Spellman was often seen, Fogarty notes, as efficient but distant and aloof, yet "he could also display great pastoral sensitivity." In his outreach to the city's growing Puerto Rican community, he was years ahead of his time. He sent priests overseas to study Spanish, and by 1960 a quarter of all the archdiocese's parishes had an outreach to Spanish-speaking Catholics.

He could also be quite compassionate. One of his first acts as archbishop was to seek out and reinstate Bonaventure Broderick, a bishop who had inadvertently gotten caught up in Vatican politics and incurred Rome's wrath. Left without an assignment for over thirty years, Spellman found him working at a gas station in upstate New York. He made Broderick an auxiliary bishop and chaplain of a nursing home until his death a few years later.

A fervent anticommunist, the Cardinal publicly supported Senator Joseph McCarthy. In a visit to American troops in Vietnam, he said (paraphrasing Stephen Decatur): "My country, may it always be right. Right or wrong, my country!" Although he supported the Second Vatican Council, he tended to be conservative, but he did support the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, whose work helped shape the council's declaration on religious freedom.

Like many other church leaders, Spellman found it hard to adjust to the '60s with its rising counterculture, sexual revolution, political activism, and dissent within the Church. It was a "difficult time," he wrote a friend in Rome, as things were getting "dizzy" in both the Church and the world. By the time of his death, he was being publicly attacked for his stance on Vietnam, as protesters disrupted Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Few Church leaders have been subject to greater misunderstanding than Francis Cardinal Spellman. As Benedict Groeschel and Terence Weber write, "No one ever said Cardinal Spellman was a saint, including Cardinal Spellman." Neither was he the power-hungry ecclesiastic some have portrayed him to be. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. As Thomas Shelley notes, Spellman undeniably had ambition as well as ability, but he did try to use both in the service of the Church.