When New York’s Timothy Cardinal Dolan offers benediction at the Republican Convention in Tampa on Thursday, he will appear as a pastor and not a politician.
The distinction often gets lost when we talk about issues that necessarily involve politics. It especially gets lost in media coverage, which thrives on conflict and contrast and categories, and tilts toward black and white in a world often much more complicated than that.
As president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Dolan has found himself in the forefront of a battle over the definition of religious liberty in America. He was among the first out of the gate criticizing the president’s Health and Human Services abortion-inducing drug, sterilization, contraception mandate in January and has been a consistent voice educating about religious freedom in America ever since. The archdiocese of New York is currently suing HHS over its infamous mandate, a regulatory outgrowth of the president’s health-care law, of which Cardinal Dolan has always been critical for its lack of conscience protections and for its leaving open the prospect of taxpayer funding for abortion.
That’s why there was a controversy when the cardinal invited Barack Obama to dinner. This president, who had lied to him privately, by the cardinal’s own account, and had lied to all of us publicly, will share the dais at the Al Smith Foundation Dinner in October with him and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. But unlike the University of Notre Dame commencement in May 2009, where the president was given an honorary degree and where he suggested in his commencement address that conscience rights would be protected by his administration, the Al Smith dinner isn’t an honor, it’s a fundraiser — a fundraiser for charities that this administration’s policies have put in jeopardy. Faith-based social-service organizations face crippling fines for noncompliance with the HHS mandate.
In defending his decision, Cardinal Dolan described the dinner as a demonstration that people can gather in “friendship, civility, and patriotism, to help those in need, not to endorse either candidate. Those who started the dinner 67 years ago believed that you can accomplish a lot more by inviting folks of different political loyalties to an uplifting evening, rather than in closing the door to them.” He emphasized the need for engagement.
Which gets us back to politics. In True Freedom, an e-book released earlier this summer, Cardinal Dolan wrote: “Churches and people of faith — not exclusively Catholics and their bishops, although I would hope that we play a leading role — understand the inherent dignity of the human person and serve as a safeguard against attacks on that dignity. If we allow the human person to become a thing, and a human life to become a commodity that can be valued more or less depending on circumstance, political ideology, or current whims, then we have embarked on a perilous path.”
Respect for human life is demonstrated in our policies and also in our modeling: how we treat people, when the cameras are on and when they are off. Thus the dinner invitation, and many of its implications. (Catholics pray for religious freedom, and we pray too for our president, even if the incumbent is someone we disagree with on the most fundamental issues.)