Cardinal Dolan’s Response to the ‘Al Smith Dinner’ Critiques

Over on his blog, The Gospel in the Digital Age, the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, offers a very well-reasoned reflection on why inviting politicians with whom one does not agree on every issue to the table (literally the dinner table in this case) is an important, necessary, and noble move. He has received an intense amount of criticism from some groups of people for his invitation to President Obama in the wake of the recent scuffle between some bishops (including Cardinal Dolan) and some other Catholic organizations and the US Department of Health and Human Services over implementation of certain laws.

Cardinal Dolan writes:

The Al Smith Dinner has never been without controversy, since, as Carl Anderson reminded us, politics can inspire disdain and negativity as well as patriotism and civility.

This year is surely no exception: I am receiving stacks of mail protesting the invitation to President Obama (and by the way, even some objecting to the invitation to Governor Romney).

Of course, as the Cardinal rightly notes in his important parenthetical reference to simultaneous protests about Governor Romney’s invite, the GOP candidate is equally guilty of failing the “Catholic moral test” that some wish to levy each election cycle.

It is true: there are many things about President Obama, his executive administration, and the Democratic Party more broadly that Catholics in good conscience must challenge and reject. Among these things are issues of war, especially the proliferation of drone strikes around the world, and attitudes toward abortion, to name two.

Nevertheless, there are many things about Governor Romney, his running mate, and the Republican Party more broadly that Catholics in good conscience must challenge and reject. Among these things are issues of war, torture and capital punishment; attitudes toward gun control; and economic policy and the general preferences for the wealthy over the poor, the working-class, and the middle-class populations.

Cardinal Dolan does an excellent job highlighting four keen reasons for why an event like the Al Smith dinner should include politicians like President Obama and Governor Romney, neither of whom would otherwise rate “endorsement” (something the Cardinal goes to great measures to explain the Church does not do).

So, my correspondents ask, how can you justify inviting the President? Let me try to explain.

For one, an invitation to the Al Smith Dinner is not an award, or the provision of a platform to expound views at odds with the Church. It is an occasion of conversation; it is personal, not partisan.

Two, the purpose of the Al Smith Dinner is to show both our country and our Church at their best: people of faith gathered in an evening of friendship, civility, and patriotism, to help those in need, not to endorse either candidate. Those who started the dinner sixty-seven years ago believed that you can accomplish a lot more by inviting folks of different political loyalties to an uplifting evening, rather than in closing the door to them.

Three, the teaching of the Church, so radiant in the Second Vatican Council, is that the posture of the Church towards culture, society, and government is that of engagementand dialogue. In other words, it’s better to invite than to ignore, more effective to talk together than to yell from a distance, more productive to open a door than to shut one. Our recent popes have been examples of this principle, receiving dozens of leaders with whom on some points they have serious disagreements. Thus did our present Holy Father graciously receive our current President of the United States.  And, in the current climate, we bishops have maintained that we are open to dialogue with the administration to try and resolve our differences.  What message would I send if I refused to meet with the President?

Finally, an invitation to the Al Smith Dinner in no way indicates a slackening in our vigorous promotion of values we Catholic bishops believe to be at the heart of both gospel and American values, particularly the defense of human dignity, fragile life, and religious freedom. In fact, one could make the case that anyone attending the dinner, even the two candidates, would, by the vibrant solidarity of the evening, be reminded that America is at her finest when people, free to exercise their religion, assemble on behalf of poor women and their babies, born and unborn, in a spirit of civility and respect.

In conclusion, Cardinal Dolan makes the honest point that Jesus too was the cause of scandal for those he repeatedly welcomed at table.

In the end, I’m encouraged by the example of Jesus, who was blistered by his critics for dining with those some considered sinners; and by the recognition that, if I only sat down with people who agreed with me, and I with them, or with those who were saints, I’d be taking all my meals alone.

But isn’t that what so many people want? To simply eat alone? To insist that their individual perspectives, their agendas, their interests, their worldviews are really Catholic, correct, patriotic, or whatever?

Our culture has become so polarized that, in effect, most people end up “eating alone” because they can’t stand to listen to those whose views differ from their own. Perhaps we all need to be a little more like Cardinal Dolan, who, as he tries to express in his post, is simply trying to eat the way Jesus did — with everyone. 

Let’s not demonize others: we’re no saints either!

Photo: NYT
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5 Responses to “Cardinal Dolan’s Response to the ‘Al Smith Dinner’ Critiques”

  1. Anne-Marie Says:

    Excellent post, Dan. Thanks.

  2. I just posted this to Facebook. While I have been reluctant to put posts about this on my wall, I have to get your words out there.

    You have said so much worth noting here, but what I most appreciate is the “eating alone” thoughts. Is there anything less eucharistic than eating alone? And of course, Jesus ate with everyone.

    How else could he touch them so deeply?

    Thank you for this!

  3. Reblogged this on friarmusings and commented:
    Especially germaine given the increasingly harsh rhetoric of this campaign season (http://www.tampabay.com/incoming/bitter-campaign-knows-no-bounds-for-attacks/1246113)

  4. In the Zefferilli’s great film, “Jesus of Nazareth” there is the scene where Jesus asks the hated tax collector, Matthew, if He could have dinner with him. Peter and the other apostles are horrified and tell Jesus He should not do this. Jesus shrugs them off. Peter is at the door looking in as Jesus has dinner with all of the “sinners” and suddenly Peter understands. The the tears flow from his eyes. Kudos to Cardinal Dolan—he is living the gospel.

  5. Sandy, csj Says:

    Dear Cardinal Dolan, thank you for your heartfelt response in the face of what must be difficult-to-hear criticism. The gesture of table-fellowship, bringing together who hold different views instead of pushing them farther into isolating corners is a powerful example of evangelization.

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