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Of Princes and Pawns

I have been fairly intrigued by the actions of the Cardinal Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan. As one of the “princes of the Church” and as the ostensible face of the Catholic Church in America (in his capacity as President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), he possesses a certain level of moral gravitas. Indeed, one should hope that a man of his standing would have a rather thorough understanding of Catholic social teaching. This makes his concurrent decision to both sue the federal government for “a violation of personal civil rights” and his decisions to invite the aforementioned civil rights abuser to the Al Smith Dinner and to provide the closing benediction at the Democratic National Convention quite perplexing.

To deal with the dinner first, the Cardinal argues, in a response to critics, that the Al Smith Dinner is nothing more than an opportunity to engage in civilized dialogue. He quips, “If I only sat down with people who agreed with me, and I with them, or with those who were saints, I’d be taking all my meals alone.” I find this explanation less than fulfilling, and it indicates that Dolan misses the point that his critics are making. The Al Smith Dinner is not merely Tim and the Gang grabbing a couple beers after work with their IRS auditor. It’s a national event that will be broadcast to the entire country and is a very public Church function. What kind of message will it send when people see the man who has been crusading against the HHS mandate all summer yucking it up with the creator of that mandate? And what about the people who spent the better part of the summer fasting and praying for an end to that mandate because “[their] right to live out [their] faith is being threatened“? They will think that the Church isn’t serious. They will think it’s merely a bunch of blowhards running around scaring people, but at the end of the day, it’s no big deal. They will think their leaders are a bunch of hypocrites, invoking everyone to fast and pray, while they go out and party.

Now, there’s something to be said for engaging the opposition. But granting your opponent a very large microphone against the backdrop of your organization while you sue him for voiding your right to self-determination is a bridge too far. The good Cardinal is naive indeed, if he thinks that Obama won’t use that opportunity as a major PR stunt. Obama could say something along the lines of, “They were suing me, but look at this picture of us laughing together. We’re all good now. They were just kidding about the whole First Amendment thing.” If the Cardinal’s Fortnight for Freedom shtick was intended to unearth the dangers of the HHS mandate, the Al Smith Dinner will only serve to bury them.

A similar argument can be made for the Cardinal’s appearance at the DNC this week, except that the contradictions are much more glaringly obvious. The Cardinal will give the final benediction at something that will have spent nearly a week celebrating abortion and the sexual revolution. Considering that abortion is the one policy that the American Church has consistently and vigorously opposed, Dolan’s capstone performance for the DNC is quite odd indeed. Coupled with the Al Smith Dinner, if his goal is to completely eliminate any moral legitimacy that the Church still has in the eyes of the public, he is well on his way to doing so.

Of course the burning question is “Why?” What could be motivating the Cardinal to act in such a manner? In my opinion, and this problem is by no means unique to churchmen, I think that proximity to power and influence can cause serious degradation in one’s moral fiber. When you spend a good portion of your day hanging out with Presidents, and congressmen, and Senators, you may encounter a lot of opposition to your views. You want to be liked. You don’t want people to think poorly of you. And you definitely don’t want to be called names. So, you capitulate. If Cardinal Dolan refused to invite Obama to the Al Smith Dinner, he, himself, would be inviting all kinds of partisan criticism. In the process, he would probably alienate himself from those in power. He would risk severing his very valuable connections with the White House and other agencies of the government. A drink from the chalice of power is very intoxicating, and once tasted, difficult to forgo. Of course, this sort of unholy alliance between the church and the government is hardly new (cf. Martin Luther), but it tends to have a corrupting influence on both entities (cf. most of Western history).

As a great man once said, “Our leaders today have decided it is more important to be popular, to say and do what is easy, and say yes rather than to say no, when no is what’s required.” Cardinal Dolan, it seems, would rather be popular.

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