Cardinal Dolan offers benediction—as well as moral exhortation, a lesson in …

… political philsophy, and a challenge to recognize and grapple with first principles:

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.

We praise and thank you for the gift of liberty.  May this land of the free never lack those brave enough to defend our basic freedoms.  Renew in all our people a profound respect for religious liberty:  the first, most cherished freedom bequeathed upon us at our Founding. May our liberty be in harmony with truth; freedom ordered in goodness and justice.  Help us live our freedom in faith, hope, and love.  Make us ever-grateful for those who, for over two centuries, have given their lives in freedom’s defense; we commend their noble souls to your eternal care, as even now we beg the protection of your mighty arm upon our men and women in uniform.

We praise and thank you for granting us the life and the liberty by which we can pursue happiness.  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.  May we welcome those who yearn to breathe free and to pursue happiness in this land of freedom, adding their gifts to those whose families have lived here for centuries.

Read the entire prayer on the Cardinal’s blog. I was able to watch it live, having flipped over from the U.S Open (two excellent quarterfinal matches went down today) at the perfect time. I watched very little of either convention: some of Paul Ryan’s speech, a few minutes of President Obama’s speech, nothing more. Life is short and my patience is possibly even shorter.

Cardinal Dolan’s benediction was powerful and rather eloquent. It was especially interesting to listen to it because two days ago I was fortunate enough to attend a talk, here in Eugene, Oregon, of all places, titled, “Are We Worthy of the American Founding?” It was given by my friend, Dr. Brad Birzer, professor of history at Hillsdale College, and it was a superbly crafted combination of history, philosophy, political analysis, and theological reflection, focusing on three key principles of the American founding: natural law, natural rights, and freedom of association. Brad emphasized how the founders, collectively, saw themselves as new Romans, establishing a new Republic based upon the Roman tradition as recieved through the prism, as it were, of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The founders, however imperfect and unique as individuals, understood very well the fragility of the American experiment and the essential roles that virtue, honor, and vigilance would have to play in order for it to succeed. By the early 1800s, many Americans believed the experiment was already failing. One wonders what Washington, Jefferson, and Company would think if they visited the U.S. today. 

Cardinal Dolan’s benediction, again, was excellent: very direct and pithy, and yet also graceful and grace-filled. It assumed the adulthood and seriousness of those present, something that many politicians, of both parties, seem happy to either ignore or even dismiss. It reminded us that not only is there life outside of politics, true and lasting life is most certainly found beyond the walls of politics, however necessary is the political arena. But Cardinal Dolan’s benedictions, at both conventions, were reminders that Christians and Christianity are, ultimately, in this world but not of this world. This simple point is significant since the 21st century has seen the continuation, in this or that fashion, of the enticing heresy of politics as religion—a heresy so potent that is nearly burned up the world during the past century, and so persistent that it is working to seduce our nation in this young century. Matt Welch of Reasonmagazine captures some of this rather nicely in a piece posted after the conclusion of the DNC:

It’s one of the many curiosities of two-party politics that Team A routinely mirrors or even adopts major personality traits of Team B within tidy eight-year cycles, but still the speed with which Democratic gatherings have become openly religious revivals is enough to induce whiplash. Aside from Bill Clinton (who must always be in a category by himself) speakers at the just-concluded Democratic National Convention who got the best response were those who most resembled–and sometimes were–pastors.

President Barack Obama didn’t give a particularly good acceptance speech Thursday night, but for the thousands in the arena it didn’t matter one bit. They were here to see him more than listen to him, to communicate their love to him (often by bursting forth with “I LOVE YOU!!”s) more than hear about his plans for the next four years. The last five minutes of the speech was a festival of hollering back, of responding not to Obama’s frequently inaudible remarks but to the rising timbre of his voice. I think it’s impossible to understand the ongoing appeal of this odd and embattled president without grappling with the notion that he is an essentially religious figure.

Consciously or no, the Democratic Party and Obama himself played into that devotional relationship every hour of this convention. The president was portrayed as a kind of omnipotent father figure, whose abiding faith in his flock deserved tribute. “President Obama believes in you!” Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-California) beseeched the audience tonight. Vice President Joe Biden kept coming back to that that theme. “We have incredible faith in the decency, and the hard work of the American people,” he said. “And you deserve a president who will never quit on you.”

Gene Healy, vice president at the Cato Institute and author of The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power (Cato 2008), has written some strong but cogent criticisms of how the office of the POTUS has become a nearly mythical, even sacred and religious, position that many Americans invest with unrealistic hopes and rather frightening, pseudo-spiritual dreams:

The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws. He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise. He—or she—is the one who answers the phone at 3 a.m. to keep our children safe from harm. The modern president is America’s shrink, a social worker, our very own national talk show host. He’s also the Supreme Warlord of the Earth.

This messianic campaign rhetoric merely reflects what the office has evolved into after decades of public clamoring. The vision of the president as national guardian and spiritual redeemer is so ubiquitous it goes virtually unnoticed. Americans, left, right, and other, think of the “commander in chief” as a superhero, responsible for swooping to the rescue when danger strikes. And with great responsibility comes great power.

It’s difficult for 21st-century Americans to imagine things any other way. The United States appears stuck with an imperial presidency, an office that concentrates enormous power in the hands of whichever professional politician manages to claw his way to the top. Americans appear deeply ambivalent about the results, alternately cursing the king and pining for Camelot. But executive power will continue to grow, and threats to civil liberties increase, until citizens reconsider the incentives we have given to a post that started out so humble. (“The Cult of the Presidency”, June 2008)

Pundits and commentators of nearly every politican persuasion talk endlessly, even mindlessly, about the POTUS “fixing the economy” and “turning the country around” and “giving people hope” and “leading us out of the recession” and so forth. Frankly, I often find it creepy, especially in its unchallenged prevalence. I might not agree with all of Healy’s libertarian views, but he is on the mark here, as was Brad in his talk: we have really lost our way when it comes to the original vision of our nation’s founders. Cardinal Dolan’s benedictions touched on the core principles of the founding, as they were exhortations to personal responsibility, authentic justice, and virtue rooted in objective truth. When those essential qualities aren’t present, or are very weak, the vacuum is filled with personal messiahs, faux justice, and “values” based on subjective whims and dubious ideological agendas. 

Catholics, of all people, should recognize the place and the limits of politics within the much larger and meaningful realm of society. The Cardinal, in praying for our country’s political leaders, said, “Help them remember that the only just government is the government that serves its citizens rather than itself.” Amen, amen, and amen. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1227 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.