There is a controversy brewing in Catholic and pro-life circles over reports that the President has been invited to attend the annual Al Smith Dinner here in New York. In my opinion, people need to take a deep breath, relax a second, and think carefully about this.
It’s important first to understand what the Al Smith Dinner is, and is not, and then what the invitation means, and what it does not.
The Al Smith Dinner is organized and hosted by the Alfred E. Smith Foundation, which is closely affiliated with but independent of the Archdiocese of New York. It’s named after Governor Al Smith, an iconic figure in New York politics, who dedicated his life to serving the people of the state, particularly the needy. He was a classic urban machine politician, but was also committed to working with others across party lines when he saw that it was in the public interest. He was always proud of his Catholic faith and he defended the Church against attacks against religious bigotry. He was certainly well familiar with anti-Catholicism, since his own faith was brutally attacked during his run for the Presidency in 1928.
The dinner is not a religious event in any way — it’s a civic/political event that raises money for Catholic charitable institutions. It’s not held at a religious building — it’s at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. It has no religious component aside from a benediction and closing prayer — much like sessions of Congress. A large proportion of the people who attend the Dinner are not Catholic, and the list of past speakers shows that only once in its almost 70-year history has a religious figure given the keynote address (Cardinal O’Connor).
The dinner has a long tradition of inviting New York elected officials of all parties, and candidates of both major parties for the Presidency. It is strictly non-partisan, and an invitation to the dinner is in no way an endorsement of any office holder, or any candidate for office.
It’s also important that the politicians who speak at the dinner are not being given any honor or award by the Church, but are rather delivering an address that is one part jocular remarks written by professional jokesters, and two-parts generic political after-dinner bromides. Any comparison between the Al Smith Dinner and the honorary degree given to the President at Notre Dame’s graduation ceremony is thus completely off-the-mark.
Everybody at the dinner understands this — it’s a civic event, much like a Veteran’s Day parade (but with a fancier menu and white tie).
Some people have been saying that inviting the President in some way undermines or contradicts the Church’s public witness in defense of life and the family. There is no question that the President’s political agenda and policy record are deplorable from a Catholic perspective — he is consistently anti-life and is ardent in his promotion and support of abortion, he is in favor of re-defining marriage, he opposes parental choice in education, his Administration is a consistent enemy of religious freedom, and there is good reason to believe that he has dealt with our bishops in less than good faith.
Give the consistency and strength with which our bishops — particularly Cardinal Dolan — have been proclaiming the Catholic view of public policy, it is hard to see how this one Dinner could possibly lead anyone to believe that the Church is softening her defense of life, the family, and religious liberty. When everyone wakes up the morning after, the struggle will resume.
But, as a matter of fact, an invitation to the current incumbent President to the Al Smith Dinner actually sends a message, one that is important in this time of pathologically toxic politics. It says to us that we can vehemently disagree with a public official’s positions, but we can still show respect for his office, and for him as a person, and treat him with civility. It gives us an opportunity to act as Christians, and show some love to our adversaries, and even those whose policies we consider to be immoral and oppressive. After all, even St. Peter told us to “honor the emperor” (1 Pet 2:17).
The message is also that we can set aside our deeply-held differences and leave the partisan politics at the door for an evening, speak nicely and politely to each other, and work together for a common cause in the service of the poor. That’s a good thing, something that Al Smith would have been proud to associate himself with, and something that Catholics and pro-lifers should also support.
Note: Some bloggers and other news sources have linked to this blog post, and have said that it is a statement by “the Archdiocese”. Please read the sidebar to this blog: “The opinions expressed by the Bloggers… are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Archdiocese of New York”. These comments are not an official statement by the Archdiocese or the Cardinal — they represent my opinions, and mine alone. Clear? Okay, fire away — but in a civil way, please.