Should Cardinal Dolan deliver the benediction at the Republican National Convention? According to the AP, Romney announced his appearance last night on EWTN. Dolan is scheduled to give the benediction on the last night of the convention, when Romney accepts his nomination for president. His spokesman, according to the AP, is denying that this should be viewed as an endorsement of Romney: “It’s not an endorsement. It’s as a priest going to pray.”
Conservatives have been quick to defend the Cardinal, pointing out that Cardinal Mahoney offered a prayer at the Democratic National Convention in 2000. (Cf. the blog at America. Note that the pictures included are not from the convention but the inauguration of the Mayor of LA in 2005.) I would note two differences: first, Mahoney delivered the invocation at the opening of the convention—temporally separate from Gore’s acceptance speech on the last day. Second, the Democratic convention was in Los Angeles, where Mahoney is bishop. (As an aside, Mahoney used the opportunity to gently rebuke the Democrats on life issues.)
In analyzing this, it is worth remembering that this invitation was a political decision by the Republicans. For that matter, the decision of the Democrats to invite Mahoney in 2000 was also a political decision: everything associated with a national political convention is political. Moreover, the decision was not simply to get a Catholic bishop, but to get Cardinal Dolan. As the NY Times reports:
Before accepting the invitation, Cardinal Dolan told the convention organizers that it was standard church practice for the local bishop of the area to give the blessing. But, Mr. Zwilling said, “they said we would really like you to do it,” so he checked with Robert Nugent Lynch, the bishop of St. Petersburg, Fla., and he had no objection.
(Hat tip to the Commonweal blog for this quote.) Similarly, one can presume that the decision for Dolan to give the benediction instead of the invocation was based on political calculation.
Therefore, the question becomes: was it prudent for Cardinal Dolan to accept an invitation contrary to “standard church practice”, and should he accept an invitation to pray that places him in close proximity to the culmination of the convention when Romney accepts the nomination? As president of the USCCB and bishop of the largest diocese in the US, Dolan is (in some informal sense) the primate of the Church in the United States. His appearance (irrespective of what he says) will be seen as an endorsement of Romney, Dolan’s denials notwithstanding. Will his image be exploited by the Republicans in campaign ads, as they did with the image of JP II?
I think it is a mistake. This decision will only drag the Church further into a partisan divide and fuel the perception (true or not) that the Catholic Church wants to replace the Episcopalians as the Republican party on its knees. While there are some things that Dolan could say in his benediction that could ameliorate the situation (such as attacking Republican economic policies as the USCCB recently did) my hunch is that he will not go in that direction. Moreover, there are things he could say which would only make it worse. For example, if he dwells in his prayer on religious freedom, it will almost certainly be interpreted as an attack on the Obama administration.
It is probably too late for him to decline the invitation: it would probably take a call from Benedict XVI to change his mind. Let’s hope that he keeps his prayer as non-partisan as possible and avoids anything (in word, deed or photo op) that can be construed as an endorsement of Romney.