Prayer and responsibility: elections 2012

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York and President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was invited first by the Republican and then by the Democratic Party to offer the closing prayer at their respective national conventions, held respectively in Orlando and in Charlotte. The cardinal obliged and at both conventions offered prayers for our country, its leaders and its people.  In both places his prayer included clear reference to life issues and to religious freedom as “the first freedom.” At both gatherings the media showed that the delegates joined him in prayer, evidenced by their respectful silence and the look of concentration and attentiveness visible on so many faces. Whatever may have been other events at these conventions, God was acknowledged and prayer was offered by our good neighbor and dear friend, the Archbishop of New York.

This is important for two reasons. First, recognition of God and providing space for prayer are signs of a culture that has not lost its bearings. Indeed, all surveys show that belief in God and the power of prayer remain ingrained in our culture among the vast majority of Americans.  The ancient Greeks famously opined that a virtuous society depended on virtuous citizens who in turn produced virtuous leaders.  God is the ultimate guarantor of virtue as He is the creator Who gives us our dignity, our freedom and our capacity to live according to His law.  The second reason why Cardinal Dolan’s prayers and the appropriate reception they received are important is that it offers us the hope that we do have the capacity to look beyond ourselves, to live in a society that regards right and wrong as just that and that seeks to make truth prevail over falsehood, and ignorance.

Occasionally I check the Boston newspapers on line to remind myself how fortunate I am to live on Long Island. A columnist in one of them (there are two) was comparing the elective chances of the two presidential candidates and what qualities might lead to the election of one or the other. He had very few observations about their policies or their proposals. In the end he said that probably the winner would be the one whom the American public “in their gut and feelings” would “rather have a cup of coffee or a Yoo Hoo with.” That kind of mindless pandering to the worst in us is exactly what we do not need to encourage among voters this election year.

In my last column I stressed the responsibility we all have to vote. A responsible vote is one based on the truth and is always informed by a conscience that abides by the truth. I cited the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus calling all Catholics who are bound by divine law to oppose intrinsic evil such as abortion, euthanasia, denial of human rights including religious freedom, to make that the standard for their vote in November. “Is it not time,” he asked, “for Catholic voters to say ‘no’, no to every candidate of every political party who supports such intrinsic evil.”

Following up on that I would like us to recognize that we Catholics have a vocation to transform the social, political, civil, economic and financial order. We bishops have called on all Catholics to be those faithful citizens to build a new politics of respect for every human being and his/her innate dignity. This would be a politics that does more than enshrine human rights, including the right to religious freedom. It would be a politics that builds its programs and policies as expressions of defense and promotion of human rights and human dignity.  This will mean saying ‘no’ to many platforms and many candidates. But this is not being negative.  We are simply saying ‘no’ to an existing ‘no.’ We are saying no to destroying human life. We are saying no to limiting human rights and religious freedom. We are saying ‘no’ to unjust discrimination and to the direct killing of the innocent whether a war is declared or not. Therefore what we are saying is truly a ‘yes.’ It is yes to human life, human dignity, to all human rights, to the safety and security of all persons no matter what their background.

And as for our leaders we have every right to ask them to be more than orators and to give us more than sound bites. Give us instead the assurance of commitment to truth and to ideals, commitment to service and to honest government, commitment to all peoples and to the common good, commitment to justice and peace not just for ourselves but for all peoples and all nations.

We Catholics must be aware that what we say and what we do has consequences for us in this life and in the next. If we want a virtuous society, we must be virtuous ourselves and promote virtue and truth as the basis of a good society. Our capacity to do this, to propose a vision but not to impose it, rests on the defense and protection of our religious freedom as well as the freedom of religion of any and every sincere believer and any and every sincere faith. Blessed John Paul underscored this in 1995 when he visited the United States. In Baltimore, he offered this reflection:

“The challenge facing you, dear friends, is to increase the awareness of the importance for society of religious freedom; to defend that freedom against those who would take religion out of the public domain and establish secularism as America’s official faith. And it is vitally necessary, for the very survival of the American experience, to transmit to the next generation the precious legacy of religious freedom and the convictions which sustain it.”