Dolan spoils the party

Why did Democrats allow the cardinal to give a right-wing prayer? The party still can't speak truth to power

Topics: Democratic National Convention, 2012 Elections, Democratic Party, Catholic Church, Timothy Dolan,

Dolan spoils the party (Credit: Reuters/Tami Chappell)

The Democrats still have a religion problem. No, not that religion problem. They just can’t seem to get past wanting the blessing of a larger-than-life religious figure — even when that figure has called their policies “un-American” and depicts their core beliefs as antithetical to our most cherished freedoms.

The circumstances leading up to Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s benediction last night were politically fraught, but they didn’t have to be. First, Mitt Romney announced Dolan would be giving the closing benediction at the Republican National Convention. (At the time, I wrote that the move signaled Dolan had chosen sides with the GOP. Nothing he said last night seemed to suggest otherwise.) Under fire from fellow Catholics and others, and in an effort to appear nonpartisan, Dolan offered to perform the same function in Charlotte. While some observers have argued that Dolan was backed into a corner and working from a position of weakness — he needed the Democrats to give him cover from the charges of partisanship — the Democrats looked like the ones in the position of weakness. They couldn’t, after all, say no.

Or could they have — or should they have? The problem with celebrity benedictions and invocations is that they are necessarily political, no matter how much both the host and guest protest that it’s really about honoring God, and not about politics. It’s a political convention! How can anything that happens at it not be political?

As Irin Carmon has detailed, Dolan took the opportunity to offer a prayer freighted with the hottest of the hot-button issues of the campaign — abortion, contraception and marriage equality, the latter two framed as infringements of religious liberty, what Dolan last night called “the first, most cherished freedom.”

In other words, Dolan wasn’t giving a final blessing on the proceedings, he was signaling to conservatives that he was there precisely to condemn them.

This, and in particular, Dolan’s prayer for protecting “those waiting to be born,” thrilled antiabortion activists. “This was a moment in history. So proud and inspired to witness #truthtopower,” tweeted Americans United for Life president Charmaine Yoest.

This all happened on the same day that Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City was convicted of failing to report to authorities the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, who had a “pornography problem.” The conviction was the first of its kind in the ongoing church sex abuse scandal, with the case offering damning evidence that Finn failed to take any meaningful action to prevent Ratigan from taking lewd photographs of young girls on playgrounds and at church functions. Recently the New York Times reported that Dolan himself, while archbishop of Milwaukee, authorized payments to abusive priests so they would agree to be defrocked without a protracted internal church process. The report prompted the advocacy group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests to protest, “In what other occupation, especially one working with families and operating schools and youth programs, is an employee given a cash bonus for raping and sexually assaulting children?”

Perhaps Democrats thought they looked tolerant, embracing of a big tent, to have Dolan there. After all, there are pro-life Democrats seeking a place within the party. Indeed, Sister Simone Campbell’s well-received speech drew wild applause when she proclaimed that her pro-life stance is about more than one issue. As she demonstrated so vividly, the Catholic Church and its many affiliated charitable organizations are well-known to many Americans for the essential social services they provide in their communities.

The Democrats’ conflict with Dolan is not just about the church’s opposition to abortion (a view Campbell shares, but doesn’t talk much about).  On the matter they call religious freedom, the Bishops have, for more than a year, embarked on a carefully orchestrated campaign, staffed with lobbyists, bolstered by activists and cheered on by the Republican Party, to paint reproductive and LGBT rights as dire threats to the religious freedom of millions of Americans Catholics (and evangelicals). As the Bishops this summer called on Catholics to commemorate the martyrdom of St. Thomas More, whom Henry VIII beheaded over his loyalty to Rome, Father Paul Scalia (son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia) more explicitly compared the contraception mandate to Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church and the bloody religious wars of Reformation England.

Before last night, the DNC had given a prominent role to women’s rights advocates, including Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, NARAL Pro-Choice America president Nancy Keenan and Sandra Fluke, the center of the Bishops’ storm over the contraception mandate. Although this point was not emphasized, Fluke, in particular, is a symbol of what happens when one religious group — one with a lot of money and a powerful Washington lobbying arm — tries to impose its religious views through policy. But that particular danger to religious freedom, religious pluralism and secular government was left unspoken at the convention, a serious shortcoming of the Democrats when it comes to talking about religion. Instead, Dolan was given a spot to advocate the opposite view.

Dolan was not speaking truth to power. Dolan is power. Sister Simone could not have given the benediction; nuns are considered laypeople and women are barred from ordination in the Catholic Church. American nuns are under Vatican investigation for promoting “radical feminist themes.”

The church, of course, is free to have these rules. That’s the real essence of religious freedom: The government won’t interfere with the church’s internal policies and governance. On matters that affect other citizens, though, religious freedom demands respecting the religious views of others as well: Many, many religious people, including many dissenting Catholics, believe their faith supports marriage equality, supports access to reproductive healthcare, supports equal roles for women and LGBT people within the faith. But by letting Dolan trounce on the convention’s full-throated celebration of equality for women and LGBT people, the Democrats bared their real religion problem: They still can’t seem to speak truth to power.

Sarah Posner is the senior editor of Religion Dispatches, where she writes about politics. She is also the author of God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters" (PoliPoint Press, 2008).

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.


    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."


    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>