The 2012 Republican National Convention came to a close on August 30 with a benediction delivered by Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the cardinal-archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York and, by virtue of his position, perhaps the best-known and most powerful bishop in the United States. Cardinal Dolan had been approached by the planners of the Republican convention to deliver the closing benediction, and, after accepting, he approached the White House with an offer to do the same at the Democratic National Convention. The White House declined, even though Dolan had placed his own reputation on the line a few weeks before by inviting President Obama to appear at the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner. (See "Cardinal Dolan's Big Mistake?") The decision was later reversed, and Cardinal Dolan will give the benediction at the close of the Democratic National Convention as well.
For frequent observers of political events, both Republican and Democratic, the prayer seems like dozens, even hundreds, that have gone before. It includes allusions to the Declaration of Independence ("the sacred and inalienable gift of life"), common civic slogans that invoke the deity ("one nation under God," "in God we trust," "God bless America"), and patriotic songs of a religious bent ("May you mend our every flaw, confirming our soul in self-control, our liberty in law"). References to freedom, and to God as the source of that freedom, are abundant and expected, and not surprisingly the prayer also includes a veiled allusion to the Obama administration's contraception mandate ("Renew in all of our people a respect for religious freedom in full, that first most cherished freedom").
There was, however, an odd, though admittedly not unexpected, line at he beginning of the prayer:
Almighty God, father of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus . . .
There was a time—again, not that long ago—when, even at civic events, Christians would pray in the manner of their particular denomination, as would Jews. Over the last few decades, however, it has become common for Christian ministers, especially Catholics, to pray in a manner that emphasizes God's oneness and deemphasizes, or even ignores, His threeness. This is often justified by the invocation of "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," from whom the three great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have descended.
Emphasizing God's unity does not, in itself, present a problem. Look closely at the proper prayers for the Mass, and you will find that most are addressed to God the Father, rather than to all three members of the Trinity.
Yet look even more closely, and you will see that those same prayers always end with the invocation of Jesus, through Whom we approach the Father, or the invocation of Jesus, "Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, One God . . . "—in other words, an acknowledgment of the Trinity. And, of course, Catholic prayer in general, both in a liturgical setting and outside of it, begins and ends with the Sign of the Cross—the simplest and most common trinitarian prayer.
Like so many other Christian ministers praying before a mixed crowd in recent years, Cardinal Dolan did not refer to the Trinity at all in his benediction. He chose not to end it in a Catholic manner, with an invocation of Christ or the Trinity, and the only mention of Jesus is in that first line. He did make the Sign of the Cross before beginning the prayer, though he did not recite the words of the Sign of the Cross audibly (if at all).
Why is this important? Isn't this mere nitpicking, or even disrespect for a prince of the Church? As longtime readers know, I am not normally one to criticize bishops who are acting in their official capacity, and the rest of my remarks here are not aimed at Cardinal Dolan per se, but rather at a tendency among Christians to be so sensitive to the possibility of offending others by invoking the Trinity that they, at best, miss the opportunity to witness to the central doctrine of Christianity that separates it from Judaism and Islam. At worst, they may end up muddying the waters and leaving doubt about what Christians really believe—as, in my opinion, Cardinal Dolan's opening line does.
Let's look at it again:
Almighty God, father of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus . . .
On the most basic level, these words are true. God is the "father of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus." Why, though, did Cardinal Dolan not use the common ecumenical formulation "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob"? Perhaps because, by including Jesus in the list, it seemed wrong: We don't refer to God as "the God of Jesus."
So "father of" it is. But logically, when we say that something or someone is the A of X, Y, and Z, we mean that it or he has the same relationship—A—to X as he does to Y and Z.
But that's not the case here. God is the Father of Jesus in a way that goes beyond His being the father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and the father of all of us). That's because Jesus is something more than another Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob (or another one of us). Fully man, He is also fully God, and thus God's fatherhood of Jesus is ontologically different from His fatherhood of us, because Jesus is the only begotten Son of God—that is, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
What would a non-Christian who is unfamiliar with Christian trinitarian theology—say, a Jew, a Muslim, or a Mormon—make of the equation of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus as sons of God? Such a person could be forgiven for thinking that the formula "the father of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus" means what it logically seems to mean—that God is the father of all of them in the same way, and that Jesus, therefore, is no different from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Perhaps the likelihood of non-Christians being misled is low, but it is certainly not nonexistent. Many poorly catechized Mormons, for instance, truly believe that they hold the same understanding of the Trinity, and of Christ as the Son of God, as Christians do. Fuzzy language, designed to avoid offense, sows confusion.
When Christian ministers—not just Cardinal Dolan—have the opportunity to address a large, mixed crowd, it is a moment of witness. Such prayers do not need to be (and, even more, should not be) full-on evangelization—an attempt to convert those listening rather than to pray to God—but they should flow from our Christian convictions and they should not downplay our beliefs or avoid our traditional formulas for prayer. No one should find it surprising or offensive for a Catholic minister to begin a prayer with the Sign of the Cross, audibly as well as physically, and to end it in Jesus' Name, or to offer it through Christ, with a full invocation of the Trinity. Yet there's little reason to think that Christian ministers—at least those most likely to be asked to address such crowds—are likely to wake up and realize that their perfectly natural desire not to offend has kept them from being proper witnesses to the truth of the Gospel.
If we pretend long enough to be something that we're not, we may wake up one day to find out that we're no longer what we once professed to be.
"Jesus saith to him: I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No man cometh to the Father, but by me" (John 14:6).
(This post was edited to correct an embarrassing error and to reflect the fact that the White House ultimately decided to feature Cardinal Dolan at the Democratic National Convention as well. Thanks to commenters Mike and Tribeca Mike.)