Earlier this month, the new Catholic archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, visited a subway construction site in Manhattan to offer his blessing: “Bless this tunnel, those who are constructing it, and those who will use it.”
Such an act has at least two possible meanings, as I see it, one dubious, the other admirable and worthy of emulation. If Dolan’s blessing was intended or understood as a shield against accident, why isn’t he blessing the entire city or even the world? And if Catholics do believe that a priestly blessing can have a protective effect, have curiosity and the passion for knowledge ever led them to try to measure when such effects occur? Or are they happy to simply take it on blind faith that God pays attention to such gestures? I don’t want to hear that no one ever prays with the intention of calling forth a divine response and intervention; such prayers are the daily currency of belief.
But Dolan’s blessing could have another meaning as well—simply the expression of such precious human sentiments as gratitude and good will. And here again I’m led to wonder how the positive social functions of religion can be replicated in a secular context. Do we need a designated religious figure to express thanks for the labors of our fellow men and the creativity of the human spirit? If not a priest, who can channel our appreciation and wonder? Blessing is a noble performative utterance that ought to be separable from a belief in God, but it’s hard to see what non-religious figure would play the official blessing role without looking ridiculous. Government officials engage in ground-breaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies; perhaps that is the closest we can get.
Religious leaders are convenient spokesmen for human emotion. When the Pope visits the earthquake zone in L’Aquila, he’s not bringing God’s mercy—if God had any, He would not have allowed 200 adults and children to die in the first place—he is bringing human sympathy. That is a vital function.