Cardinal Dolan Goes to Washington

Can He Avoid Being a Prop for Power?
CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan will join other religious leaders in celebrating President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday. Dolan is set to deliver a brief Scripture reading that he chose from the Book of Wisdom, in which King Solomon prays for guidance to lead Israel according to God’s will.

I last wrote about the jovial cardinal, known for his engaging style in the media and penchant for culinary humor, when he hosted Trump and Hillary Clinton for the Al Smith Dinner a month before the election. Trump embarrassed himself that night with his graceless jokes and nasty tone. Dolan was at times visibly uncomfortable, while many in the gathered crowd groaned and booed. When he contributed to Trump’s normalization by inviting him to the dinner, Dolan disappointed some. He acknowledges that his role at the inauguration has yet again brought out critics.

“I know they are [there] because they’ve written to me,” he told Catholic News Service. “And as I tell them, had Mrs. Clinton won and invited me, I would have been just as honored. We pastors and religious leaders are in the sacred enterprise of prayer. People ask us to pray with them and for them. That doesn’t mean we’re for them or against them. That’s our sacred responsibility.”

Dolan is not exactly going out on a limb. Catholic leaders have a long history at inaugurations.

Msgr. John Ryan was the first Catholic priest to give the invocation at an inauguration when he did so at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second inauguration in 1937. He went on to become a close advisor to Roosevelt, even earning the nickname the “Right. Rev. New Dealer.” Many of the proposals Ryan included when he drafted the U.S. bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction in 1919—minimum wages, social insurance for the most vulnerable and public housing for workers—came to fruition during the New Deal. A few decades later, Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston prayed at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961, and Cardinal Terence J. Cooke of New York prayed at both of President Richard Nixon’s inaugurations in 1969 and 1973. Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul and Minneapolis prayed at President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration in 1977.

Cardinal Dolan is no stranger to the political limelight and has become something of a celebrity, rubbing elbows with the powerful and the wealthy from his big-city perch. He delivered prayers at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions in 2012, for example, and a major fundraising campaign to restore St. Patrick’s Cathedral meant playing a political role and cultivating high-roller donors. All this is an occasional source of tension for the cardinal given Pope Francis’s blistering critique of an “economy of exclusion and inequality.” Dolan had to comfort at least one wealthy donor so incensed about the pope’s challenge to “trickle-down” economics that he considered withholding his donation. The cardinal at times gave the impression that he seemed more eager to mollify such deep-pocketed donors than to go to bat for the pope.  In a television interview with CNBC, Dolan said he’d assure the reluctant donor that he was “misunderstanding” Francis. “The pope loves poor people…he also loves rich people,” the cardinal said with a wide smile. Dolan later wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, “The Pope’s Case for Virtuous Capitalism,” that offered a much sunnier assessment than the pope. “Fortunately, few people subscribe to an inhumane philosophy of radical economic individualism,” Dolan wrote. When Larry Kudlow, a free-market cheerleader and CNBC commentator, tweeted that he had helped Dolan write the op-ed, the optics were bad, to say the least. Kudlow, who is reportedly Trump’s top pick to chair his Council of Economic Advisors, had earlier raised doubts about Pope Francis’s competency to speak about economic issues because of what Kudlow called “state-run fascism” and “cronyism” in Argentina.

It’s true that Dolan has not been a shill for Trump. In a Daily News op-ed last July, he recounted the vile history of anti-Catholic nativism in this country and strongly condemned the modern-day xenophobia directed against a new generation of immigrants. “I wish I were in the college classroom again, so I could roll out my ‘Trump card’ to show the students that I was right,” he wrote. “Nativism is alive, well—and apparently popular!” Given that too many bishops said nothing during Trump’s bigotry-fueled rise or, even worse, offered morally timid expressions of false equivalency between Trump and Clinton, Dolan is at least on record with his reservations.

Nevertheless, Dolan’s presence at the inauguration should prompt sober reflection about the role of faith leaders when it comes to their relationship with power. This is a particularly urgent question at a time when a Trump presidency raises profound questions not only about a host of policy issues, but the fragile nature of democracy itself. As E. J. Dionne Jr. recently wrote:

Trump’s disrespect for the conventions of democracy, his willingness to flout rules long accepted by presidents of both parties and his praise for assorted strongmen, particularly Russia’s Vladimir Putin, all point to instincts and attitudes very different from those of his predecessors, Republican and Democratic. His style of politics, from his mass rallies of the faithful after the election to his statements about himself, carries authoritarian overtones.

Some on the religious left would accuse Dolan of cooperating with evil by playing an official role at the inauguration of someone who has embraced torture, demonized immigrants, boasted about sexually assaulting women, and called Pope Francis “disgraceful.” While I’m sympathetic to that analysis, I would pause before I go that far. Reading a brief Scripture passage isn’t an endorsement of everything Trump stands for, has said, or will do. And heaven knows this new administration and our country could use a healthy dose of prayer and wisdom.

But the cardinal’s participation does carry a risk that all religious leaders should be vigilant against: being used as an unwitting prop in the stagecraft the powerful elaborately construct to put themselves in the most flattering light. Despite his personal flaws and shaky business record, Trump is a master of brand management and cult-of-personality image-making. He is most comfortable surrounding himself with celebrities and the top brass of respective fields, whether athletes, generals, or business titans. Trump’s very American definition of greatness—loud, gaudy, and often profane—flatly contradict the Christian virtues of meekness and temperance.

Faith leaders are most effective when they stand outside Trump’s particular kind of magnetic field, resisting the centripetal force that pulls everything into his contaminating orbit. Christians are a people of the margins. Prophetic witness has a way of dissolving at cocktail parties, fundraisers, and other forms of elbow-rubbing that is part and parcel of the permanent architecture of the establishment. In his sermon, “A Knock at Midnight,” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached it well:

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause people everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will. But if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of humankind and fire the souls of [all people], imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace.

This is a high bar to meet. Perhaps it’s inevitable that Christians will fail to reach it more than we succeed. But struggling to live the hard demands of the Gospel requires actively resisting the comfortable anesthesia that can come with too much proximity to power and privilege. The patriotism of the flag and the power of the state’s sword finds a stark counterpoint in the shadow the cross, where those who suffer and are exploited find a God who lifts up those despised by the mighty. As we enter the Trump era, religious leaders are called once again to contemplate where they will choose to dwell.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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