Over the past two weeks, Americans were treated to the quadrennial spectacle of the two major political parties’ national conventions. Each party graced us with an endless parade of speakers making the very clear point that their party represents all that is good and true, while the other party would heap unmitigated disaster upon the heads of the poor, the elderly, small business owners, or any other key demographic one could imagine.
On the final night of each convention, after the rhetoric, the biographical videos, and the applause, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, approached the microphone to offer his blessing and his prayer. No non-Catholic news source featured his remarks in their coverage, but his firm and clear voice delivered the most powerful words uttered at either gathering.
It has often been said that to effectively communicate the truth to others, it is helpful to affirm the ways in which they already acknowledge and live out the truth. In his prayer to the Republican National Convention, Cardinal Dolan began by asking God’s “benediction upon those yet to be born, and on those who are about to see you at the end of this life.” In doing so, he affirmed the Republican Party’s official opposition to abortion and it’s role as the political vehicle for most of the nation’s pro-life politicians.
At the Democratic National Convention, Cardinal Dolan likewise affirmed the concern many Democrats have for social justice, asking God’s blessing upon those “who work hard for the day when a greater portion of your justice, and a more ample measure of your care for the poor and suffering, may prevail in these United States.”
Above all, though, Dolan’s prayers were calls to unity and ultimately conversion for leaders and members of both parties. In an interview with Kathryn Jean Lopez, the cardinal humbly defended his decision to offer prayers at both conventions and to invite both candidates to the Al Smith Dinner. He believes that the Church’s effectiveness and witness are weakened if her leaders are not willing to pray and share meals even with those who reject the Church’s teaching.
While making clear that the parties are not equally good or bad in the positions they take, Dolan stressed that all have room for improvement:
“We also pray for conversion,” he offers, and that is part of his prayer, too. “Because there are things with the Republicans that some Catholics have reservations about. There are certainly things with the Democrats, as you pinpointed [abortion], that Catholics have great reservations about. And so to pray for conversion in each, I think, is not a bad thing.”
How would such a conversion manifest itself in our politics? At both conventions, but especially at the DNC, Dolan identifies the natural law as the ultimate measure of whether laws are just and ordered to authentic human development:
We praise and thank you for granting us the life and the liberty by which we can pursue happiness. Show us anew that happiness is found only in respecting the laws of nature and nature’s God. Empower us with your grace so that we might resist the temptation to replace the moral law with idols of our own making, or to remake those institutions you have given us for the nurturing of life and community.
This is the path to renewing our nation. We don’t defend traditional marriage, for example, simply because of a divine precept found only within our faith tradition. It is part of the very fabric of every healthy society throughout history. At the RNC, Dolan described the natural law as “the boundaries of righteous living [God] inscribed in our hearts even before inscribing them on tablets of stone.” It is an objective principle, ordered to the reality of human nature, not some artificial construct that can be thrown out and replaced. Indeed, to reject the natural law in order to satisfy our every desire is to dehumanize our society.
There is one important sentence that appears in identical form in both prayers. In praying for God’s guidance and blessing upon the candidates, Dolan implored God, “Help them remember that the only just government is the government that serves its citizens rather than itself.” How many of the political debates of our day treat people as problems to be dealt with? From abortion to physician-assisted suicide to immigration, we focus on the costs or inconveniences created by the existence of individuals created in the image and likeness of God. The true good of every individual, the dignity of each and every human person, is the proper goal of every law and government policy.
May the example and leadership of Cardinal Dolan and his brother bishops inspire Catholics, and all Americans, to seek the renewal of our national life through prayer and faithful citizenship.