Let’s see. So Cardinal Dolan decides to go to the Al Smith dinner and sit with invitees Messrs. Obama and Romney. He is condemned, mostly from the right, for compromising the credibility of what he preaches by being at table with his most prominent adversary. He also accepts an invitation to pray at the Republican Convention and is roundly railed at from the left. So much for the middle ground.
Priestly presence at partisan charged events has come to be regarded as more a personal endorsement than a benefaction from God. One thinks of the compromised clergy in movies we have seen about, for example, members of organized crime syndicates. If Father blesses our food, then he must agree with all our shenanigans: guilt (or blessing) by mere association.
So the Lord eats with prostitutes, criminals and tax collectors — and takes quite a rap for it — and that’s different. Such behavior — which Scripture reports as scandalous — should not be imported into our time. To get the gist of what offense Jesus caused, we might imagine a local pastor going to bless the home of a registered sex offender in the neighborhood or inviting a notorious racist for dinner at the rectory. Imagine the uproar. Yet we know that physicians tend to spend a disproportionately higher percentage of their time with the sick and dying than with the healthy — a metaphor Jesus himself advised to explain His commerce with sinners.
True, it is fanciful to expect the mere presence of a man of the cloth — even a very charismatic and erudite prelate like Cardinal Dolan — to have a transformative effect on the disreputables (in partisan eyes at least) with whom he is accused of cavorting. Could Jesus change the heart of Judas by offering him a morsel at the Last Supper? Or should He have disinvited him since He knew the mischief he was up to?
We make no pretense of divining the motives, the prudence or the consequences of Cardinal Dolan’s whereabouts. He can speak well enough for himself, and we doubt we have not yet heard his last word on the matter. We do express our amazement, however, at how some of our brethren deem only one social or political strategy possible that embodies an authentic moral stance — and that neither of the cardinal’s choices is it. What is?
Based on doctrinal tradition and the writings of our most renowned theologians, church leaders have comparably taken positions on various legislative and policy initiatives that by no means can enforce all the moral law demands. It has never been our practice to take an “all of it or none of it” approach such that, for example, a less than total abortion ban is not worth fighting for — if the alternative would be less protection for the unborn or none at all.
It is edifying when candidates for office are courageous enough to articulate moral positions in harmony with Church teaching. At the same time, they do not act outside the parameters of Catholic morality if they support legislation that results in provisions that do not succeed completely in making all that is immoral also illegal — politics being the art of the possible. We can never cease to fight for the right, but law is not the only or even the best means of inspiring moral behavior.
By a similar logic, we are free to analyze legislative and public policy proposals not only on the basis of what they promise but, more importantly, on what they deliver. It is naive and ill-informed to sign onto attractive sounding bills just because they claim to better the lives of a given segment of the population especially when that group conveniently represents a cultivated voting base.
The current electoral cycle presents us with fundamental choices about the relationship between freedom and equality, the benefits and limits of entitlements, the economics of job creation and the roles of government and the private sector and, of course, our religious freedom, without which we cannot even carry on this conversation. We pray for Cardinal Dolan and all of our religious leaders who might find themselves in the uneasy company of imperfect human beings who, like all of us, are in need of redemption.