Editor’s Note: Brian Frawley, a former Augustinian Catholic priest, is an organizational consultant. His practice focuses on such areas as executive coaching, leadership development and organizational effectiveness. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion on CNN.
St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church in the Bronx, New York was founded in 1905 as an Irish-Catholic refuge for a largely immigrant population in search of a spiritual home. Today, it remains a haven for immigrants from Central and South America and Southeast Asia.
Over 30 years ago, as an Augustinian priest, I served as the pastor of this urban parish and had the chance to experience the daily hospitality and inclusion that had been seamlessly offered to and embraced by the church’s newest arrivals.
In many ways, there was nothing so remarkable about this. Then and now, the biblical mandate of welcoming the stranger remains at the heart of the gospel. It’s what Christians – and specifically Catholics – are supposed to do.
Monday night, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York will be offering the opening prayer at the Republican National Convention.
This event is a gathering of President Donald Trump’s Republican party, which has been defined by the message that arguably won Trump the White House in 2016 – a message about building a wall to keep out immigrants, expressed in language that was often graphic, racist and cruel.
This is not the first time that Cardinal Dolan has offered prayers at a convention. He delivered the invocation at both the Democratic and Republican conventions in 2012.
But that was eight years ago. That was before the nation had the opportunity to experience this President and his GOP enablers not only to use demeaning language to garner support for keeping out immigrants, but also divide families at the border and place children in what many would consider unlivable conditions.
That was before the tear gassing of peaceful protesters, the sympathetic tone delivered to the “very fine people on both sides” of the rally in Charlottesville or the smattering of racist and sexist language that Trump has continually used against those who dare to challenge him or his policies.
And yet, there are vast differences between Trump and his Catholic, Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, which will likely be on display at this week’s GOP convention.
It’s not just their differences in policy and personality that will be made evident; even greater are their differences in how they seem to be guided by their faith.
To be Catholic as the gospels remind us is to love your neighbor – even and especially those who are excluded and marked by difference.
To be Catholic is to protect the environment as Pope Francis so clearly laid out in his encyclical “Laudato Si” where he affirms the existence of climate change and decries its impact on the poor.
To be Catholic is to actively promote access to health care and support efforts to reduce gun violence.
These markers represent just some of what it means to be truly Catholic – but Biden exemplifies them while Trump falls spectacularly short.
This is why it’s so hard to understand why Cardinal Dolan has agreed to stand before the Republican convention. In response to questions about his participation in the RNC, Dolan has said: “I want to say that I maintain almost neutrality when it comes to politics … If we don’t pray for America, as Catholics, who will?”
But Dolan should understand the power of his presence at the convention and be mindful that this gesture will be seen by many as an affirmation of the President – or at least a statement that all we have seen and heard from him these past three years has yet to disqualify him as the faith-based President he presents himself as.
Instead, it gives every appearance of another hierarchical hit job on Biden’s pro-choice views – something that too many bishops and priests call out as the only Catholic issue that ever matters.
At the time, many non-Catholics viewed Kennedy with suspicion. They feared that his being Catholic would prevent him from governing freely and without the undue influence of the church. Kennedy responded strongly and emphatically his respect for the separation of church and state when he said, “I do not speak for the church on public matters – and the church does not speak for me.”
Sixty years later, we have a candidate who, while not Catholic, seeks to blur the lines of separation between himself and the church and embrace a connection that he presumably hopes will reap dividends in heavily Catholic battleground states.
Cardinal Dolan, like so many of the Republicans who will be praying with him, seems prepared to become another enabling pawn in Trump’s strategy to divide and conquer.
One can only hope that voters will find in the contrast between these two candidates a clearer image of what it means to truly be Catholic – even if that level of clarity may have been lost on Republican leaders.