Essays on Religion, Faith and Sprituality by Michele Madigan Somerville

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Al Smith Dinner: Why Dolan Should Have Snubbed POTUS and Why I'm Glad He Didn't He Didn't


About four years ago I caught the last 20 minutes of the 2008 Alfred E. Smith dinner on CSPAN. Senator Barack Obama's bit was funny, and his comedic timing was impeccable. But I found myself distracted from full enjoyment of the future president's performance by the man seated beside him, who chuckled so hard at Obama's jokes he seemed like he'd cry. Later on in the evening, that same man would characterize Barack Obama as "exemplary." That man was Edward Egan, Cardinal of the Archdiocese of New York.
How was it possible that a Roman Catholic cardinal might find the jokes of a crusader for what he and his fellow hierarchs view as the mass murder of (what the Catholic anti-abortion advocates call) "babies" in utero so hilarious? How could a Roman Catholic prelate so revel in feasting at a table with a popular pro-choice presidential candidate while knowing that in parishes throughout the United States priests were barring pro-choice politicians from "the table of Our Lord?" How? The answer may be that such a thing is possible only if the cardinal doing the chortling doesn't quite believe everything he preaches.
Hence the concern on the part of the many Roman Catholics who have criticized the choice made by Timothy Dolan, Cardinal of the Archdiocese of New York and President of the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) to invite President Barack Obama to the Al Smith Dinner.
I am glad the President Obama will attend the Al Smith dinner. I think the mere fact that Obama was invited at all will win him Catholic votes. However, Reverend Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, who objects strenuously to Dolan's choice to invite Obama to the Al Smith Dinner is right to feel betrayed by this Dolan in this: 
The Rev. Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, a leading abortion opponent based in Staten Island, said Monday (Aug. 6) that "the polite putting aside of differences for a while amounts to scandal."
"There comes a time when enough is enough and we can no longer afford to give people a reason to doubt our position as a Church," Pavone wrote in an email. "So no, I don't think the invitation is appropriate at this time."
"Better to cancel the event than have it become another cause for scandal in the Catholic Church,"

If Timothy Dolan breaks bread with Barack Obama, laughs at his jokes, or extends any words of graciousness that might wind up construed as praise, Dolan will siphon out some of the urgency out of his "religious freedom" and "defense of marriage" positions. He will give Catholics cause to doubt his positions on same-sex marriage and contraception. He will cause many Catholics to wonder whether the cardinal's talk of Catholic conscience and religious freedom is genuine--or just politically driven cant. 

As I watched Timothy Egan delight in Obama's performance roughly four years ago, I remember thinking: Maybe the cardinal and his ilk don't really believe what they preach. Maybe obedience, and not belief, fuels their promulgating. They submit to the Magisterium the way soldiers do generals. Maybe they just have to toe the Vatican party line, and belief is not always required.
Does Timothy Dolan truly believe what he says about same-sex marriage, artificial contraception and abortion? Of course there's no sure way to know. Roman Catholicism has an enlightened approach toward doubt. It is no sin to doubt. There can be little doubt, however, in any any Roman Catholic camp, that regarding the president as some perfectly good guy with whom Catholics just don't quite seem to see eye-to-eye poses a threat will to Dolan's already dragging and tenuous credibility.
If Timothy Dolan believes, for example, that an embryo is a child, he views Barack Obama as a man militating (even if with good intentions) with considerable rigorousness, to ensure that the mass murder of "babies" remains legal in the United States. That most Catholics don't hold this position is immaterial. It's what Dolan teaches.
Dolan did not have to invite Obama to the dinner. Cardinal John O'Connor excluded Bill Clinton; Cardinal Edward Egan excluded John Kerry. That precedent exists for excluding pro-choice candidates from this event makes it all the more difficult for Dolan to put the kind of spin he needs on his decision to invite the president to the dinner. That in his putative outrage over the Health Care mandate, Dolan moved to sue the Obama offers all the more reason for Dolan to leave the President of the United States off the Al Smith dinner guest list.
Timothy Dolan's choice to break bread with the President Obama will cast an entirely new light on the religious freedom campaign, a campaign much predicated on demonizing the incumbent. Catholics and non-Catholics alike will have all the more reason to question Dolan's challenges to "ObamaCare" in the aftermath of the gala at the Waldorf.
Staten Island priest Frank Pavone and others who share his view of Dolan's decision are right to criticize Timothy Dolan for inviting the president to attend the Al Smith dinner, but pro-Obama Catholics are likely to wind up grateful for the blunder. Dolan's decision will cause many Catholics who had been seeing Obama as somehow anti-Catholic to look again at the incumbent. Obama will come away from the Al Smith affair looking like a good guy who just disagrees with the bishops on a few negotiable matters, and Dolan will come looking soft on sin. The entry of Paul Ryan into the race changes things too. Even the most conservative Catholics--most of the USCCB included--have a strong commitment to serving the poor and it is possible that the US bishops not pleased with the Catolic running mate Romney selected.
Many conservative Catholics, especially those who have been most loyal to Dolan in the context of his own scandals, will see Dolan's decision to "wine and dine" the president as a self-serving betrayal. If Dolan entertains POTUS at the Waldorf on October 18th, he will betray the Knights of Columbus who have advocated tirelessly for DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act). He will betray the many parishes throughout the U.S. which have scheduled Voter Registration drives designed to facilitate the ousting of Obama. And he will betray the rosary-intoning Catholic extremists who conduct vigils outside women's medical care facilities that offer abortions. They've stuck with him through his tirades and scandals. These very conservative Catholics are Dolan's base. 

Dolan recently posted a three-fold defense of his choice on his blog. He provided threefold reasoning for this decision. He claimed that the dinner would not offer Obama a platform for outright electioneering. This is, technically speaking, true. Dolan offered the following second reason:
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.

The truth is that many conservative Roman Catholics will think Timothy Dolan is showing the church at its venal worst in his failure to act in solidarity with those in his church who make great sacrifices in order to remain uncompromising in the context of their religious beliefs and values.
Dolan's choice not "meet with" but celebrate with Obama (There's a big difference between the two.) reveals the kind of situational morality both Roman Catholics and the world beyond the church have come to detest. It is unlikely that those who started the Al Smith dinner, could ever have anticipated the attendance of a president of the United States who supports same-sex marriage, and legal abortion; but if they had, it is improbable that they would have seen the conflict at hand as a mere Republican versus Democrat partisan one. 2012 is a unique in this.
Dolan's third reason pertaining to an interest in engagement and dialogue would be a one if only it did not so lack the ring of truth: 
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.

The US bishops' lack of interest in dialogue and penchant for muzzling dissident members of its own church makes Dolan's claim look like blarney. Dolan isn't interested in "dialogue" on matters of religious doctrine and his supporters don't want him to be.
Dolan goes on to point out that the "Holy Father" has received the president. As much as Dolan aspires to be "the Holy Father," (He never will) the pope is the head of a sovereign state. The pope doesn't invite parties in lawsuits he initiates to televised festive gatherings, and a brief "audience" with the pontiff is neither a media event nor a banquet. The "Holy Father" is unlikely to put politics aside for one magical non-partisan evening for the chance to hoist a few with, and deliver fond speeches about, a presidential candidate who has been branded an enemy of Catholicism by his own Roman Catholic hierarchs.
All Catholic eyes will be on Dolan as he plays the gracious host to Obama at the October 18th dinner at the Waldorf. Further complicating the quandary in which Dolan finds himself is that those monitoring his movements have not forgotten that the Al Smith dinner raises funds for some of the same Catholic organizations Dolan has threatened to shut down in the wake of the Health Care Mandate, and are the kind of social programs President Obama strenuously supports.

I find the talk of pushing politics aside for one night both refreshing and ironic. For the past year, Timothy Dolan et al have led a campaign that calls on Catholics to recognize the folly in drawing the line between political and religious belief. The bishops deny they do so, but it's a no great secret that they have long told Catholics how to vote. They have emphasized the importance of bringing religious feeling to bear when voting in secular elections. They have, in a sense, exhorted Catholics to "render to God what is Caesar's." Dolan's choice sends the opposite message: "Render to Caesar to Caesar what is Caesar's..." But the choice of, say a Roman Catholic politician to push for Dolan's readiness to invite Obama to the Al Smith dinner legitimizes the efforts and positions of Roman Catholics who oppose DOMA or push to preserve Roe v. Wade. Dolan has invited Catholics to view the kind of compromise Dolan claims to be seeking in the context of the Al Smith affair as a variation on (Dolan's) "leaving the door open." By this logic Obama becomes a president with "different political loyalties," and opposition to DOMA and support of the Health Care mandate and Roe v. Wade become (for Roman Catholics) ever-so-slightly more negotiable. That's why conservative Roman Catholics are view Dolan's graciousness of the moment toward our nation's president as corrosive.
The go-to defense for Timothy Dolan's decision to extend an Al Smith dinner invitation to Obama is the "Jesus, Himself, ate with whores and tax collectors." One can set aside the utter arrogance in Dolan's own use of this analogy long enough to see that it might fly if only Obama were a whore and Dolan were anything at all like Jesus--or, if, perhaps, it were Obama's defense for saying "yes."
 

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