Should Catholic clerics accept invitations to lead prayers at political conventions?
This question resurfaces every presidential election year, and 2020 is no exception.
Writing a guest column for CNN, former Augustinian priest Brian Frawley scolded Cardinal Timothy Dolan for offering an invocation at this year’s Republican National Convention.
Frawley apparently had no objection to Jesuit Father James Martin leading a prayer at the Democratic National Convention. For as he made clear, the issue for him was not the propriety of a Catholic cleric praying at a political convention. The issue for him was Donald Trump.
After listing a range of issues on which he finds Trump unacceptable, Frawley concluded: “Dolan should understand the power of his presence at the convention and be mindful that this gesture will be seen by many as an affirmation of the President.”
Of course that was not Cardinal Dolan’s intention, anymore than it was his intention to be politically partisan when he gave the benediction at the 2008 Republican convention—and was vilified for it, until he silenced his critics by accepting a subsequent invitation to also pray at the Democratic convention. Doubtless he would have done so again this year, if asked.
The point is that—even as we exercise prudential judgment in choosing which candidates and political parties to support—we, and certainly our faith leaders, are called to pray for all who aspire to positions of leadership. Whether we agree with some, all or none of their policy positions; whether we find their rhetoric inspiring or offensive, we pray that God will guide them, in their words and actions, toward service to the common good.
“Pray we must,” Cardinal Dolan intoned: yes, for the baby in the womb, but also for immigrants and refugees; for those suffering from hunger, addiction, or war; for the sick and the elderly; for those afflicted with the coronavirus and those treating them; for those suffering from religious persecution; for peace in the world and in our own city streets; for religious freedom.
There was nothing partisan about his prayer; which will not, of course, stop those with their own agenda from reading into it.
Others were troubled by Father Martin’s prayer at the Democratic convention, given that party’s increasingly extreme pro-abortion absolutism. But Father Martin too included the unborn among “those most in need” for whom he prayed, including those unemployed, immigrants, the homeless, those on death row, blacks threatened by racism, LGBT teens who are bullied.
Not so the prayer of Sister Simone Campbell. The leader of Network, which calls itself a “Catholic social justice lobby,” joined the Democrats in pointedly excluding the unborn from her social justice agenda. Protection of the unborn is “above my pay grade” she had said before delivering a convention prayer for the “most marginalized”—the poor, immigrants, victims of racism, bigotry, sexism—but not unborn children. Several years ago, in fact, she stated her opposition to making abortion illegal.
Republicans, too, featured a Catholic nun at their convention: Sister Deirdre Byrne of the Community of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
Sister Deirdre spoke forcefully in defense of the unborn—not, she made clear, to the exclusion of other marginalized groups, but precisely because of her consistent commitment to the sacredness of all human life. This has been manifest in her decades as a doctor and a Catholic missionary, “working to serve the poor and the sick in Haiti, Sudan, Kenya, Iraq and in Washington, D.C., ” and ministering to refugees “fleeing war-torn and impoverished countries all around the world.”
While these suffering peoples “have all been marginalized, viewed as insignificant, powerless and voiceless,” Sister Deirdre stressed, “the largest marginalized group in the world can be found here in the United States. They are the unborn.” Hers is a truly consistent ethic of life, that holds all life as sacred but recognizes that true social justice is contingent on our protection of the “innocent, powerless, voiceless life” in the womb.
Recall these words from none other than the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, author of the “seamless garment” approach to life issues:
“A society which destroys human life by abortion under the mantle of law unavoidably undermines respect for life in all other contexts. Likewise, protection in law and practice of unborn life will benefit all life, not only the lives of the unborn.”
Obviously, Sister Deirdre would agree. Sister Simone apparently not, as she could not bring herself, while praying as a Catholic sister on national television, to include the unborn in her prayers for the vulnerable.
Frawley wrongly suggested that Cardinal Dolan treats abortion “as the only Catholic issue that ever matters.” In fact, three of these four Catholics who offered prayers at the conventions included the unborn within a wide range of marginalized, vulnerable people they prayed for. Only Sister Simone did not. Instead, she treated the mass destruction of unborn human life as virtually the only issue that does not matter to her. And that, not Cardinal Dolan’s non-partisan prayer at the Republican convention, is what should sadden us.