A Cardinal at the Conventions

Fenster writes:

The Archbishop of  New York, Timothy Dolan, finds himself in the unique position of addressing both of the national party conventions, supplying the benedictions to both Democrats and Republicans.

Here is a link on a Catholic political blog to both addresses.

I found them interesting and instructive.  You may too.  The blog owner asked for reactions to the two addresses.  Here are mine.

First, a comment on the practice of benedictions at such events.  While it is tempting to ask how the tradition of benedictions at political events squares with the separation of church and state, I will refrain from that easy hit.  My take is almost the opposite.  IMHO, there really can be no true wall between church and state.  If religion were just a matter of private belief such a wall would be entirely feasible.  No one should hear the knock on the door while privately praying.  But religion is inevitably social and value-laden, and it concerns itself by necessity with matters of practice and behavior.  Accordingly, conflicts will always exist between dominant values in a political collective and dominant values in a religious collective.

To say religious freedom must entail the primacy of the latter cannot be true. You have only to consider the many practices around the world that are offensive to our sensibilities as a political collective–practices that we rightly condemn and limit–to realize that religious practices do not hold a trump card on account of their origins in religious doctrine or belief.  Further, given the inevitability of values overlap, no such thing as a wall can truly be said to exist.

Which is not to say we should do without the idea of a wall.  All social ideas are adaptive more than they are true or false, and the idea of a wall is a helpful one.  Most of the time.  But we should not delude ourselves into thinking there is some sort of objective truth about it.

So as far as I am concerned, let Dolan speak in a political context.

But let’s also see what he has to say.

And that is also interesting.

Given the Church’s position on social issues such as abortion (and given Dolan’s reputation for conservatism in such matters), it is hardly surprising that he should make specific reference to the unborn in both settings.  And that’s fine.  I think it is part of the bargain when you invite a Cardinal to speak.

But he seems to handle questions of social justice and the poor in very different ways.  In his address to Democrats his very first sentence after invoking God is as follows:

Bless all here present, and all across this great land, who work hard for the day when a greater portion of your justice, and a more ample measure of your care for the poor and suffering, may prevail in these United States.  Help us to see that a society’s greatness is found above all in the respect it shows for the weakest and neediest among us.

You have to get to the third paragraph before the unborn make an appearance:

We ask your benediction on those waiting to be born, that they may be welcomed and protected.

When we get to the Republican address, the unborn are in the lede.  The first sentence after invoking God is:

We ask your benediction upon those yet to be born.

But what of social justice?  Here is Dolan’s second paragraph:

We lift up to your loving care those afflicted by the recent storms and drought and fire.  We ask for the grace to stand in solidarity with all those who suffer.  May we strive to include your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, in the production and prosperity of a people so richly blessed.

Here, the poor and suffering consist of two kinds of people: those put out by natural calamities (we stand in solidarity with them), and the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (i.e., the poor of the rest of the world that look for a better life in this land of opportunity).  What about those who are . . . actually poor and suffering here, in the United  States?  They make a brief appearance at the very end of the benediction, in passing:

We pray for all those who seek honest labor, as we thank you for the spirit of generosity to those in need with which you so richly blessed this nation.

Note as well they only make the back half of the sentence, after praying for those seeking honest work.

Again, I am not sure I can fault Dolan for these rhetorical devices.  The Church does seem to be more concerned with social issues like abortion than social justice.  And so the institution of the Church tilts right, even as the Nuns on the Bus tilt left.  But it is at least revealing of priorities that Dolan would have chosen his words as carefully as he did.

For the record, my own views on abortion-style issues are to the left of Dolan, just as my views on social justice are to the right of progressives and the Nuns on the Bus.  I do find it odd, though, that both progressives and the Church hierarchy seem to think that abortion and gay marriage are the most important issues in play. I don’t.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
This entry was posted in Philosophy and Religion, Politics and Economics. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Cardinal at the Conventions

  1. Jeffrey S. says:


    You say, “I do find it odd, though, that both progressives and the Church hierarchy seem to think that abortion and gay marriage are the most important issues in play. I don’t.” Really? Have you followed these issues at all (I mean on an intellectual level, at places like “First Things” or Ed Feser’s blog? If you had, you’d realize why they take priority — as good Catholics (and I would argue as good Christians) we must not cooperate with evil for some supposedly good outcome. Period, end of story. Whatever else abortion and the redefinition of marriage are as issues, they are clear evils — so they take priority in terms of the clear guidance that the Church must give the faithful w/r/t opposition and working toward justice. All the rest (e.g. Nuns on the Bus) are matters of prudential judgement and YMMV depending on the facts and the arguments.


  2. Fenster says:

    To clarify: I didn’t mean that the Church position does not have its own logic–clear opposition to evil versus prudential judgment. I guess by “odd”–perhaps the wrong word choice–I was simply closing on the kind of ironic note that is common in short blog posts. That is: how interesting that the two opponents agree on the importance of the issue, each in their own way, and I don’t agree with either That’s all. A comment about my own perspective as regards the debate, not a comment on the debaters.

    Thanks for the reference to the Feser site, which I have now visited and expect to read more. I had not been there before, but I read City Journal very regularly and National Review from time to time, and I see he is associated with both. I have long been interested in religion but have never warmed to churches as institutions and the role of doctrine. Perhaps I will be persuaded.


  3. Jeffrey S. says:

    Fenster — thanks for the clarification; your post makes more sense now. Feser has had an enormous influence on my own thinking — I’ve read his book on Aquinas and plan on getting and reading The Last Superstition soon. His intellect is super-charged and I only wish I had more of a background in philosophy so I could follow him a bit easier.

    Anyway — good luck and keep up the good work here. Love the blog!


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