‘Tonight was good,” Timothy Cardinal Dolan told me sometime after midnight, in a green room at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, after leading the Republican National Convention in prayer. Of the final night’s speeches, which he heard from backstage, Dolan commented: “I heard a lot of themes that certainly resonated with me as an American, as a Catholic, particularly their nod to freedom of choice in education, freedom of religion, the sanctity of life, a concern for helping the economy — which is the best way to help the poor, who are always a concern for us.” His schedule had kept him from watching most of the convention — including the Wednesday-night speech by Paul Ryan, an old friend from his “happy days” in Wisconsin, which he was disappointed to miss. (He did catch up with Ryan on site late Thursday, and he appreciated the opportunity to meet Ann Romney.)
“I was happy to hear Senator Rubio; I was very moved by his talk,” Cardinal Dolan told me. “His is the immigrant story. That, too, is very close to the heart of Catholics in America.” He was glad Mitt Romney appreciates this, in conjunction with freedom itself.
“You can’t help but be inspired,” Dolan said of what he heard Thursday night. “And I’m looking forward to next Thursday. I hope I’m equally inspired at the Democratic convention,” he added.
I asked him about the controversy over his decisions to extend an invitation to both presidential candidates to the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation charity dinner in mid-October and to accept the invitation to pray at the Democratic convention. The cardinal urged: “Please don’t be confused. Please know that simply to pray with somebody, simply to have a meal with somebody, simply to be friendly to somebody doesn’t mean that we are endorsing them or agreeing with them.”
It is not just laypeople who have expressed their disappointment in these decisions, he tells me, but some brother bishops as well, and this all “weighs” on him. “I feel bad if I have let them down,” he says. He welcomes “respectful criticism,” believing he needs “that more than the pats on the back.”
“I am just hoping that a more conciliatory posture might especially be a light to the world and salt to the earth in a time when divisiveness and almost a hyperbolic partisanship seem to have overtaken the American political process,” he told me. And, he added, “if anyone should try to give a sense of bridge-building, I would hope it would be the Church. And so when both invitations came in, I seized them.”
“In the human spirit,” the cardinal of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops observed, “the two things, I believe, that are most noble” are, first of all, supernaturally, “to pray” and, naturally, “to have a meal with people.” He expressed his worry that “if we begin to politicize those two very noble ventures, then we are really in trouble, and I don’t know when we’re ever going to achieve any kind of progress or dialogue or advancement of the human project.” His prayer is that “to pray at both conventions is advancing the cause of unity. To have a meal with the two candidates at the Al Smith Dinner, I hope, is advancing the cause of unity.”
“We also pray for conversion,” he offers, and that is part of his prayer, too. “Because there are things with the Republicans that some Catholics have reservations about. There are certainly things with the Democrats, as you pinpointed [abortion], that Catholics have great reservations about. And so to pray for that spirit of conversion in each, I think, is not a bad thing.”
“Just because we pray with someone or we eat with someone doesn’t mean we agree with them,” Cardinal Dolan underscored. “I’ve prayed with people on death row, and I certainly don’t approve of what they’ve done or what they stand for. But it’s still something that I feel I am called to do. It’s my vocation as a pastor.”
“I think part of the credibility of the Church comes in its desire to be impartial and to stand above partisan politics,” Dolan explained. “If we are too dramatically identified with either party, that gives the other one ammo to whittle away at our credibility. If we can give the impression that these Catholic leaders — this Catholic community — are doing their best to be open and fair, and attentive to both sides,” they may more easily see that “we are obviously not in it to advance any partisan platform, we are in it for principles. We’re in it for Biblical principles. We’re in it for the very principles of natural law upon which this great republic was constructed,” he told me. “If we can try our best to at least say we are open to both, we welcome an approach to both, we open the doors to both, that may give us more credibility in the presentation of our principles.”
“Everybody asks me,” Cardinal Dolan says, “‘Why are you so available to the media?’
“Because I trust,” he answers. “Most” of the people in the media, he contends, “are honest, hardworking people who are hungry for knowledge. And they simply want to know. And if you are available to them, if you trust them, if you try to help them out — if you don’t dodge the tough questions — 99 percent of them are going to treat you fairly,” he says.
“When I got to New York,” the cardinal remembers, “somebody told me, ‘You’re going to be with the media all the time; if you bat .500 with the media you’re doing pretty good.’
“The truth will set you free, as Jesus said. So you try to be as honest and upfront and available to the media as you can be.”
When I asked him how he prays about these decisions that involve politics and prudence and leadership and media savvy, he replied: “My prayer is very pragmatic. I have one single thing in mind, and that is: the honor and glory of God, the service of Jesus in His Church, the salvation of souls. Everything I do, I ask: Is this or is this not going to advance the Kingdom? Is this or is this not going to bring people closer to God? Is this or is this not going to serve the cause of Jesus in His Church? That’s my only drive. And that’s the only rule that I have in trying to make these decisions.
“I’m just trying to be a halfway decent priest who accepts the invitation to pray with people because my hope is to bring people closer to God and closer to one another,” Cardinal Dolan tells me in a back room at Tampa’s hockey stadium. “And if these two convention prayers can do that, Alleluia!”
And so he prays. For and with Republicans and Democrats.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.