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Cardinal Dolan and the Problem of Partisanship

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 28, 2012

The news that Cardinal Dolan will offer the closing prayers at the Democratic national convention followed by a few days the announcement that he would lead the closing prayers at the Republican convention. Naturally, some on each side have condemned the Cardinal’s involvement in the other side’s convention. We might dismiss these condemnations as mere partisanship. But should we?

Clearly, the official line of the Archdiocese of New York is that Cardinal Dolan’s offer to pray at both conventions was an attempt to transcend partisanship: “[T]he cardinal was coming solely as a pastor, only to pray, not to endorse any party, platform, or candidate.” As when he invited both Romney and Obama to the Al Smith Dinner, praising the event for its long history of civility in rising above political partisanship, Cardinal Dolan obviously regards the two conventions as opportunities for fruitful public interaction with the Church. But the problem here, as I see it, is an inability to distinguish between a serious moral position and mere “partisanship”.

Partisanship is a pejorative term—a dirty word. It is what we are guilty of when we praise or blame based on which group we belong to, without reference to the merits of the case. Often this is inconsequential, as when we boo a referee who makes a “wrong” call at a sporting event (i.e., a call that favors the wrong color uniform). This is mostly in good fun. But many times partisanship is a real evil, because when we act in a partisan way we treat the virtues and vices of our friends and our enemies differently.

It is not partisanship to prefer the platform of one party over another, and it is usually sufficient to avoid the charge of partisanship to be both fair and courteous in our dealings with the different parties involved in any given question. Indeed, fairness and courtesy are always virtues to be prized. They comprise a great deal of what we mean by “civility”. But we have to be careful, even in our fairness and courtesy, to avoid appearing to be complacent about evil.

Where disagreements are merely prudential, over the best way to achieve some common goal, the occasional suspension of the battle between opposing sides can be salutary. It provides a reminder of what we have in common, and an admission that we cannot be completely sure that our own strategy really is the best. In a healthy culture, most disagreements will be of this kind; that is, they will be about things on which good men and women really can disagree. But in a culture that is desperately ill, one party or another may actually come to embrace one or more intrinsic evils—evils that we can on no account morally countenance, evils to which we must not give even the appearance of indifference, let alone support.

The problem of addressing the decision to pray at the Democratic convention in terms of partisanship—as in rising above mere partisanship—is that this both trivializes the moral issues at stake and gives the impression of calling on God to bless the efforts of the Party (or the candidates) as they currently stand. Yet the support of President Obama and the Democratic Party for such things as abortion and gay marriage (among others) is intrinsically and very seriously immoral. Therefore, a new set of rules applies, rules which require every Catholic (and certainly the Church in her official capacity) to insist on the seriousness of this immorality, to refuse to countenance it, and to avoid giving the least impression that it is unimportant or deserving of the blessing of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now Cardinal Dolan may well surprise us. He could, for example, use his closing prayer to ask God to change the hearts and the principles of both the Democratic Party and its candidates, enumerating clearly those areas in which their immorality must be clearly condemned. In that case, perhaps, the Party would not be able to use the closing prayer as another news story and photo op to prove that it remains in favor with the Catholic Church. (And, of course, if Romney, Ryan and the Republicans can be found guilty of advocating any intrinsic evils, the closing prayer at their convention could be used in the same way.)

If Cardinal Dolan were to do this at the Democratic Convention, it would be a strong moral stand, but it would not be partisan. Paradoxically, if he does not do this, his presence can only be used in a way that is partisan. This is what always happens when we fail to take moral differences seriously. In the name of being non-partisan, we simply end up being more partisan. We bestow our favor on a party without regard to the reality it represents. And when a Cardinal does this in prayer, He invokes God’s favor without regard to the sin He is asking God to bless.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: sparch - Aug. 29, 2012 2:10 PM ET USA

    It is a great act of faith to enter the lion's den alone (but not unarmed). These moments serve their ministerial purpose by holding a mirror up to those you address. The reaction by the audiance in both conventions will be telling, including how many will remain to listen to it.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 29, 2012 8:19 AM ET USA

    Yesterday was the feast of the great bishop Augustine. His words and example serve us well today. The man elevated to the office of bishop, prince of the Church, shepherd of souls is set apart. The individual and his personal sentiments are not the priority. He becomes like his Master, crucified on Calvary, a sign of contradiction to the world. This takes sacramental grace, cooperation, humility, orientation, prayer and fortitude. He is a witness (martyr) to Christ and to his message.

  • Posted by: mdepietro - Aug. 29, 2012 12:12 AM ET USA

    The decision by Cardinal Dolan to say the closing prayer at the DNC is particularly shocking given the Democrat strategy to highlight pro-abortion speakers, including Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parent Action Fund, Nancy Keenan, president of the NARAL Pro-Choice America. It is impossible to understand the value of the Cardinals appearance at this event, unless he explicitly condemns these speakers. If he does not, it will show the sorry state of the Episcopate in the USA.

  • Posted by: gop - Aug. 28, 2012 8:42 PM ET USA

    Thank you, once again, for such clarity. I somehow "felt" that there was something wrong in this decision to appear not to be siding with the Republicans but could not explain it to myself what and why. But your writing always clarifies my muddled thinking. Thanks

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