In the end, there was Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York whose benedictions closed out both the Republican and Democratic national conventions. His words to the two parties mostly covered the same ground, sometimes in identical language. But there were some rather striking differences, underlining the church’s sharp disagreements with the Democratic Party over abortion and same-sex marriage, among other issues.
Dolan, who has not been shy about expressing his unhappiness with the Obama administration, seemed to be chiding the Democrats over their support of same-sex marriage when he said: “Show us anew that happiness is found only in respecting the laws of nature and of nature’s God. Empower us with your grace so that we might resist the temptation to replace the moral law with idols of our own making, or to remake those institutions you have given us for the nurturing of life and community.”
The Democratic Party platform this year endorses same-sex marriage, which both the Republican Party and the Catholic Church strongly oppose. There was no similar language in his benediction to the Republicans.
While Dolan spoke to both parties about the sanctity of life, his comments to the Democrats were a far more explicit reminder of his church’s opposition to abortion, which the party holds to be a woman’s choice. “Thus do we praise you for the gift of life,” Dolan intoned. “Grant us the courage to defend it, life, without which no other rights are secure. We ask your benediction on those waiting to be born, that they may be welcomed and protected.”
To Republicans, whose platform opposes abortion without exception, Dolan merely made a passing reference to “the sacred and inalienable gift of life.”
It also seemed noteworthy that when he spoke to the Republican convention in Tampa, Dolan asked for God’s guidance for “those who would govern us,” and cited Republican nominees Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan by name. At the Democratic convention in Charlotte, he named President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in the same context-- but then added Romney and Ryan. Democrats had little choice but to say, “Amen.”
Dolan has been archbishop of New York since 2009, and is known as a theological conservative with the charisma and burly self-confidence of a successful politician. As head of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, he is by far the most prominent American Catholic religious figure, and has led a fight against the Obama administration over its plans to ensure that employees of church-affiliated institutions, such as schools and hospitals, receive insurance coverage that includes free contraception.
Dolan has framed the issue as one of religious liberty, and his benedictions to both parties included nearly identical language about our “first, most cherished freedom.” He also spoke to both parties about the importance of caring for the needy, an area where the church has parted ways with the Republican Party. The nation’s Catholic bishops issued a series of letters earlier this year sharply criticizing the GOP budget plan written by Ryan because of the impact it would have on the poor.
That led to another interesting moment at the Democratic convention, in which a Catholic nun, Sister Simone Campbell, praised the bishops for saying that the Ryan plan “failed a basic moral test.” Campbell was one of the so-called Nuns on the Bus whose bus tour this summer attempted to focus attention on the Ryan plan and on the nuns’ social justice work. American nuns have had a testy relationship with U.S. bishops and with the Vatican, and have vocally parted ways with the bishops on Obama’s health care program.
Dolan was criticized by some in the church when he initially agreed to deliver the benediction at the Republican convention, an act that was seen as taking sides in a partisan fight. He said at the time that he would also be willing to give his blessing to the Democratic convention, and the Democrats took him up on the offer. By the end of the night Thursday, some of them may have been wondering why.