New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan
This past week, two high-profile Irish American institutions were taken down. First and most famously, there was the elusive South Boston mobster Whitey Bulger.  Coming just weeks after the killing of Osama bin Laden, the capture of the 81 year-old Bulger wipes two of the top criminals off of the FBI’s Top 10 most wanted list.

With the FBI finally closing the Bulger saga -- even confirming that the
criminal was still alive and had been difficult -- Irish mobsters might as well be placed on the endangered species list.

In New York, ex-Westies leader Jimmy McElroy died last month, while former Gotti associate Joseph O’Kane died last year. Soldiers such as Eddie Boyle rot away in prison, while another former Gotti underling, Michael Finnerty, has gone legit.

Bulger’s own stomping ground, South Boston, has been similarly cleaned up. It remains an Irish stronghold, but gentrification and recent waves of immigration have changed both the look of the city and the face of its criminal underclass.

But the arrest of Whitey was not the most far-reaching development in Irish
America this past week.  The passage, and subsequent celebration, of legislation paving the way for gay marriage in New York State illustrated the decline of the influence of the Catholic Church in politics, particularly when it comes to high profile Irish American clergymen such as New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan.

"I think society and culture is at its peril if we presume to tamper with what has been given and already cherished through the history of civilization," Dolan said after Sunday services at St. Patrick's Cathedral.
It certainly doesn’t help that the marriage equality movement was spearheaded by a Catholic governor, Andrew Cuomo.

But the shocking thing about the run-up to the gay marriage vote was how small a role Catholic leaders such as Dolan played.

True, some lawmakers worked to ensure that a “religious exemption” clause was worked into the legislation, so that religious groups would not have to endorse marriages which are inconsistent with their beliefs.
Critics of gay marriage, for example, note that once it became legal in Massachusetts, Catholic Charities took itself out of the adoptions business so that they would not be forced to place children in homes headed by gay couples.

But let’s face it, that was simply working around the edges.  Not too long ago, there would have been an undeniable sense of war in the air, with Catholic leaders vowing to drive out the Catholic vote at election time, if lawmakers chose to stand against church teaching.

Can you imagine what would have happened if a gay marriage bill was being debated during John Cardinal O’Connor’s reign as New York’s Catholic leader?

And it’s not to say O’Connor is somehow better than Dolan.  They are simply different.
But more importantly, the times have a’changed.

Dolan and others did seek to influence lawmakers.  The trouble is, Governor Cuomo never felt any true political pressure.

Yes, now there are calls for church leaders to deny Cuomo communion, and to have nothing to do with any lawmakers who support gay marriage, but who also may want to participate in church functions or events down the road.

The problem, of course, is that vast numbers of Irish Catholics across New York -- and America -- are not exactly passionate in their opposition to gay marriage.

Sure, some are not enthusiastic supporters.  But what we do know is that they do not simply follow the church’s clear opposition to it.

This loss for Catholic leaders comes as the church struggles to emerge from the sex abuse scandals, and as Catholics across the country try to get their financial houses in order.

Just last week, Archbishop Dolan received a letter from a host of educators condemning the planned closure of schools which serve historically poor communities.

This is also an important reminder, for those who revel in the declining influence of the church, that it is not solely in the business of meddling in the lives of gay folks.

The church has improved the lives of the ethnic underclass enormously, whether it was the Irish 100 years ago or the new urban immigrants of the 21st Century.

But in this brave new world, it turns out it’s easier to nab a phantom mobster than keep an ancient religious tradition relevant and vital.

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