Monday, August 27, 2012

*Update - August 28* A Little More on Cardinal Dolan & the GOP Convention or "What's wrong with the Amish?"

 It was just announced that Cardinal Dolan will also be giving the closing prayer at the Democratic convention.  The press release from the Archdiocese of New York reads as follows:
Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, has accepted an invitation to deliver the closing prayer at next week’s Democratic National Convention. As was previously announced, he will also be offering the closing prayer at the Republican Convention on Thursday of this week.
It was made clear to the Democratic Convention organizers, as it was to the Republicans, that the Cardinal was coming solely as a pastor, only to pray, not to endorse any party, platform, or candidate. The Cardinal consulted Bishop Peter Jugis of the Diocese of Charlotte, who gave the Cardinal his consent to take part in the convention that will be taking place in his diocese.
I want to reiterate that my criticism still stands.  The problem, in my view, was not that he was praying at the GOP convention.  The problem was that he, or any other Catholic leader, was willing to pray at either of the conventions, Democrat or Republican.  While Cardinal Dolan is not endorsing either political party or platform, he is, by his participation in these two conventions, endorsing an understanding of the church's relationship to the state that I find troubling.  As one person commented on this post: "Doesn't it concern anyone that we assume any influence we may wield must be wielded according to the rules of the society we're trying to influence? Isn't that yielding the game before it has begun?"

Yes, the Catholic church has always done this sort of thing (i.e., prayed at political conventions).  But the time is long past for us to question whether the church should be doing such things, and for the church to ponder the political theology that has dominated since the time of Constantine.

So while some of my more left-leaning Catholic friends may feel better now that Cardinal Dolan has agreed to pray at the DNC, I'm even more troubled...

A few people seem to have misunderstood my previous post about Cardinal Dolan's willingness to give the benediction at the GOP convention.  My problem with it has absolutely nothing to do with partisanship.  That is, I would express similar reservations were Cardinal Dolan praying at the Democratic convention.

My concerns are ecclesiological in nature, and go right to the heart of how the Catholic church - and specifically the Catholic church in the United States - understands its relationship to the state.  Last Friday, an editorial was published in the NCR that troubled me, precisely because it spoke directly to the church's relationship to the state in discussing Cardinal Dolan's benediction.  It reads, in part (the full editorial can be read here):
The notion that Catholic bishops in the United States have not been involved in politics historically or should not be involved in politics is, in the first instance, a fiction, and in the second instance, absurd.
With no insult intended to the peaceful sect, Catholics are not Amish, about whom there is much to admire and who, in the long run, might be the better representatives of the peaceable kingdom. But Amish are relatively self-contained. They seek more to escape from than engage in the dominant culture; they don't aspire to great institutions, nor do they lay claim to traditions of art and intellectual endeavor that influenced civilizations over millennia.
The extremes of examples serve only to illustrate that the Catholic church aspires to be a robust presence in the culture, to influence systemic change, to argue and persuade toward what it considers the most loving and just options for human society. In short, it's a player -- always has been and presumably always will be [emphasis mine].
I won't comment on what I think is a drastic misunderstanding of Anabaptist theology and ecclesiology above.  Rather, what bothers me is the last paragraph.  I don't deny that the Catholic church should aspire to be a robust presence in culture, that it should influence systematic change, and that it should persuade toward what it considers the most loving and just options for human society.  What I question, and what others before me (like, for example, Dorothy Day) have questioned, is why the Catholic church understands that to do these things it must be a "player" on the political plane, that is, in the halls of power of Washington, etc..

Why is it that the church thinks it needs to be a "player" in order to influence the society around them?  Why does this go relatively unquestioned?  Why is it assumed that the mechanism of societal change is the state, and not the church herself?  And why is the idea that the church should not be involved in politics considered "absurd"?

It seems to me that theological and ecclesiological waters usually get very muddied when mixed with the politics of the nation-state.  Moreover, to focus on change from the top-down is really the easy way out.  The time has now come to devote our attention simply to being the church, the nascent kingdom of God.  The problem is that this would require far more of us all - laity, religious, and clergy - than most of us are willing to accept.  It requires living in a revolutionary way, living as communities of selfless love that image the selfless community of the Trinity.  And frankly, if we look at the example of our early Christian forebears, this means living as communities that probably look a great deal more like Amish communities, or a Catholic Worker farm, or a community of religious.

But that's probably not going to happen, is it?  So...we will continue to bungle along with what seems to me a political theology that is at odds with what it means to live as church.  But forgive me if I don't watch Cardinal Dolan's prayer, or indeed, any of the two political conventions.


  1. My concern precisely greg...and not just the catholics! Doesn't it concern anyone that we assume any influence we may wield must be wielded according to the rules of the society we're trying to influence? Isn't that yielding the game before its begun?

  2. You pose some interesting and difficult questions. I'm embarrassed to say that I don't feel qualified to even begin to discuss them, having been away from the Church for a while. However, I feel that religion of any kind should be separate from the conventions. Religion and politics: as my mom would say, they're two topics that cause the most arguing, and they just don't mix well, like oil and water. Your essay goes beyond that idea, and I just want to say that I enjoyed reading it, and feel too ignorant to comment at any greater depth! Thanks for the good read.

  3. Thank you for the compliment!