A Modest Proposal for the Cardinal’s Conundrum

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, gives the impression of a man who thoroughly loves his jobs.  In June, I attended a Mass at St. Patrick’s in New York City, where he celebrated.  He is a gifted homilist and powerful teacher.  Whenever I’m in an audience, I resist nodding in agreement with the speaker.  In this case, the urge was overwhelming for most of us in the pews.

But just occasionally, Cardinal Dolan must allow himself some doubt about the joys of the “public square” aspects of his role.  This has been one of those weeks.

In October, Cardinal Dolan will host the annual Al Smith Dinner.  Smith was a New York governor and the first Catholic nominee for president.  He worked himself up the ladder in a classic American success story:  after his father’s death he had to take menial jobs, but kept moving up.  Although tied to the infamous Tammany Hall machine, he steered clear of corruption and won repeated reelection as governor.  He died in 1944.

The annual October charitable dinner named for Smith began in 1945 under Cardinal Francis Spellman and has continued under subsequent New York archbishops. Some believe that Cardinal Spellman used the fact that Smith died in October to place the dinner prominently in the fall election calendar.

In several presidential election years, one or both candidates from the main parties have appeared:  Eisenhower in 1952, Nixon as vice president in 1956, Kennedy and Nixon in 1960, Johnson in 1964, Humphrey (and his boss LBJ) in 1968, Ford and Carter in 1976, Carter and Reagan in 1980, Reagan in 1984, George H.W. Bush and Dukakis in 1988, vice presidential candidates Kemp and Gore in 1996, Bush and Gore in 2000, and McCain and – gulp – Obama in 2008.

What that parade of names says about the state of American politics in the last sixty years, I leave to the reader’s judgment.  But they outline the tradition that Cardinal Dolan was looking at when pondering invitations to this year’s dinner.

Which brings us to this week’s controversy.  President Obama and Governor Romney are this year’s speakers.  The invitation to President Obama for his second appearance has ignited a storm of debate and delivered charges of scandal to Cardinal Dolan’s doorstep. 

These charges are serious, and in some cases come from serious people.  A good friend, very respectful of Cardinal Dolan and not on the fringe, thinks this is a tremendous mistake that will haunt the cardinal and the Church for years, weakening our ability to make our case for religious freedom and the culture of life.

In his blog this week, Cardinal Dolan accepted the criticism but defended his decision.  He sees the dinner as an opportunity for civil dialogue, one where no one who espouses views contrary to Church teaching will be honored.  He noted that Jesus dined with sinners.

Cardinal Dolan’s critics respond that Jesus also called sinners out and that the invitation creates confusion among the faithful as to what the hierarchy actually believes and values.  It’s easy to predict that the press coverage will show the cardinal and the president joking together, as if the deadly serious questions between them are not really all that important.

Obama speaks at the 2008 Al Smith Dinner

Plenty of previous Al Smith dinner invitees have differed with the Church on core Catholic teaching.  Whether attending the dinner led them to reconsider their views is an open question.  Evangelization is an uncertain activity.  But the dinners came and went, usually as light events.  They provide a break from the heat of the campaign season.

Still, it speaks volumes that American politics is now at a point where bringing together the two main presidential candidates for an evening of conversation and levity, benefiting charitable causes, creates a question of real scandal for the Church. 

There is considerable irony in the fact that Al Smith was a proponent of the early progressive movement, whose trajectory has led to the most prominent progressive of our day, Barack Obama. 

The controversy highlights just how difficult the Church’s position has become. It’s arguable that the Church’s support for large state welfare programs and the bishops’ accommodation of Catholic politicians who themselves deviated from Church teaching on crucial questions like abortion have in some measure created the current problem.

But the Church may now be in a position where the political choices on offer are based on fundamentally different conceptions of the human person and natural law that make dialogue on all but marginal issues impossible. 

Cardinal Dolan is testing that proposition. 

President Obama is not the first Al Smith speaker to find himself in conflict with Catholic authority.  President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq against the advice of John Paul II.  The line between acceptable differences on prudential policy questions and scandalous rejection of Church teaching can be unclear.  But the charge this time is that Obama has effectively sought to render the Church’s public ministry and works impossible, crossing a line between respectful differences and autocratic repression.

If I might presume to suggest it, Cardinal Dolan might consider noting the difficult position and the serious risk of scandal, which he cannot allow to go unchecked.  He might then reschedule this year’s dinner until November, after the election – less interesting for the candidates, but less likely to confuse the faithful.  In so modifying the 67-year-old tradition, he would make a strong statement about the unique dangers of this moment.

The event planners will protest.  But bigger changes are made to bigger events regularly, and the logistical difficulties will underline the seriousness of the situation.

Cardinal Dolan has asked for our prayers, and we should respond generously.  And we should listen in the coming months to what he and the bishops say at this critical juncture for how the Church speaks truth in the public square.

Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.