Cardinal Timothy Dolan showed how to speak truth to power in the public square this week.
“Power” in this case was the Republican Party, and the power was in a good mood when the Archbishop of New York went to the podium to close the GOP convention. But rather than just excuse the crowd with a few feel-good platitudes, Dolan delivered a brief blessing that was packed with Catholic teaching. And he did so in a thoroughly American spirit.
As with his decision to invite both presidential candidates to the Al Smith charity dinner in October, Dolan’s acceptance of the invitation to Tampa caused controversy, this time on the Catholic and non-Catholic left. But those who criticized him were a bit surprised, if they noticed at all, when it was announced that he will also give the closing benediction at the Democratic convention next week in Charlotte.
The difference is that in Charlotte, the speakers’ roster will also include Sister Simone Campbell, whose views of Catholic social teaching line up neatly with the Democratic party platform and who can serve as an “alternative hierarchy” for those seeking Catholic endorsement of a progressive agenda.
But back to Tampa. Given some of the astonishingly bad reporting of his words to the Republicans, it’s worth a moment to consider some highlights of what Cardinal Dolan actually said.
He began by invoking “Almighty God, Father of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus.” The “father” name and authority of the first person of the Trinity is mentioned over and over in the Catholic Catechism. “Father” means something different in the case of Abraham and Jesus, of course. But starting his remarks with this reference was a solid statement of Catholic belief at a time when the “father” side of God needs renewed emphasis.
He extended his benediction “upon those yet to be born” and on those nearing death, a clear call to cherish life at every stage. And, not shying away from differences on immigration policy, he asked for blessings on those whose families arrived generations ago and those who have come recently “to build a better future while weaving their lives into the rich tapestry of America.”
Cardinal Dolan: Catholic teaching in a thoroughly American spirit
He invoked the principle of solidarity with those suffering from natural disasters and with the poor, without prescribing a particular set of means to implement the principle.
In a key passage, he recalled that: “the only just government is the government that serves its citizens rather than itself.” From this notion, which goes back to the roots of Catholic thinking about politics, he proceeded to perhaps his central message: “Renew in all our people a respect for religious freedom in full, that first, most cherished freedom.”
There can be little doubt where that concise petition was aimed. In this one simple statement, Cardinal Dolan did what he most should have in the context of the convention.
But he went on, asking that we be made “truly free by tethering freedom to truth and ordering freedom to goodness.” This grounding of freedom in truth, and this placement of freedom as part of a larger order that is good, are the antidote to the nihilism that follows from moral relativism.
That freedom is to be used for a purpose – to lead a good life. And while I am no expert on the history of convention speeches, I would be surprised greatly if any other speaker in recent years has reminded the placard-wielding, costume-bedecked crowd of the virtues of faith, hope, love, prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude as the guides and marks of how a free life should be lived.
Dolan then recalled the words of the Declaration of Independence, asking that we might “know the truth of your creation, respecting the laws of nature and nature’s God…” While no one claims that America’s founders were predominantly Catholic, this was a reminder that those founders did accept a modicum of natural law as essential to the nature and spirit of the Republic. This was a key element of what Jefferson, forty-nine years after drafting the Declaration, meant when he characterized the document not as a statement of new or innovative principles, but as an expression of older truths as they were understood in the American mind.
Crucially, Cardinal Dolan added that we must not “seek to replace [the truth of creation and natural law] with idols of our own making.” This warning against substituting our own ideas of perfecting the world in the place of God’s truth is at the heart of much political and personal discord today, as always in history. Thus we must have “the good sense not to cast aside the boundaries of righteous living.”
He asked for God’s blessing on “all those in every land who seek to conduct their lives in freedom.” His benediction was a prayer to the God of truths that are universal, not just American. But he closed his words very much as an American, reminding us that “we are indeed one nation under God, and in God we trust.”
There are always questions about the role the Catholic hierarchy should play in politics. As this year has demonstrated, these questions are more acute now than ever before in the history of our country. They demand a careful reconsideration of when and how the bishops should engage political leaders. The usual calls for civility and dialogue will not be enough to guide the Church in the current circumstances, when the Church’s own liberty to function is under threat.
But in terms of the central responsibility of the bishops to speak the truth, it was a good week.