Cardinal Timothy Dolan

Is there still room for pro-life Democrats in their own political party?

Is there still room for pro-life Democrats in their own political party?

On the subject of abortion rights, the 2016 Democratic Party platform language prepared for candidates was as firm as ever.

"Democrats are committed to protecting and advancing reproductive health, rights, and justice," it noted. "We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion -- regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes, or how she is insured."

Most of the party's candidates agreed on other implications of that statement, from legal third-trimester abortions, taxpayer funded abortions and gender-selection abortions, which usually means aborting unborn females.

Most Democratic candidates backed that platform -- but not all.

Thus, it stunned some Democrats, especially in heartland and Bible Belt states, when Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez drew another bright line defining who participates in the work of his party.

"Every Democrat, like every American," he said, "should support a woman's right to make her own choices about her body and her health. This is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state." In fact, he added, "every candidate who runs as a Democrat" should affirm abortion rights.

Needless to say, these were fighting words for Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America.

"I am glad this conversation is taking place," she said, in a telephone interview earlier this week. It would help if the party's chairman "sat down and talked with us, because we are obviously feeling left out.

Searching for 'subtweets' in prayers offered during the Trump inauguration rites

While the Beltway establishment gathered on the U.S. Capitol's West side with legions of Middle Americans in "Make America Great Again" hats, the House of Representatives approved the final pre-inauguration details.

The quick session opened with a prayer by the chaplain, Father Patrick J. Conroy.

"God of the universe, we give you thanks for giving us another day. You are the father of us all, and your divine providence has led this nation in the past," he said, before offering prayers for "your servant, Donald Trump." The Jesuit prayed for the new president to "see things as you see things" and strive to hold "all of us to higher standards of equal justice, true goodness and peaceful union."

Conroy closed with a poignant prayer for the blunt and ever-controversial New York City billionaire: "We pray that he become his best self."

Add that to the file of January 20 prayers to analyze.

As always with inauguration ceremonies -- the high-church rites of American civil religion -- references to God were almost as common as those to the nation's new leader. This ceremony included six clergy offering their own chosen prayers and scriptures and was framed by private and public worship services.

Journalists and activists then read between the lines seeking messages aimed at Trump and his fans, as well as at God. The bottom line: In cyberspace, combatants now "subtweet" their adversaries, offering subtle criticisms behind their social-media backs. This inauguration offered plenty of opportunities for participants to engage in some theological subtweeting. The eyebrow-raising messages included:

Hot words in top 2012 religion stories

'Twas the Sunday night before the election and the Rev. Robert Jeffress was offering a message that, from his point of view, was both shocking and rather nuanced. His bottom line: If Barack Obama won a second White House term, this would be another sign that the reign of the Antichrist is near.

Inquiring minds wanted to know: Was the leader of the highly symbolic First Baptist Church of Dallas suggesting the president was truly You Know Anti-who?

"I am not saying that President Obama is the Antichrist, I am not saying that at all," said Jeffress, who previously made headlines during a national rally of conservative politicos by calling Mormonism a "theological cult."

"What I am saying is this: the course he is choosing to lead our nation is paving the way for the future reign of the Antichrist."

That's some pretty strong rhetoric, until one considers how hot things got on the religion beat in 2012. After all, one Gallup poll found that an amazing 44 percent of Americans surveyed responded "don't know" when asked to name the president's faith. The good news was that a mere 11 percent said Obama is a Muslim -- down from 18 percent in a Pew Research Center poll in 2010.

Could church-state affairs get any hotter? Amazingly the answer was "yes," with a White House order requiring most religious institutions to offer health-care plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including "morning-after pills." The key: The Health and Human Services mandate only recognizes the conscience rights of a nonprofit group if it has the "inculcation of religious values as its purpose," primarily employs "persons who share its religious tenets" and primarily "serves persons who share its religious tenets."

America's Catholic bishops and other traditional religious leaders cried "foul," claiming that the Obama team was separating mere "freedom of worship" from the First Amendment's sweeping "free exercise of religion." In a year packed with church-state fireworks, the members of Religion Newswriters Association selected this religious-liberty clash as the year's top religion-news story. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the point man for Catholic opposition to the mandate, was selected as the year’s top religion newsmaker – with Obama not included on the ballot.

The story I ranked No. 2 didn’t make the Top 10 list. I was convinced that the 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming a Missouri Synod Lutheran church’s right to hire and fire employees based on doctrine could be crucial in the years – or even months -- ahead.

Here’s the rest of the RNA Top 10 list:

* The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that religiously unaffiliated people – the so-called "nones” -- is America’s fastest-growing religious group, approaching 20 percent of the population.

* The online trailer of an anti-Islam film, "Innocence of Muslims,” allegedly causes violence in several countries, including a fatal attack on U.S. consulate in Libya.

* GOP White House candidate Mitt Romney's Mormon faith turns out to be a virtual non-issue for white evangelical voters.

* Monsignor William Lynn of Philadelphia becomes first senior U.S. Catholic official found guilty of hiding priestly child abuse, followed by Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo.

* Vatican officials harshly criticize liberal U.S. nuns, citing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for its history of criticism of church teachings on sexuality and the all-male priesthood.

* Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington affirm same-sex marriage. Minnesota defeats a ban on same-sex marriage, while North Carolina approves one.

* Episcopal Church leaders adopt ritual for blessing same-sex couples.

* A gunman described as a neo-Nazi kills six Sikhs and wounds three others in a suburban Milwaukee temple.

* Southern Baptist Convention unanimously elects its first African-American president, the Rev. Fred Luter of New Orleans.

Serious words at funny Al Smith dinner

Political insiders know that the Alfred E. Smith Dinner strives to honor decades of civic and religious traditions. In election years, it's a tradition that the presidential candidates appear -- wearing formal, white-tie attire -- and satirize their own public images, while also aiming a few gentle shots at their opponent and the ranks of elite journalists in attendance.

Thus, Republican standard-bearer Mitt Romney, with a nod to his Mormon fuddy-duddy reputation, reminded the audience of wine-sipping socialites that, "Usually when I get invited to gatherings like this, it's just to be the designated driver."

Noting that this campaign has not, journalistically speaking, unfolded on a level playing field, he added: "I've already seen early reports from tonight's dinner, headline -- 'Obama Embraced by Catholics. Romney Dines with Rich People.' "

In response, the president poked fun at his own complex and, for some, controversial religious and family background by noting that, like Romney, he has a rather unusual name. "Actually, Mitt is his middle name. I wish I could use my middle name," said Barack Hussein Obama.

But, yes, there is the issue of the Romney family's wealth. "Earlier today, I went shopping at some stores in Midtown," quipped Obama. "I understand Governor Romney went shopping FOR some stores in Midtown."

It is a tradition, of course, that the jokes grab the headlines after this unique, YouTube-friendly scene at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue.

But it is also a tradition that this dinner has, throughout its 67-year history, been a crucial fundraiser for charities linked to the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, netting about $5 million this year. Thus, the Catholic shepherd of New York City speaks last and, literally, offers his benediction on this salute to lighthearted, generous public discourse in the tense battlefield that is national politics.

The stakes were especially high this year since Cardinal Timothy Dolan faced withering criticism from Catholic conservatives for extending the traditional invitation to the president -- because Obama has repeatedly clashed with the church over issues related to abortion, same-sex marriage and religious freedom.

The cardinal joined in the humorous repartee -- at one point noting that he couldn't read the greeting sent by Pope Benedict XVI because it was written in Latin -- but turned serious in his final prayer. He reminded the audience that the dinner honored Smith as the first Catholic selected as the presidential nominee of a major party, but also as the "happy warrior" who tirelessly fought to help the poor, the powerless and other forgotten Americans.

"Here we are, in an atmosphere of civility and humor … loving a country which considers religious liberty our first and most cherished freedom, convinced that faith is not just limited to an hour of Sabbath worship, but affects everything we do and dream," said Dolan, who also serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The purpose of the event, he added, was to "reverently" recall a "man of deep Catholic faith and ringing patriotism, who had a tear in his Irish eyes for what we would call, the 'uns' -- the un-employed, the un-insured, the un-wanted, the un-wed mother and her innocent, fragile un-born baby in her womb, the un-documented, the un-housed, the un-healthy, the un-fed, the under-educated.

"Government, Al Smith believed, should be on the side of these 'uns,' but a government partnering with family, church, parish, neighborhood, organizations and community, never intruding or opposing, since, when all is said and done, it's in God we trust, not, ultimately, in government or politics."

While Dolan is known for his boisterous wit, this final litany was clearly the big idea he wanted to communicate to both candidates and to all who were present, said Father James Martin, author of "Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life."

"It was very moving, and very Catholic, because he refused to narrow the Gospel down to one or two issues," said Martin, who attended the dinner. "He reminded everyone of the sacred dignity of all human life, not just in the womb, but also not just in the slums. …

"There are Catholics these days, on the left and on the right, who don't want to be reminded of both sides of that equation. What the cardinal did was honor our Catholic tradition -- all of it."

So a cardinal, Jesuit and comedian get to chat ...

In the year 752, a priest named Stephen was elected pope, but died four days later -- before officially filling the chair of St. Peter in Rome. For centuries Catholic records included him as Pope Stephen II -- until the Second Vatican Council. At that time, Pope Stephen III officially became Pope Stephen II (III) and the other later popes named Stephen received similarly strange titles.

So Pope Stephen III kind of vanished and that title became a kind of ecclesiastical inside joke, the kind that might appeal to cardinals and Jesuits. But what about a satirical superstar from Comedy Central?

Actually, this insider joke works if the comedian is named Stephen Colbert and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York delivers the punch line. The two faced off before 3,000 students and faculty at Fordham University in a Sept. 14 program focusing on "Humor, Joy and the Spiritual Life." The event was arranged by Father James Martin, author of the book "Between Heaven and Mirth" and for legions of fans the "Official Chaplain of the Colbert Nation."

The jocularity started early as Dolan -- who is used to having Catholics kiss his ring -- lunged to kiss Colbert's hand, first. Then, when Martin said the cardinal might become pope in a future conclave, Dolan responded, "If I am elected pope -- which is probably the greatest gag all evening -- I'll be Stephen III."

Colbert piled on: "Write that down! I want that notarized!"

Fordham officials disappointed YouTube fans by, at the last minute, declaring this much-anticipated summit a media-free zone. Still, a few journalists – starting with a New York Times scribe – slipped in as guests. Also, it's impossible to keep one-liners locked inside a hall packed with college students and Twitter-friendly smartphones.

Some of the exchanges shared via hashtag #Dolbert and #DolanColbert included:

* Colbert, who teaches Sunday school at his New Jersey parish, stressed that he never jokes about the sacraments. Instead, he skewers people he believes use and abuse faith, especially in politics. "Then I'm not talking about Christ. I'm talking about Christ as cudgel," he said.

* At one point, Cardinal Dolan introduced Evelyn Colbert, the comedian's wife, and kissed her cheek. "I can kiss your wife," he quipped. "You can't kiss mine."

* Jabbing the cardinal about recent changes in the Mass, Colbert noted one bumpy Nicene Creed edit: "Consubstantial! It's the creed! It's not the SAT prep."

* A student, via social media, asked: "I am considering the priesthood. Would it be prudent to avoid dating?" The cardinal said dating was a good idea, adding, "By the way, let me give you the phone numbers of my nieces." Colbert responded: "It's actually a great pickup line: 'I'm seriously considering the priesthood. You can change my mind.' "

* Concerning his own struggles as a believer, Colbert said: "Are there flaws in the church? Absolutely. But is there great beauty in the church? Absolutely.” And also, “The real reason I remain a Catholic is what the church gives me -- which is love."

* Dolan to Colbert: "Do you feel pressure to be funny all the time?" Colbert back to Dolan: "Do you feel pressure to be holy all the time?"

The bottom line, noted Martin, is that humor has always been part of religious life, including the lives of the saints. Take, for example, that famous prayer from the young St. Augustine: "Lord, give me chastity … but not yet."

In remarks later posted online, the Jesuit noted: "Humor serves serious purposes in the spiritual life. Joyful humor can evangelize, and draw people to God. Self-deprecating humor reminds us of our own humility. Provocative humor can also gently speak truth to power."

In his own theological reflections, the cardinal argued that the roots of Christian humor can be found in the darkest hours of Good Friday, when it appeared Jesus had been "bullied to death by undiluted evil; Love, jackbooted by hate; Mercy incarnate, smothered by revenge; Life itself, crushed by death."

But he who laughs last, stressed Dolan, laughs best.

"Lord knows there are plenty of Good Fridays in our lives. But they will not prevail. Easter will," he wrote, in his script. "As we Irish claim, 'Life is all about loving, living and laughing, not about hating, dying and moaning.' ... That's why we say, 'Joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence.' "

Cardinal praying in a GOP spotlight

Political conventions have always included prayers and, through the decades, legions of preachers, rabbis, bishops and others have stepped to the podium to deliver them -- whether the delegates were paying attention or not. Then Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles faced the Democratic National Convention in 2000. First, he reminded the delegates they were in the presence of God and that true prayers must focus on "moral values, not partisan politics."

In his litany, Mahony said: "In You, O God, we trust -- that you will keep us ever committed to protect the life and well-being of all people but especially unborn children, the sick and the elderly, those on skid row and those on death row. ... Give us the resolve to create those conditions in society where working people earn wages that can sustain themselves and their family members in dignity, and that they have access to adequate healthcare, childcare and education."

After that, political leaders of all stripes learned to be more careful when choosing who gets to pray in an age in which America's most divisive debates -- about marriage, family, abortion and sex -- often involve religious beliefs and practices.

Tensions have been especially high this year, with a coalition of conservative Catholics, Jews, Protestants and others challenging -- in courts as well as pulpits -- Health and Human Services mandates that require most religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including the so-called "morning-after pills."

The central figures in the resulting religious-liberty showdown have been President Barack Obama and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who is also president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Thus, no one was surprised when Dolan's Republican National Convention benediction included several references religious liberty.

"Almighty God, father of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, we beg your continued blessings on this sanctuary of freedom, and on all of those who proudly call America home," said Dolan, as he began his 533-word prayer. "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."

This passage set the tone for anyone parsing the cardinal's words for political content, said Deacon Greg Kandra, a 26-year CBS News veteran who now serves in the Diocese of Brooklyn and has been active in a variety of multimedia Catholic ministries.

"What caught my attention was what Cardinal Dolan didn't say, as well as what he did say. He kept the whole thing broad-minded, without getting too specific," said Kandra. "Most of all, there was nothing overtly political in this prayer."

For example, the cardinal prayed for God's blessing "upon those yet to be born" and those "at the end of this life" -- but avoided direct references to abortion, euthanasia or related health-care issues.

In another passage, Dolan alluded to immigration -- a tense topic for some Republicans and the Catholic hierarchy. Without being specific, he prayed for God's blessings on "families that have come recently" to America and reminded his listeners they must "strive to include your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, in the production and prosperity of a people so richly blessed."

And what about the high-stakes battle between the White House and those who insist there is more to "freedom of religion" than mere "freedom of worship"? In the most pointed lines of the prayer, the cardinal mentioned this issue by name, then linked this debate to natural law and belief in moral absolutes.

"Almighty God, who gives us the sacred and inalienable gift of life, we thank you as well for the singular gift of liberty," said Dolan. "Renew in all of our people a respect for religious freedom in full, that first most cherished freedom. ...

"May we know the truth of your creation, respecting the laws of nature and nature's God, and not seek to replace it with idols of our own making. Give us the good sense not to cast aside the boundaries of righteous living you first inscribed in our hearts even before inscribing them on tablets of stone."

In the end, said Kandra, is the cardinal could probably "change a few words, a few names, in this prayer and then use it again at the Democratic National Convention. That was probably his goal."