Al Smith, American Royalty, and Keeping Calm UPDATED

I’ve always loved politics – I even worked in politics during one of my summer breaks during college.  I love the back and forth, I love the debating, the exchange of ideas.  I love the way it can – when done well build us up as a country.  How rarely that happens anymore!  How often do we instead try to tear each other down.  The one up-manship is not only detracting from real issues but is hurting our relationship as children of God.  Cheap shots help no one.  The discussion of real issues is where we need to be.  Where we need to get back to.

What brings all this up – aside from the presidential election?  The Al Smith Dinner.

I’ve always wanted to go to the Al Smith dinner – most especially during a presidential election year.  It has always stuck out in my mind as about as close to an American royal gathering as possible.  The most important political figures surrounded by the most important ecclesiastical figures in our country.  White tie.  The Whaldorf Astoria hotel.  The Al Smith Dinner is about as apolitical an event can be with the heads of both presidential tickets can be – it’s a fundraiser for Catholic Charities.

This year though, after both President Obama and Governor Romney accepted invitations to speak outrage ensued.   We all know that this president is far from the ideal speaker at a Catholic event.  His policies have put the Church in this country in dangerous territory.  But as one of the bloggers over at the Archdiocese of NY wrote:

“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…

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.”

The Comments to that post number as of this writing 564.  Most of the comments after a quick perusing are stridently against the presence of President Obama at the Dinner.  I understand the concern of all those commenters.  In a way I share some of them.  But this is tradition.  This is nothing new.

What does this have to do with a simple parish priest? Not much.  But simply put – I find it disturbing that we as a community feel it necessary to cut ourselves off from those who disagree with us.  Yes – President Obama does more than simply disagree with us – we all know that.  But no one will be confused by his presence.  No one will take his presence at this dinner as tacit approval of his policies.  Our Lord broke bread with sinners and tax Collectors.  Why must our standards be higher than His?

Politics can be an honorable thing.  Politics HAS to be an honorable thing. We have to get back to that.  We have to stop being afraid to break bread with those we disagree with.  We may not convert every single person we speak with, but charity must reign in our hearts.  We have to be a people of engagement.  Building walls won’t help anyone.

Ultimately  - lets not loose it over this folks.  As the Brits say – Keep Calm and Carry on!


Cardinal Dolan Responded today on his Blog.  He echoes Carl Anderson’s call (and mine!) for more civility in Politics.   In part he said:

Some have told me the invitation is a scandal. That charge weighs on me, as it would on any person of faith, but especially a pastor, who longs to give good example, never bad. So, I apologize if I have given such scandal. I suppose it’s a case of prudential judgment: would I give more scandal by inviting the two candidates, or by not inviting them?

No matter what you might think of this particular decision, might I ask your prayers for me and my brother bishops and priests who are faced with making these decisions, so that we will be wise and faithful shepherds as God calls us to be?

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.

Go read the entire post by the Cardinal here.  Its worth it.

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  • Deacon Greg Kandra


    As I mentioned on someone’s Facebook page: it appears to me that +Dolan is taking his inspiration from the Holy Father, whose very title, pontiff, is rooted in the phrase “bridge builder.” I suspect the good cardinal is trying to build bridges, not burn them. Similarly, the Al Smith Dinner—which raises millions for Catholic Charities— is an opportunity to throw a bright light on the extraordinary work the Church performs in the world, and to remind all who are watching (or attending) that ministry doesn’t stop at the church door.

    Dcn. G.

    • Fr. Michael Duffy

      Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes! We have to enter into the courtyard of the Gentiles – following the lead of Papa. We have to be able to speak with those that disagree with us. We’re not giving him an honorary degree. Let’s trust Cardinal Dolan. He knows what he is doing.

      • Deacon Greg Kandra

        And Michael, when you and I are consigned to the outer reaches of hell (or, maybe, Queens) for even CONSIDERING such a thing…can I have the locker next to yours? :-)

  • Chris Altieri

    Well said, Fr. Duffy.

    There is also a broader, practical consideration. Either Barack Obama is going to lose the November election – in which case it will not have mattered whether he came to the Al Smith Dinner – or he is going to win the election in November, in which case the bishops are going to have to deal with him. Many commentators have expressed concern over the question of “appearances”. Well, the bishops – and especially the USCCB president, Card. Dolan – cannot afford to appear petty and spiteful toward him. Indeed, they would hurt the faithful and be derelict in their duty to defend the Church and protect the integrity of Her works, were they to allow themselves so to appear.


  • Brave Catholic

    It is tradition that prior pro-abortion politicians have not been invited in the past. Senator Kerry and President Clinton in recent history. Jesus broke bread with sinners for purpose of conversion as far as I can tell not to crack jokes. It gives Obama a big photo opportunity that the Pope was not willing to give Nancy Pelosi.

    I’m all for the Cardinal breaking bread with Obama but not where it can be misconstrued as “everything is okay” this is an honor. And if we are not to give pro aborts commencement speaking opportunities how is this any different?

    • Thomas R

      Yeah when that was brought up I was less certain. My initial feeling was it was stupid to complain here because the candidates, regardless of their politics, always attend. That this seems to be not true makes me think there is legitimacy in complaining.

  • Mike Kenney

    Considering that the Boston Globe & the New York Times editorial boards agree with you and considering the sterling moral standards with which they run their newspapers, i’m sure you’re right!
    Most likely this will help the most anti-Life, anti-Marriage, anti-Catholic president in the history of the USA get re-elected with the help of the ignorant Catholic vote, Jesus must be jumping for joy! NOT!!!

  • Jill

    I’m grateful to Cardinal Dolan for setting this example. For a long time I was Catholic in name only, yet I never felt like the Church didn’t want me or was acting like it was better off without me. People whom I still haven’t met yet reached out to me and engaged me, firmly standing by Church teaching but never losing their patience as I prayed to my own conclusions. Our God is a merciful God and for me He employed many agents who tolerated me when I was at my worst and prayed for me anyway. I am grateful beyond words. I too realize Obama is not simply a run of the mill pro-choice neighbor, but he deserves the same respect. He too can change; I am praying.

  • Manny

    One thing is certain. It will now be high political drama!

  • JoFro

    It is tradition that prior pro-abortion politicians have not been invited in the past. Senator Kerry and President Clinton in recent history.

    If that statement is true, can we honestly excuse Obama’s presence at the dinner? And if Cardinal Dolan does not want to actually create a scandal, how about NO-PHOTO-OPS with said President. The last thing I want to see is the Cardinal and Obama smiling away or shaking hands. Do the Papa Beendicto move – meet up but NO PICS!!

  • Elizabeth

    I’m afraid I must disagree with you when you say “But no one will be confused by his presence. No one will take his presence at this dinner as tacit approval of his policies.” Yes, they will. Lots of not very well informed Catholics and other Christians who have opposed the HHS Mandate will be confused by his presence and will take it as tacit approval of his policies. And the inevitable photos taken with the Cardinal will make that confusion even more palpable. Most voters, Catholic or otherwise, are not very well informed or educated about our political system, the policies of the various candidates or the positions of the Church, for that matter. Appearances and perceptions, like the tremendously damaging appearance of the Cardinal with Obama at a dinner honoring the first Catholic presidential candidate, make up two of the most important elements in the voting process for most voter. So while I am happy to assume the Cardinal has the best intentions, I must disagree with his decision, respectfully and argue quite firmly that it is a grave mistake that will confuse Catholics and help get Obama re-elected.

    • mrpkguy

      Well said Elizabeth, my sentiments exactly! You have hit the nail directly on the head.
      If the election squeaks by with a win for Obama, this fau paux will probably have been the reason why.

  • Teresa Rice

    One question – Do you think it would have been okay for a priest, Cardinal, or even the Pope to have invited Hitler to a dinner which benefits Catholic organizations?

    President Obama not only is for the extermination of innocent unborn human beings and in addition has directly attacked the Catholic Church and its precepts. The problem is while fundraising for Catholic organizations is a good thing we should be careful the means we use to do so. Should we invite a person who is being used by the devil in an ever apparent manner against the Christ’s Church just to garner more funds for Catholic organizations? The problem is that Obama has consistently used the Catholic Church to advance an agenda, to undermine the Church and ALL She stands for. While you may not think that people will be confused by Obama’s presence. The problem is that the laity is already confused and this only cements that confusion, so people believe that Mitt Romney and President Obama are equals, or even the president is better than Romney, as far as morals go. It gives the impression that it is okay to vote for President Obama. But the problem with that is the hierarchy in the Church is naively sealing the Church’s own fate at least in America and living quite dangerously IMO. There were around 6 million people killed in the concentration camps during WWII. There have been over 55 million abortions since Roe v. Wade. A person is a person no matter how small.

  • Mike

    The invitation just does not feel right and just does not sit well with me. However, as my Cardinal Archbishop has asked, I believe my feelings need to be subordinated and with trust in the Lord and prayers that our bishop is doing what he thinks s best for all.

  • ROB

    The Al Smith dinner is “apolitical”. Exactly what planet does the author of such a thought live? Al Smith was a politician his entire life. The speakers are invariably politicians, it’s Board of Directors is made up of men who have made good livings at the intersection of politics, business and the Church. This year two men involved in a political campaign for the highest office in the land are taking time to attend, in order to raise money for Catholic Charies? No, for the political advantage they perceive will flow to them. A few months ago, Cardinal Dolan was asking for fasting in response to Obama’s HHS mandate. Now he is delighted to hobnob with him in front of a national audience. The good Cardinal may view this as apolitical but I can assure you Obama does not.