An Unholy Tempest, Or Politics as Usual?

The conventions of conventions being what they are, there has been a prayer to open the proceedings in Madison Square Garden every night, and there has been a prayer at the close of business every night. The Roman Catholic Cardinal-Archbishop of New York, Edward Egan, will offer some final heavenly thoughts on Thursday night with the convention’s final benediction.

Ordinarily, the cardinal’s presence in the Garden would not be particularly notable, because clerics are always a part of the convention package. But when you’re a well-known Catholic cardinal and you’re speaking during the last night of a Republican convention, well, attention will be paid.

Perhaps that’s why the cardinal’s communications office defensively pointed out that His Eminence’s benediction will not be partisan. This would be in keeping with tradition, which dictates that the designated preacher ask for blessings and wisdom and strength and other good things without suggesting that the nominees have been anointed by you know who to lead us to you know who knows where. No doubt Cardinal Egan will follow in this tradition, lest anybody accuse him of bumping up against the wall separating church and state.

His very presence in the hall, however, is a fairly obvious political statement. George W. Bush, you may recall, is running against a Roman Catholic, which is still something of an event in American politics-never mind that there are some 66 million Catholics in the country. What’s more, that Catholic Presidential candidate, John Kerry, has been denounced by several Catholic bishops (though not Cardinal Egan) because he supports abortion rights and stem-cell research. Some of these great pastoral leaders have even condemned Catholics who would dare to support such candidates. Not surprisingly, some lay Catholics have suggested where these bishops might better proclaim their holy orders.

Catholics, who make up about 25 percent of the electorate, are considered a pivotal swing vote this year, and there are lots of them in hotly contested states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ed Gillespie, is a Catholic who believes that George W. Bush can achieve the historically improbable feat of capturing the Catholic vote from the Catholic candidate, Mr. Kerry. This would have been unthinkable in 1960, when John Kennedy became the first Catholic to win the Presidency. But the Catholic vote is not as tribal as it was a generation ago, and so this time around, Catholics are very much in play. It surely won’t hurt to have Cardinal Egan at the podium shortly after Mr. Bush accepts his nomination on the convention’s climactic evening.

The cardinal’s presence is not a formal endorsement-despite what you might have heard, Catholic clerics don’t do endorsements-but it may as well be. That’s because it’s hard to imagine His Eminence or most of his brother bishops offering prayers at this year’s Democratic convention. (A rank-and-file Catholic priest and friend of Senator Kerry’s, the Reverend John R. Ardis, gave the closing benediction in Boston, but not without critical comment in Catholic circles.) In the eyes of most Catholic bishops, Democrats-especially Catholic Democrats-are to be shunned if they support legal abortion. Their positions on other issues do not matter.

When the U.S. Senate’s foremost advocate for the poor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, died last year, there was no memorial service for him in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in his adopted city. Why not? He was a Catholic who supported abortion rights. But when the legendary radio announcer for the New York Mets, Bob Murphy, died a few weeks ago, he received the full St. Pat’s treatment as a famous and noteworthy Catholic layman. He surely was a terrific announcer, but it is patently ridiculous that Bob Murphy got the big St. Patrick’s sendoff and Pat Moynihan didn’t. Then again, baseball announcers don’t take positions on abortion.

It is not hard to see, then, why Cardinal Egan’s benediction will be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of the born-again Methodist from Texas whose views on two important issues-abortion and stem-cell research-square with the Vatican’s. Is that so bad? Church-state fundamentalists surely would think so. But their judgment is more than suspect: There were no church-state concerns when the Reverend Al Sharpton delivered a highly partisan speech at the Democratic convention, nor were the church-state police exercised when Bill Clinton, a former elected official of some note, praised John Kerry from the pulpit of Riverside Church on Aug. 29.

Odd, isn’t it? If George H.W. Bush were invited to the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to speak warmly of his son, demonstrators and many in the media would call down fire and brimstone. And, indeed, if Cardinal Egan isn’t careful on Thursday, the church-state police no doubt will accuse him of unseemly clerical interference in the political process.

That simply won’t do.