Essays on Religion, Faith and Sprituality by Michele Madigan Somerville

Friday, September 7, 2012

Simone Campbell and Timothy Dolan: The DNC's Dueling Religious


I'd sure hate to be the anti-LGBT anti-woman tantrum-prone cardinal following the sage, rabbinic and serenely exuberant Sister Simone Campbell at the Democratic National Convention, but Timothy Dolan, who is, by the way, not the "America's pope" (as papist fringe likes to call him) did just that last night. It was difficult to see how the audience responded. As was the case in Tampa, the camera tended to focus on the reverential faces in the crowd as the cardinal prayed. The texts of the two prayers themselves are similar. In both the RNC and DNC prayers, Timothy Dolan mentioned Romney and Ryan by name. In each he referred to Obama and Biden as "the President and Vice President." Dolan waxed slightly more prosaic on the protections of the yet to be born in the DNC prayer, but did devoted extra syllables to the rights of immigrants in the RNC speech. But so far as the contest between dueling Catholic religious in the DNC arena is concerned, Sister Simone Campbell was the winner who took all.
I confess that I have a problem with prayer at political conventions. I have no problem with prayer in general. I happen to pray quite often, and when I pray, I generally begin and end with the sign of the cross. When I pray with those who do not share my Christian faith, however, I do not make the sign of the cross. Although some hysterical fundamentalist fringe Roman Catholics would say this is one of the several aspects of my religiosity or lack of it that proves that I am not "really Catholic, "I do believe the more Christ-centered approach to praying with Muslims and Jews is to do so without the sign of the cross. To toss in the names of Abraham and Moses is to offer too little too late--is to throw the Muslims and Jews a pro-forma bone. It does not much ameliorate the prayerful big-footing at hand.
The cross as a symbol means many things to many people. I understand why people wear crosses and crucifixes. I wear a cross. It has a powerful positive meaning for me. For Jews, Muslims and those who do not believe, the cross does not convey a loving message. I found interesting that Campbell left her cross at home on Wednesday night--perhaps out of a desire not to offend those who do not believe as she does. Maybe she thought a cross superfluous, given all that authentic Christ radiating out through her pores. Maybe she imagined a little color (in the form of a tiny bit of lipstick, and a bold blue jacket) might be more consistent with the bold and joyful commitment to "God's grandeur"--to borrow the great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins' term--she aimed to communicate, and that a little pearl necklace might better convey the simple, quiet irridescence of her faith than would some clobberingly garish hip-hop-worthy religious "bling."
It appears from the video footage that both Dolan and the DNC crowd behaved themselves. Those who had every moral right to boo the cardinal seem to have abstained. I credit the cardinal too, with good behavior, for he kept his anti-abortion/anti-contraception/anti-homosexuality pitch brief. But Dolan is not in a good position, now, to speak truth to power. he's moving on to a Plan B. Plan A called for the installation of Great White Hope, Dolan, who would be elevated to cardinal and use his power and charisma to mobilize Catholics to overturn Roe v. Wade. Dolan was supposed entice Catholics to stay (and tithe) in a hemorrhaging and retrograde church while making Catholic law the (secular) law of the land. The USCCB (United States Conference of Bishops) passed on more social justice-oriented candidates for USCCB president in order to elect Dolan because Dolan was seen as being both orthodox and cuddly.
Unlike his predecessor, Edward Egan, and his boss, Joseph Ratzinger, Dolan had a touch of charm. Dolan made a deal with the... pope.
Under the terms of this deal, Dolan had little choice but to embrace the pope's "let them eat cake" attitude toward people who had been victimized as children by priests. Alienating LGBT Catholics was not part of the plan, but Dolan had to be willing to risk that. Dolan sued the first black president. He threatened to cut programs for the poor. He championed, or at least failed to strenuously protest, the Vatican's effort to spy on nuns. He signed off on protecting predators, and refused to be held accountable for credible accusations related to such abetting. In a sense, Timothy Dolan sold his soul to become what some of the fringe super-Catholics call "America's pope." But Roe v. Wade will not be overturned. The same-sex marriage genie is too voluminously out of the bottle (as out of the closet!) to be stopped. Furthermore, Dolan and his fellow conservative bishops, in campaigning for Mitt, sacrificed the balance of their Catholic social justice concerns for the shot they never really had at making abortion and same-sex marriage illegal--not just for Catholics, but for Americans.
They still pay lip service to protecting the poor the obligation of Catholics to welcome immigrants, but the bishops are now seen as caring far more about the rights of the "pre-born" than about the rights of sick and hungry post-born babies. They have forfeited the appearance of being passionately committed to bringing a just Health Care plan to the poor, disabled and infirm.
They have lost the war on LGBT marriage and same-sex marriage too. When it comes to marriage equality, the bishops, who head up a still predominantly gay Roman Catholic priesthood, have no moral authority outside the traditionalist fringe. Most Roman Catholics know Jesus said not a word about homosexuality and understand that even the accounts of Paul do not support an argument against same-sex marriage. For most of the history of the Church, marriage was not even a sacrament. Most know that in Western Civilization, the idea of marrying for love is, itself, a relatively new development, and that for most of the Common Era "traditional" (aka heterosexual) marriage was in great measure a business arrangement. LGBT Catholics are following the example of heterosexual Catholic couples who, despite being divorced and remarried or married outside the Church, worship and receive sacraments, with little regard for the Vatican's opinions on marriage, in the Church that belongs as well to them as to Timothy Dolan and Simone Campbell. Most Catholics in the developing world support same sex unions. Most Roman Catholics would prefer to see a gay couple make a home for a child who would otherwise grow up in foster care. When it comes to same-sex unions, most Roman Catholics come down on the side of love.
Dolan and the orthodox bishops were charged with preventing the United States--Catholic and otherwise--from sliding into a future in which women were no longer subordinate to men, sex was not intrinsically sinful, and in which gay people were not deemed perverts. But the bishops couldn't even get their own Catholics in the pews to comply. This constitutes an enormous failure.
It is for this reason we shall see Dolan and his orthodox ilk attempt to create the illusion non-partisanship. This is their Plan B. Expect talk of congeniality, civility and collaboration. The bishops now know that it has been a mistake to align themselves with the Romney/Ryan "screw-the-needy" ticket, an alliance that cost the bishops a great deal of much-needed social justice cred. Procuring an invitation to pray at the DNC and inviting President Obama to the Al Smith dinner are facets of Plan B.
As a political operative of the Holy See, Dolan has failed. The Dolan action plan has been a wash. I think we can expect the "Pope of America" to stop playing the role of "bad cop" for a while as he and his fellow bishops scramble to save the part that can be salvaged. The bishops won't ditch their so-called "right-to-life" arguments, but I think they will learn from the nuns and perhaps broaden their definition of the term, "pro-life."
I am surprised to see such Catholic fervor for Romney among the extreme "right-to-lifers." For much of Romney's political career, he was a strong supporter of Roe v. Wade. Even now, his view that some abortions are permissible flies in the face of what the Vatican teaches about abortion, and some of Romney's own supporters insist that his fickle political heart is not really in the anti-abortion fight. Paul Ryan has a slightly more honest view of things. He embraces the ultra-orthodox Roman Catholic view that a zygote is a person, but the fact that Ryan is willing to run on a ticket with a man who believes it is permissible to kill some unborn "persons" and not others suggests that the former Ayn Rand fan may too may not be all that committed to reversing Roe v. Wade. He may still have one survivalist foot in Atlas Shruggedway of seeing things.
What all this means is that Dolan et al threw down with a ticket that may not all that "pro-life" after all. Knowing this, they may aim to self-correct. Dolan's fellow Romney supporters might say he is siding with the candidate of lesser evil. Even if that's true, it doesn't change that Dolan and his bishops put all their eggs in three baskets: the "anti-abortion" basket, the "anti 'ObamaCare' "basket and the "DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act)" basket. With only two months of campaigning left and the possibility of an Obama win looming, Dolan and his fellow conservative bishops may be noticing that they failed to drop eggs into the "Christ without borders" basket, the "peace basket," the "non-violence" basket, the "stewardship of the earth" basket, the "anti-greed" basket and "Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers you do unto me." basket. This, as they notice that Catholics all over North America and Europe are seriously questioning whether they should continue to drop greenbacks into the Vatican's weekly mass basket.
When it came to the decision to invite himself to pray at the Democratic National Convention, Timothy Dolan was truly between a rock and a hard place. Not only did he have to follow the presidential candidate himself, a man he is, in effect, suing; a man who grew up sometimes poor and always black in the United States; a sexually healthy Christian man of basic integrity who is unencumbered by the blemish of sexual impropriety; a candidate who has given more support to Catholic agencies for the indigent than his two Republican predecessors did--but Dolan had the additional disadvantage of being attended in damaging contrast to the spiritual powerhouse, Simone Campbell. This juxtaposition of Catholics did Dolan no favors.
Comparing a speech to a prayer is--oranges and apples, yes. Dolan spoke a prayer and Campbell gave a speech. On the other hand, a prayer can be a poem and a speech can be a prayer. What happens when a prayer sounds like a speech and the speech doubles as a poetic prayer?
Dolan's prayer was benign enough, but it was loaded with abstractions, generalizations, jargons and cant we have all heard before. Dolan's prayer was speech-like "prayer" out of a can, while a Sister Simone's speech, besides doing everything speeches can do, was a lyrical prayer.
Campbell's plain truth was rich with characters and her reverence for the divinity within those characters in their journeys of strife and yearning was abundant. She roused, charmed and persuaded. She chose showing over telling.
While Dolan got his digs in, Campbell won bees with honey and not vinegar.
Sister Simone offered a hearty defense of the Health and Human Services Health Care Mandate while deftly crediting the USCCB for being the muse behind this support. All this while throwing Paul Ryan, in the gentlest way possible, under (the nun-driven?) bus.
"Paul Ryan says this budget is in keeping with the morals of our shared faith but I disagree..."
The "pro life" message Sister Campbell conveyed was otherwise brimming with hope, faith, charity and joy. Those listening were reminded that those who do not speak, eat, learn and laugh with the indigent, see little of the depth of their need. One of Jesus's chief directives to those who would follow Him was to make this imaginative leap. Campbell's talk reminded us all of is that those who care for those in need are the true "right-to-lifers."
Paul Ryan gives 1.5 % of his earnings to charity. As a youth, he somehow managed to find Ayn Rand's ethos a compatible with Christian thinking and feeling. (As young people we all do stupid things, but why aren't more religious conservatives disturbed by this allegiance given that Rand, a devout atheist who condemned altruism, supported sex without commitment and abortion on demand?) Sister Simone reminded her audience that her Roman Catholic faith leaves no wiggle room for those who would sacrifice the elderly, infirm, disabled or poor to the great totem of usury that masquerades as prosperity. Campbell knows that most of the nation's hungry, homeless and uninsured are children. Whether doing so is "the American way" might be a subject for debate; but it is not the Roman Catholic way.
I admit, especially in the wake of so much Roman Catholic policing, I found it refreshing to see the Paul Ryan/Timothy Dolan" us first" brand of Roman Catholicism challenged, even if for just one shining moment. I was encouraged by seeing the Roman Catholicism I practice represented at the DNC podium.
Critics of Sister Simone Campbell will note that she damned Paul Ryan outright and blatantly stumped for Obama during her speech, pointing out how partisan she was. She was not pretending to be otherwise. This goes to honesty. Dolan pretended to be partisan last (Thursday) night but he is not non-partisan. The nation knows he is partisan. He as been campaigning for Mitt Romney for the past year. Dolan must act non-partisan because money (the status of his tax-exempt diocese) depends on it. Nuns, unlike cardinals, are not driven by the pontifical bottom line. They are driven by the glory, in other words, not the power.
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