Cardinal Dolan to pray with both Democrats and Republicans: Well played, your eminence

TAMPA, Fla. — If I had a miter, and of course I never will, it would be off to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, who, by cadging an invite to pray with the Democrats as well as the Republicans, has from a purely strategic point of view restored my faith that somebody in the church still knows how to get it done.


Cardinal Timothy Dolan greets Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, right, of Washington before Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on Feb. 25, 2012. (Allison Joyce/Reuters)

A decade ago, when I was living in Rome and covering the Vatican, I was regularly asked whether I missed covering politics, and I always said there was no chance of that, since the Catholic Church practically invented the game that ain’t beanbag; wasn’t that incense in the original smoke-filled rooms?

Then the scandal of predator priests hit, and both pastorally and in terms of crisis management, the response was so bad it defied belief and destroyed faith.

In the years since, where were those princes of the church who’d helped us survive as an institution by so nimbly adapting over the millennia? One of history’s most effective PR campaigns was surely Rome itself during the 1500s, when the art and architecture of the Counter-Reformation said, “Oh really, amici, you think you can top this?’’

These days, of course, church leaders grab more headlines for cracking down on nuns and Girl Scouts than for finessing an old-fashioned win-win — yet Dolan has just reminded us that there still is such a thing, in the church and in partisan politics, too.

Initially, he was widely criticized for accepting an invitation to deliver the benediction in Tampa; wasn’t that a not-so-tacit endorsement of his buddy Mitt Romney? He was only going to pray, he said — both cannily and sincerely, if I had to guess — and would be happy to pray with the Democrats, too, anywhere and any time. His spokesman told me last week that he was in no way fishing for an invitation.


Cardinal Timothy Dolan leaves a meeting at the New York State Capitol in Albany. Dolan says he's now giving the closing prayer at both the Democratic and Republican conventions. (Stewart Cairns/AP)

Until Tuesday’s news that the Democrats had wised up and scared up a late-minute invitation for Dolan, who also heads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I would have said I couldn’t blame him for kneeling with those who had remembered to put him on the guest list instead of those who had treated him so poorly; yes, Obama did go back on his word about how broadly those religious exemptions would be drawn, and he made Dolan look credulous.

In Washington, though, they say that only the amateurs stay mad. While in Rome, irritation is often expressed in heaping helpings of phony praise.

If there is something of both of those responses on all sides here, well, behaving better than we might otherwise be inclined to is what we call civility, and though Dolan’s push to get Romney and Obama to sign a pledge to play fair is doomed, it is in his job description to try.

And when Isaac hits our friends elsewhere on the Gulf Coast, I’ll just be glad to have him here.


Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.

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