When New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan offers a benediction at the Republican Convention in Miami on Thursday, he will appear as a pastor, not a politician.
The distinction often gets lost when one finds oneself talking about issues that necessarily involve politics. It especially goes missing in media coverage, which thrives on conflict and contrast and categories, tilting toward black and white in a world often much more complicated.
As president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Dolan has found himself in the forefront of a battle over the definition of religious liberty in America. He was among the first out of the gates criticizing the president's health care plan that includes coverage of abortion, among other things, and has been a consistent defender of religious freedom. The archdiocese of New York is currently suing the Department of Health and Human Services over the health care mandate, on grounds that it forces churches and other religious groups with large numbers of employees to violate their sacred beliefs.
That's why it became a controversy when the cardinal invited President Obama to dinner. But unlike the commencement address and honorary degree given to the president at the University of Notre Dame in 2008, where Obama suggested that conscience rights would be protected by his administration, this dinner isn't an honor, it's a fundraiser -- for charities that this administration's policies have put in jeopardy. Faith-based social service organizations face crippling fines for noncompliance to the HHS mandate.
In defending his decision to invite the president, Cardinal Dolan described the dinner as a demonstration that people can gather in fellowship, "civility, and patriotism, to help those in need, not to endorse either candidate. Those who started the dinner 67 years ago believed that you can accomplish a lot more by inviting folks of different political loyalties to an uplifting evening, rather than in closing the door to them," Dolan continued.
In an e-book released earlier this summer, "True Freedom," Cardinal Dolan wrote: "If we allow the human person to become a thing, and a human life to become a commodity that can be valued more or less depending on circumstance, political ideology, or current whims, then we have embarked on a perilous path."
As the Democratic convention in Charlotte is shaping up to become an ode to abortion rights -- abortion being an "intrinsic evil" in Catholic teaching -- the presence of Dolan on the political scene not as a political player, but as a teacher, is significant. Dolan reminds Catholics that they do not belong to a party but to something higher.
There should be robust debates about moral stewardship on all political issues, not just the ones dubbed "social," led by people of faith. Addressing basic moral principles, Dolan helps make this possible. Reminding people of faith who they are, what they believe and what that means for their lives, while reminding the political class who they represent, as well as reinforcing the traditional idea that freedom and democracy need religion. And that religion is more than a "safe harbor" as it was described on "Meet the Press" during this political cycle, but a call that requires our whole lives, even our political ones.
During the media coverage of a trip to Israel that involved freshman congressmen diving into the Sea of Galilee after imbibing alcohol, some were beside themselves. This is where Christ walked on water! But the sea isn't a holy water font, and Catholics and other people of faith believe it is our lives that are meant to be holy. This is the political issue that people of faith face: How can my vote protect the freedom to live as I'm called to? Dolan is working on it. He knows it's in the best interest of all of us to protect that right to true freedom.