The swearing-in ceremony of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who describes himself as “spiritual,” not religious, spoke to the Roman Catholic Church’s decline.
Since 1965, the archbishop or his deputy had spoken at the inauguration of every mayor.
But in 2014, the archbishop of New York was absent. He gave no sermon or invocation when Mr. de Blasio was inaugurated.
As the spiritual leader of nearly three million Catholics in the nation’s second-largest archdiocese, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan remains a force to be reckoned with.
But if Edward N. Costikyan were still cataloging New York’s top 10 power brokers, would the cardinal make the cut?
Most institutional power has diffused since New York magazine published those lists almost a half-century ago.
But the organized church has been particularly enfeebled by a combination of mid-20th-century white flight, child sexual abuse cases and its failure to engage enough young people and newly arrived immigrants.
George J. Marlin and Brad Miner trace its evolution, from 1850 to the present, in the timely “Sons of Saint Patrick: A History of the Archbishops of New York From Dagger John to Timmytown” (Ignatius Press, $34.95).
Of the 10 men who have presided over the New York Archdiocese, two were born in Ireland and the rest were not more than second-generation Irish.
(Cardinal John O’Connor, while a proud son of St. Patrick, was actually half-Irish: His sister learned after his death in 2000 that their mother was a rabbi’s daughter who had converted to Catholicism.)
The authors, who approach the subject with solid canonical and conservative credentials, note that Catholicism started inauspiciously in New Amsterdam — a French Jesuit missionary, who was later tomahawked by Native Americans, counted three Catholics there, including himself, in 1643.
By the middle of the 19th century in New York, though, “Catholicism went from being a minority Christian denomination to America’s largest,” thanks mainly to Irish immigration.
Anyone who has seen the film “Gangs of New York” knows that Catholics weren’t greeted with open arms by Protestants who had arrived even earlier.
But they met their match in the first archbishop, John Hughes (“Dagger John,” named so for both his unbreakable spirit and for the symbol that was part of his signature, which could be taken for a cross or a cutlass).
He created a parochial school system and sited the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral in what he presciently knew would be the heart of Manhattan.
When nativists were rampaging in other cities, he issued a blunt warning to New York’s mayor that evoked the scorched Russian capital captured by Napoleon: “If a single Catholic church is burned in New York, the city will become a second Moscow.” (He was considerably less emphatic in opposing slavery.)
Catholic political power peaked under Cardinal Francis Spellman, who reigned for 28 years in the mid-20th century. Not for nothing was his headquarters universally known as the Powerhouse, through which government social welfare, health and education appointments had to be vetted.
Cardinal Spellman was also President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s personal emissary, a fierce anti-Communist and fan of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and a union-buster.
Elected officials like Gov. Mario M. Cuomo eventually became more willing to publicly challenge the church’s political agenda.
Under Cardinal Dolan, gay groups finally get to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade and politicians who support abortion rights are not threatened with excommunication.
“Sons of Saint Patrick” is a good biography. It would have been even better given more contextual overlay like the author’s conclusion that “in the 21st century, the church spirals into even greater debt because so much of what was built in the 19th century and sustained in the 20th has now become unaffordable.”
As Henry A. Sheinkopf wrote in 2015 in “The Archdiocese of New York: Transition From Urban Powerhouse to Suburban Institution, 1950-2000,” the organized church is now “less of a temporal, institutional force within the city and more of a spiritual force within the ranks of its faithful.”
Still, the authors conclude, there are “few other religious leaders in New York who have had or are likely to have the moral influence of its Catholic archbishop.”