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To many onlookers, particularly secular ones, the name “Timothy Cardinal Dolan” seems to evoke the attempt to make the Roman Catholic Church fill the role that once earned the Episcopal Church the nickname “the Republican Party at prayer.” The way conservatives have flocked to his rallying cry of religious liberty in the wake of the HHS mandate, and Dolan’s subsequent acceptance of an invitation to pray at the Republican National Convention, have greatly strengthened this impression.

But criticisms of Dolan have come from more than one side. By inviting President Obama to the Al Smith Dinner”an annual fundraising event for Catholic charitable activities”Dolan has disconcerted many conservative Catholics. Some critics, like First Things ’ David Mills, have offered tempered criticisms, while other have accused the Cardinal of betrayal and demanded that he retract the invitation.

Dolan did not knuckle under. He instead wrote an intelligent, sensitive response pointing out that “an invitation to the Al Smith Dinner is not an award, or the provision of a platform to expound views at odds with the Church. It is an occasion of conversation; it is personal, not partisan.”

Dolan’s response can be seen as an enactment of the teaching on the dignity of the human person. He refuses to operate in a world of “yes man” allies and “straw man” opponents, showing us all that each voice in this conversation is a human voice that must be heard. His ethos of “affirmative orthodoxy” has no room for merely opposing those who disagree. It shows us that we must humanize our opponents.

When news came that Cardinal Dolan would be offering prayer at the Republican Convention, his detractors began to murmur again. Such a partisan move! Surely this constitutes a tacit endorsement of Mitt Romney’s candidacy! But again, Dolan offered a sensitive defense of his decision to pray at the Republican Party’s convention. After the invitation was made, and the local bishop gave his blessing, Cardinal Dolan agreed to come. As the New York Archdiocese’s press release stated, “It was made clear to the convention organizers, however, that the Cardinal was coming only to pray not to endorse, and that he would be willing to accept a similar offer from the Democratic Party as well. That same sentiment was conveyed to the Democratic National Committee.” And now, we learn that the Democratic Party is taking him up on the offer. Surely those who would portray Dolan as a force of the Republican Party are deeply misunderstanding.

In the third century, Gregory Thaumaturgus writes of how his master, the great Origen, instructed his students to draw on all sources except the atheistic, without giving preference to any one of them:

And it was with great wisdom and sagacity that he acted on this principle, lest any single saying given by the one class or the other should be valued above others as alone true . . . and lest it might enter thus enter our mind and deceive us, and, in there by itself alone, might make us its own.

Gregory’s Origen exhorts his students to use all schools of thought, without swearing allegiance to any of them; for the Christian’s goal is always truth, and truth is found in part everywhere, but in totality nowhere except the Church. What Origen enjoined in study, Dolan is enacting in the public sphere, not with Platonists and Stoics, but with Democrats and Republicans.

One might hope that Cardinal Dolan will use the opportunity to gently push back on those areas where the Republican vision does not match the Catholic vision, as Cardinal Mahony did with the Democrats in 2000. Even if he does not, his effort to keep doors open and keep conversations going on both sides of the aisle models for us a refusal to align ourselves fully with either side of the debate.

There is a growing sentiment that the orthodox Christian has no political home in today’s arena, but must stand, in some sense, outside the system, or drink from both wells. While the media may cast him as a partisan, closer examination shows that Cardinal Dolan, too, stands outside, speaking the word of God, and praying that the seeds he plants will bear fruit.

Joshua Gonnerman lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a doctoral student in historical theology at the Catholic University of America.


David Mills, A Certain Kind of Etiquette

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Al Smith Dinner

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