09/05/2012 12:05 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

Praying Nice With the Democrats: Timothy Dolan Gets It Right

Last week's story of the Timothy Cardinal Dolan and the two conventions was a wee bit difficult to follow. On Aug. 24, The New York Post reported the following:

President Obama turned down a chance to have Timothy Cardinal Dolan deliver a prayer at the Democratic National Convention after Dolan told Democrats he would be "grateful" to deliver a blessing in Charlotte.

One reading the lead of this report might easily be (mis)led to believe that Dolan had invited himself to the Democratic Convention, and that Obama had replied, "No thanks." Yet nowhere in the story is there an indication that such a conversation might have taken place.

What actually happened is that when Romney announced that Timothy Dolan would offer the benediction at the Republican National Convention, Dolan was accused of partisanship. In an effort to demonstrate that he was not partisan, Dolan announced his desire to pray at the Democrats' convention.

He hadn't yet been invited to pray on behalf of the DNC because Dolan has been stumping for Mitt Romney while vilifying President Obama for the past year. Also, the DNC had already staked its Roman Catholic claim by inviting a Roman Catholic woman religious, Sr. Simone Campbell, to speak at the Democratic convention.

Once Dolan began to make noise about wishing to pray with the Democrats, the DNC, knowing inviting Dolan would be a smart move (and a means of winning the votes of moderate Catholics on the fence) seized the opportunity to take the high road, and accepted Dolan's request to be invited to pray at the convention.

The Democrats are smart to welcome the cardinal to pray at the convention. The time is ripe for poaching Catholic moderates from the GOP. Many Catholics on the fence never dreamed the GOP ticket, which was comprised last year of a gun-toting, plain-talking mom of five and a war hero, could now be made up of a Mormon bishop enriched by unfettered usury and a 1.5 percent-tithing, Ayn Rand-worshipping Catholic whom Catholic whose policies nuns and some bishops have deemed "immoral."

These Catholics on the fence are ready to be told by possibly the most powerful Catholic prelate in the North America that it's OK to vote for Obama. By appearing at the Democratic convention, Dolan lends them -- and Obama -- his seal of approval.

I didn't think the Dems would invite Dolan to appear at the convention. (In a sense they didn't, for it appears it was Timothy Dolan who did the inviting.) However it happened, it's very good news, movement in the right (by which I mean left) direction. The Dems were in a good position to be gracious in this. They had already staked their Catholic claim by inviting the highly esteemed Sr. Simone Campbell to speak. We can expect her to go hard. Inviting Dolan to play a "second fiddle" Catholic role is a win-win proposition for Team Obama.

I like that the Democrats have taken the high road. One of the reasons I will vote Democrat in November is that I believe Democrats take the high road even when they are not campaigning.

You see, I think the Democrats respect life. Republicans support the right of all zygotes, embryos and fetuses to be born -- but Democrats have a far greater regard for already born human life. Republicans ardently support war and in inordinately strong defense, which brings death to many already born babies. Republicans oppose gun control, which brings death to already born children -- especially those living in poverty and in war zones. The Republicans support the death penalty, which is state-sanctioned murder. Republicans support "every-man-for-himself" educational policy. Democrats recognize that illiterate people are more likely to die prematurely of crime, hunger, homeless and lack of medical care.

Many Catholics who believe that the born also have the right to life are reluctant to cast votes for Obama because the president supports Roe v. Wade. By appearing at the Democratic Convention, Dolan reminds these Catholics that abortion is a complicated issue and "pro-life" can sometimes be a misnomer.

Protecting the environment, reining in greed in agriculture and food production is a form of respecting life. Addressing discrimination in schools is pro-life. Allowing gay parents to adopt children and thus rescue them from childhood spent in institutions is pro-life. Reducing the number of suicides among gay adolescents brutalized by homophobia, and among traumatized victims of the Vatican sex abuse scandal is pro-life. Preventing abortions by ensuring adequate access to contraception for all who need it is pro-life.

Dolan's reaching out to Democrats will release many pro-life Catholics who are torn between the two pro-life agendas of the Democrats and the Republicans from the obligation to vote for Romney. By praying with both groups, Dolan sends this vital message to American Catholics preparing to vote: you can vote for Obama or Romney and still be a very good Catholic.

Although I very much liked some aspects of Dolan's personality when first he came to New York, I found that his histrionics in the aftermath of the Health Care mandate and his vitriol in the context of DOMA made it impossible for me to see him as a spiritual leader. (To the orthodox fringe who might accuse me of never having met a cardinal I might see as such, I might mention that I cried the night John Cardinal O'Connor blessed my 3-year-old daughter about 14 years ago. Despite that I disagreed with some of O'Connor's views, I thought him to be a priest, not a politician.) Although I do not, at the present time, see Timothy Dolan as a shepherd, I recognize that many Catholics do see him as such.

I think that seeing Dolan appear at the Democratic Convention will free many Catholics who might wish to cast a vote for Obama from feeling they might somehow be helping to elect an enemy of the Church.

Dolan's appearance at the Democratic convention will serve to remind Catholics that when it comes to immigration, the making of war, racial equality, serving the poor and the sinfulness of greed, the bishops and the Democrats are on the same side. As a Catholic Obama supporter, I am grateful for it.

Whether Dolan's motives, in deciding to pray with the Democrats, are pure, might be beside the point. As I have written elsewhere, Timothy Dolan is not making these decisions without counsel from the Vatican. Even if he were moved, as a simple priest trying to just do the right thing, to ask to lead a prayer at the Democratic convention, Dolan would not seek such an invitation without the pope's blessing.

The Democratic convention will culminate in the formal nomination of a president who has been cast as an enemy of Roman Catholicism in the United States. There's no way Dolan would go act without the benefit of Ratzinger's imprimatur.

My theory is that mounting pressure not to appear partisan led Dolan's people to push for an invitation from the Democrats. Increased awareness that Roman Catholic clerics have been playing fast and loose with tax law -- and worse yet, doing so at a particularly potentially damaging time, while the Vatican Sex Scandal is still unfolding -- has raised urgent concern among the American bishops. (Tax-exempt churches are prohibited from campaigning for candidates.) This wariness may also explain Dolan's motivation for inviting Obama to the Al Smith dinner. The bishops are smart to do damage control. Bombarded with the accusations of partisanship, Dolan did the smart thing. The best way for Dolan to look like he was not campaigning for Mitt is to get invited to pray with those who are campaigning for Obama.

The choice to wrangle an 11th-hour invitation to the Democratic convention is smart but a little risky. Dolan can spin his decision to pray among the Democrats by reminding us that he's a "shepherd" and that even Jesus ate with thieves. But any congeniality Dolan shows toward Barack Obama threatens to undercut and dilute the power of Dolan's messages as they pertain to same-sex marriage, the Health Care Mandate and Roe v. Wade. Because he has been so aggressive in the past, even the slightest openness toward Obama is destined to make Dolan appear less strident and Obama more decent.

There are moderate Catholics for whom living in compliance with the Magisterium is essential, but who have a gay brother, a child who becomes pregnant, a poor friend with more children than she can care for who needs affordable birth control. Perhaps these moderates have gay neighbors who have made happy homes for older disabled or forgotten children they have adopted. These fairly conservative Catholics may oppose abortion for the most part, but perhaps they don't quite believe a zygote is a person. Perhaps they believe abortion should be legal under certain conditions. Many such Catholics are struggling with where to draw the line.

When Dolan prays with the Democrats, whether for the right reasons or for the wrong ones, he will be in effect encouraging such Catholics to draw the line where their conscience tells them to draw it. Perhaps where they imagine Jesus might draw it. As a result of Dolan's possible political "awakening," questions relating to same-sex marriage, the Health Care Mandate and Roe v. Wade will be pinch less "cut and dried" and a tad less urgent for undecided Roman Catholic voters. Just by being at the convention, Dolan will reframe all the aforementioned controversies. His presence will have the effect of blurring all Catholic lines of demarcation. By offering a benediction at the Democratic convention, Dolan will give Catholics on the fence more to consider and ample opportunity to become comfortable with the idea of voting in accordance with their consciences -- and not as the Magisterium demands. This is great news. By appearing at the Democratic Convention, Dolan will rescind his erstwhile vilification of Obama. Timothy Dolan may or may not be aiming for that, but it is the inevitable outcome. Dolan's presence at the Democratic convention will send a clear message to Catholics throughout the U.S. that voting for a pro-choice, pro-same sex marriage presidential incumbent who has been hauled into court by a cabal of anti-contraception celibate clerics is not a sin. The bishops and GOP both could lose a lot of Catholic votes next week, thanks to Dolan.

But what if Dolan doesn't mind? What if Dolan is coming around to the realization that Obama might win? What if he's been ordered to begin cutting his losses? What if it is dawning on the cardinal that leading an anti-woman, anti-LGBT crusade against a second-term, pro-choice, feminist American president who favors same-sex marriage will be a hell of a lot more futile than waging that same war against the same president serving a first term.

Roe v. Wade, same-sex marriage and probably the Health Care Mandate are here to stay, and Dolan has blown the shot at pope he never really had. The president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (Dolan) may be preparing to shift the focus off of that which he can not change onto the part of Catholic teaching he can uphold.

Timothy Dolan may have been the Vatican's great white hope for getting Roe v. Wade overturned and putting a nation-wide kibosh on same-sex marriage, but neither of those victories is in the cards for him, and chances are that even in his failure to accomplish those two objectives, Dolan is a Roman Catholic who may well prefer now to promulgate Catholic teaching as it relates to poverty, immigration, war, health care and education.

Dolan didn't know when he started stumping for Mitt that Romney would choose a running mate whose Wisconsin budget Catholic nuns and bishops alike would dub "immoral." My hunch is that Timothy Dolan probably believes the Paul Ryan plan for fixing the economy is deeply sinful.

Maybe this summer's kinder and gentler cardinal is making a last ditch effort to win more with honey than with vinegar, but I'll go out on a limb and say that the shift may not be so much political as religious. Timothy Dolan may be seeing more clearly the flaws in the Romney-Ryan usury ticket. The cozying up to the Democrats may be less political than it seems on the face -- and more faithful. With the mandate fight over, same-sex marriage headed for becoming the law of the land and Roe v. Wade still standing, Timothy Dolan might just want to focus on working on behalf of immigrants, working families and the poor. Maybe Dolan wrangled that invitation to pray with the Democrats because all that is dishonest, avaricious and wrong with the Romney-Ryan ticket has finally dawned on him.