bishops primarily are pastors and teachers and I think he's fulfilling that role," DeBernardo said. "I think Pope Francis has been teaching the bishops what being a pastor means."