As the Republican show closed in Tampa, Cardinal Timothy Dolan faced a flock of Tea Party activists, religious conservatives and country-club loyalists and gently addressed the sanctity of life. "We ask your benediction upon those yet to be born, and on those who are about to see you at the end of this life," said the shepherd of New York, who also leads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
A week later, Dolan offered the final benediction for a Democratic National Convention in which 25 speakers praised or defended their party's unchallenged support for abortion rights. While covering the same litany of issues in both conventions, the cardinal tweaked this Charlotte prayer to make his point even more obvious.
"Help us to see that a society's greatness is found above all in the respect it shows for the weakest and neediest among us," said Dolan. "We beseech you, almighty God to shed your grace on this noble experiment in ordered liberty, which began with the confident assertion of inalienable rights bestowed upon us by you: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
"Thus do we praise you for the gift of life. Grant us the courage to defend it, life, without which no other rights are secure. We ask your benediction on those waiting to be born, that they may be welcomed and protected. Strengthen our sick and our elders waiting to see your holy face at life’s end, that they may be accompanied by true compassion and cherished with the dignity due those who are infirm and fragile."
Democrats respectfully stood with heads bowed, even as TV crews searched for anyone who might visibly shun the cardinal. Dolan's late insertion into the program had been controversial after months of church-state conflict between the Obama White House and the U.S. Catholic bishops caused by Health and Human Services mandates requiring most religious institutions to offer health insurance covering FDA-approved forms of contraception, including "morning-after pills," and sterilizations.
While critics on left and right were quick to parse the prayer, it was highly symbolic that Dolan ended up standing before the Democrats in the first place, said Russell Shaw, former communications director for the U.S. bishops.
"It's very important to take steps to try to keep a religious presence in the public square, to make sure the church remains a player in debates about the great issues of our day," he said. "There are major players who, quite frankly, want to chase us back into the sacristy, where we're supposed to mind our own business and not bother all the important people who are working out in the real world."
The Democratic Party's leaders could have declined Dolan's offer to pray, which would have left him "twisting slowly in the wind" since he had accepted an invitation to give a benediction for the GOP, said Shaw. That would have made it easier to portray Dolan as "a mere political partisan" – which was precisely what he was trying to avoid.
Also, it was important to know that the Charlotte drama unfolded in the wake of Dolan's decision -- infuriating many Catholic conservatives -- to invite President Barack Obama to the white-tie Al Smith Dinner, a nonpartisan event celebrating lighthearted civility that will take place just before the election.
"I apologize if I have given such scandal," wrote Dolan, at his "The Gospel in the Digital Age" weblog. "I suppose it's a case of prudential judgment: would I give more scandal by inviting the two candidates, or by not inviting them? ...
"In the end, I'm encouraged by the example of Jesus, who was blistered by his critics for dining with those some considered sinners; and by the recognition that, if I only sat down with people who agreed with me, and I with them, or with those who were saints, I'd be taking all my meals alone."
One thing is certain: court cases and political debates about religious liberty and health-care reform will continue for some time to come. The cardinal knows that the U.S. bishops will eventually need to talk to people on both sides of the negotiating table.
"Cardinal Dolan has pretty good political instincts," said Shaw. "In this case, he knows that it’s important to try to keep some channels of communication open. ... It helps to be able to pray with people and to break bread with them, too."