Angling for Catholic votes


Priests are in the praying business, and political conventions long have invited men and women of the cloth to seek God’s blessing on their deliberations. But in asking the leader of the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops to close out next week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., with a benediction, the GOP is not so subtly angling for Catholic votes and seeking to capitalize on the hierarchy’s disputes with the Obama administration. Instead of lending his presence to the proceedings, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York should have followed protocol and allowed a local and lower-profile cleric to do the honors.

To be fair, Dolan expressed a willingness to offer a prayer at the Democratic convention as well. He insists that his participation in the Republican proceedings is not a partisan gesture. The cardinal’s spokesman said that, before accepting, Dolan told convention organizers that it was standard church practice for the local bishop of the area to offer a blessing. But, the spokesman added, “they said we would really like you to do it.”

No kidding. The local bishop, Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, is not a household name. Dolan, on the other hand, is not just the bishop of the Big Apple and head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; he’s also the face of the conference’s opposition to the Obama administration’s requirement that religiously affiliated schools, hospitals and charities (but not churches themselves) provide employees with preventive health services including contraception. The bishops have portrayed the administration’s policy as a war on religious freedom.


Not so coincidentally, it was during a discussion of religious freedom on ETWN, a conservative Catholic TV network, that Mitt Romney announced Dolan’s selection. Asked about the bishops’ opposition to the contraceptive mandate, Romney replied: “Well, first of all, I’ll continue to meet with Cardinal Dolan, who, by the way, is going to offer the benediction on the last evening of the Republican convention after my acceptance speech. So I am making it very clear that the interest of religious freedom is something I support wholeheartedly.”

Recruiting Dolan as a convention speaker may not be as useful in enticing Catholic voters as the Republicans hope. Not all members of the church agree with the bishops that President Obama is an enemy of religious freedom. Others question the priority the bishops are placing on contraception as opposed to the church’s teachings about the importance of a safety net for the poor -- teachings that are hard to reconcile with the budget proposals of Romney’s Catholic running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin (a friend of Dolan from the cardinal’s time as archbishop of Milwaukee).

But, successful or not, the party’s invitation to Dolan seems designed to score points with an important group of voters. By accepting it, the cardinal, intentionally or not, has placed his imprimatur on that strategy.