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.)
Dolan attributes the current battle over the HHS mandate and the very definition of religious liberty to a “utilitarian and consumerist culture of death . . . deeply rooted social, philosophical, and ethical tendencies that, unfortunately, often find their expression in our laws and in our attitudes toward others.” In the “utilitarian view that dominates our age,” Dolan continues, “the principle that human life is an end in itself, not a means to an end, is always subject to a calculation that would justify harm to another, if we deem it to produce enough of a benefit to ourselves. Every human life is thus vulnerable to being on the losing side of the utilitarian’s cost-benefit analysis.”
Dolan goes on to address specifically the threat to civility and civilization itself that is that culture of death, in particular for a country that refuses to protect the vulnerable unborn child. As the Democratic Convention in Charlotte is shaping up to become an ode to abortion rights — whereas abortion is an “intrinsic evil” in Catholic teaching — the presence of Dolan on the political scene, not as an endorser but as a teacher, is significant. Dolan reminds Catholics that they belong not to a party but to the eternal kingdom they seek.
Dolan — who was archbishop of Milwaukee in the early 2000s and who calls Paul Ryan a friend — has taken Ryan’s articulation of Catholic social teaching in defense of his budget as an opportunity to walk through the steps of discernment in economic policy and politics more generally. There should be robust debates about moral stewardship lead by people of faith on all political issues, not just the ones dubbed “social issues.” Reteaching basic moral principles, Dolan helps us make this possible. He reminds people of faith who we are, reminds Catholics in particular what we believe and what that means, and reminds the political class what they represent: a tradition that understands that freedom and democracy need religion. And that religion is more than a “safe harbor,” as it was described on Meet the Press during this political cycle, but a call that requires our whole lives — even our political ones.
During the media coverage of that educational trip to the Holy Land a year ago that involved freshmen congressmen diving into the Sea of Galilee after drinks, some media hosts were beside themselves. This is where Christ walked on water! But the sea isn’t a font of holy water, and Catholics and other people of faith believe it is our lives themselves that are meant to be holy, as we witness to what we believe, with love. That’s the political issue people of faith face: How can my vote help protect the freedom to live as I am called to? Dolan is a leader in the deprivatization of religion. That’s his endorsement: that we are all free to be who we say we are, individually, and as a nation. That we are free to know that it is the responsibility of people of faith to be true to this, and that it is in the best interest of all of us to protect that right to true freedom.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.