On September 6, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the cardinal-archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York, offered the closing benediction at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, as he had a week earlier at the Republican National Convention. (See "How Should Christians Pray? Thoughts on Cardinal Dolan's Prayer at the Republican Convention.")
In style, substance, and theme, the prayers were very similar, and even used the same language at points. As at the Republican convention, Cardinal Dolan made the Sign of the Cross but did not audibly recite the words of this most common trinitarian prayer. The benediction at the Democratic convention was longer, and focused more on concern for "the poor and suffering," but it also made a fairly explicit reference to the right to life in front of a convention that had embraced a platform endorsing federal funding for abortion:
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.
Cardinal Dolan likewise referred to the need to defend traditional marriage, though in a more veiled way:
Show us anew that happiness is found only in respecting the laws of nature and of nature’s God. Empower us with your grace so that we might resist the temptation to replace the moral law with idols of our own making, or to remake those institutions you have given us for the nurturing of life and community.
Clearly, the cardinal was trying to make a point, but prayer—even public prayers, such as these at the two conventions—is directed to God, not to those listening to the prayer. Cardinal Dolan surely knows that God doesn't need to be reminded that life is a gift and marriage is a lifelong bond between a man and a woman, even if the vast majority of delegates to the Democratic National Convention do.
In the wake of his benediction at the Republican National Convention, Cardinal Dolan had been criticized for mentioning Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan by name, while referring only generically to the current President and Vice President. He seems to have responded to that criticism by mentioning all four men by name in his benediction at the Democratic convention. Of course, those who wish to criticize him still will, because he mentioned Romney and Ryan at the Democratic convention, but did not mention Obama and Biden at the Republican one. But that's the problem when prayers are composed with concerns for how men will react to them: It's never possible to please everyone.
Cardinal Dolan made another major change from the Republican benediction to the Democratic one. As I discussed in "How Should Christians Pray? Thoughts on Cardinal Dolan's Prayer at the Republican Convention," the cardinal had used a somewhat odd formula at the beginning of the Republican benediction:
Almighty God, father of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus . . .
It was, I speculated, an attempt to avoid the possibility of offending non-Christians, but in the process it did not simply fail to witness to the Christian understanding of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ, but potentially sowed confusion among non-Christians who are not familiar with Christian trinitarian theology. Most readers agreed with my assessment, though some insisted that the formula that Cardinal Dolan used was perfectly fine and that no one could be confused by it.
Apparently, Cardinal Dolan disagreed with the latter group, because for the Democratic benediction, he changed the formula:
Almighty God, father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, revealed to us so powerfully in your Son, Jesus Christ . . .
This is a much better opening, addressing the main concern that I had raised regarding Cardinal Dolan's language in the Republican benediction—namely, that "God's fatherhood of Jesus is ontologically different from His fatherhood" of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, "because Jesus is the only begotten Son of God." It still does not fully get across the rather important point that Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, but if Cardinal Dolan had used this language in both prayers, I don't think that I or others would have been as concerned as we were.
Which brings us back to the main point I tried to make in my earlier post: When Christians pray, even in mixed public gatherings, they should pray as Christians. One reader suggested that I owed Cardinal Dolan an apology for using his Republican benediction as an example of how Christian ministers in recent decades have let their desire not to offend keep them from being proper witnesses to Christian truth. As she wrote:
He was not speaking to give a Catholic Catechism lesson but to pray for "ALL" - and to do that one must choose words carefully so as not to shut the door where one can not be heard at all.
But that is precisely the problem. I believe that a good and intelligent man such as Cardinal Dolan could do what his predecessor, John Cardinal O'Connor, routinely did in the very same circumstances—figure out a way to offer a prayer for all that still follows the traditional Catholic formula for prayer and affirms the truth of the Gospel. Thirty years ago, bishops such as Cardinal O'Connor had no trouble doing just that. Today, bishops such as Cardinal Dolan—to my mind, a man as holy and as intelligent as Cardinal O'Connor—seem to find it harder to do.
With his benediction at the Democratic National Convention, however, Cardinal Dolan has taken a step in the right direction. He recognized the problem with the formula he used at the Republican National Convention, and he used a better formula this time.
After 30 years of Christian ministers moving in the wrong direction when offering public prayers, that's progress.