My first thought as I listened to Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan’s prayer last week in Tampa was — “Holy Benediction, Batman! That’s a long prayer!” Many of the sentiments in the prayer were good and commendable, though it wasn’t altogether clear whether it was a prayer — that is, an utterance intended to be heard by God — or something simply intended to be heard by the delegates on the floor or the people watching in TV-land. But even before he invoked Divine Providence, his appearance caused something of a stir.
Dolan is the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York as well as the head of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, and therefore the titular head of Roman Catholicism in our country. Was his benediction a too-warm embrace of the Republican Party? Was this a coup for the Mormon Romney, who is seeking to capture a larger wedge of a traditionally Democratic Catholic constituency?
Tonight, Dolan will perform the same role for the Democrats in Charlotte, after initially having his offer to speak … er, pray … rejected. For a party coming off a messy and contentious floor vote about including “God” and “Jerusalem” in its platform — after having not — Dolan’s off-again, on-again presence is sure to attract a lot of attention.
How, one wonders, will his remarks compare to last week? Is benedictory Dolan steadfast, offering up a substantively identical prayer, or will he offer up some contextual wrinkles that leave us reading the tea leaves on how Dolan v. Dolan nets out for Catholics and presidential politics? If it’s the latter, Dolan could try to balance the imprecatory scales, throwing a little blue meat to Democrats and demonstrating that God is a registered Independent. (Which raises an interesting question: Can you curse during a benediction?)
Granted, praying in public — outside of a public church service, that is — can be a bit dicey. Some Protestants even hold that such prayers may be inappropriate, insofar as they are not offered in the name and by the merits of Jesus, and therefore suggest that how or to whom you pray makes no difference. For example, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) disciplined a minister who spoke at the Yankee Stadium prayer service in the wake of 9/11.
I confess to having strong sympathies with the LCMS view. It is both theologically and politically messy to draw a one-to-one map connecting faith and politics. This is not to claim, as some do, that we check our religious commitments at the door when we enter the public square, that God-talk should stay in church, or to deny that our faith shapes every aspect of our daily lives. Exactly which political policies should one hold as a result of confessing the triune faith of the Apostle’s Creed?
It was of course only natural — though perhaps not praiseworthy — for Dolan to pray a prayer tailored for his Republican congregation, full of political “dog whistles” tailored for a conservative audience. By mentioning the sacred gift of life, respect for religious liberty, and natural law as a “boundary of righteous living,” he clearly if not unambiguously weighed in on contemporary political debates involving abortion, the HHS birth-control mandate, and gay marriage.
Reading between the lines, his prayer on these issues generally tracked with Roman Catholic dogma. But there is much dissent in the American Church faith and practice over these issues, and many Catholics have touted the conflicts between the church’s social teaching and Paul Ryan’s budget proposal. Other voices within the Conference of Bishops are clearly concerned that Dolan’s remarks might appear to be a blessing not only upon the convention, but upon the Republican Party itself, as well as a blessing for Catholics to vote for Mitt Romney.
How shall Dolan bless the Democratic gathering? Shall he mitigate his allusions to abortion, religious freedom, and gay marriage, for fear of giving too bold a churchly imprimatur upon Republicanism? If he does, will he be accused of selling out, of failing to speak prophetic truth to power? Or should he speak for those millions of Catholics under his care who have deep affinity for the Democratic platform’s values when it comes to choice, birth control, and marriage equality, precisely because they view them to be Catholic values?
It’s tricky, mixing politics and religion.
Dr. Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, D.C. He formerly worked as a communications director both on Capitol Hill and at the National Endowment for the Humanities.