Al Kresta’s Analysis of This Whole “Al Smith Dinner” Thing

I invited Al Kresta, CEO of Ave Maria Radio and host of the nationally-syndicated “Kresta In The Afternoon,” to comment regarding the controversy that’s been swirling around Cardinal Dolan’s invitation to President Obama to participate in the Al Smith Dinner.

I knew I could count on Al to deliver a poignant response, well considered and well expressed.  What follows is a first for me:  A guest post by Al Kresta!


Do me the kindness of reading this carefully. This is meant to help not hinder; it’s meant to bring resolution, not revolution. Many comments here are easy to misunderstand. Many times I am speaking someone else’s sentiments. Other times qualifications of even my comments may show up later in the worksheet.

Here we go:

Along with many people, I disagree with Cardinal Dolan’s invitation to President Obama to speak and joke at the Al Smith dinner. I don’t disagree that these kind of prudential decisions are his to make. I don’t believe he is acting in bad faith.

In sorting things out I thought others might benefit by seeing this little worksheet that I put together to help me organize my thoughts since I knew I would have to address this issue.

What do I fear?

  • I fear that the Cardinal’s attempt to model civility will be misinterpreted as an implicit endorsement of President Obama’s presidential suitability. “Just think of the photo op. Ughh. It’s enough to cause Usain Bolt to stumble.”
  • I fear that the lightheartedness of the night trivializes the Obama administration’s heavy handed throttling of religious liberty. “I thought we were being strangled and oppressed? Do all assault victims break bread with their perpetrators? Maybe you can slow the rapist down by talking slowly, like I did once during a mugging in an attempt to keep the criminal from dehumanizing me and my sons? Or was all the victim and combat language just rhetorical excess and political bombast?
  • I fear that the Cardinal wrongly believes his gregarious mayor persona can resolve all conflicts by an arm around the shoulder and down time with earnest, reasonable people in close proximity to beer and barbeque. “He’s too good a man and just doesn’t believe that President Obama is a real enemy of the gospel.” Perhaps. Is the happy warrior leader wrong for such a time as this? Ask Michael Corleone: “You’re not a wartime consigliere, Tom (Tim).” At Munich, Chamberlain prized peace and trusted civility more than the pattern of Hitler’s actual actions. Shouting, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace, is dangerous. “Civility in our time” is not something one man can declare; “It takes two, baby.”
  • Some people fear that Cardinal Dolan is selling out. They say, “It’s just the proverbial softening of the Episcopal spine… or maybe worse.” There is absolutely no evidence for this. All we know about this man is that he loves the gospel and the Church. He doesn’t need the praise of men or the comfort of wealth or privilege. Why do I think he is more materialistic, wickedly ambitious, and willing to compromise than me? Is he really that much more corrupt than his accusers? Does he strike me as more interested in winning the praise of the elite than in earning the praise of God?

Those are the fears. Now pick your response. (You can pick more than one).

  1. Disgust, followed by a slide into apathy and catatonic drooling or oozing bitterness.
  2. Betrayal, followed by a determination to strike back at the Episcopal hypocrisy that urged us into battle while they sat down in a comedy club for dinner with the enemy. So does he deserve to be sabotaged as a coward, conniver, or dupe and, then, having weakened him, can I bully him to prove his manhood? If he boxes the president’s ears, ambushes him at the party or treats him shabbily in public will that show his intelligence, manliness, and spirituality?
  3. Disappointment, followed by challenging him to reconsider how badly he’s hurt those who were looking to him for leadership.
  4. Bewilderment, followed by trusting in Cardinal Dolan’s past performance as an outstanding leader and one who has strengthened the spine of the American episcopacy and firmed up the unity of the faithful. He loves God. He prays. Maybe a miracle will happen.
  5. Intrigue, followed by speculation about pulled rabbits and tall hats. With the press now listening, will he heighten awareness of the Obama administration’s violations so that by mid October even the mainstream media will wonder how the Cardinal can be so magnanimous with the man who is out to destroy the Church? Will he hire Colbert’s best writers and simply outperform the President with zingers.
  6. Enthusiasm, followed by a vigorous defense of the Cardinal’s integrity and hopeful scenarios in which the warm and happy host of the night turns into a brilliant prophet of the ages.

My unashamed response.

  • Cardinal Dolan deserves the benefit of the doubt, not the presumption of disgust.
  • Betrayal requires that I take this personally and I don’t.
  • Further, the thought of bullying the Cardinal by taunting him with namecalling- “coward, conniver, dupe”- is itself comic. Character assassination presumes a degree of familiarity which most of us don’t possess. I can’t sort out the complexities of my own motivation, never mind psychoanalyze him.
  • I am disappointed and bewildered. What should I do? I did write to tell him that this self-inflicted wound is causing unanticipated trauma among hundreds of the lay faithful who have called or wrote to me. He deserves to know this. Love requires me to inform him. He has, however, heard from multiple thousands of people saying similar things. Nevertheless, he plans to go ahead. I’m disappointed and bewildered, yes, undeniably.
  • Intrigue is a luxury that escapes me at the time. I’m too busy handling responsibilities I can’t avoid to speculate about scenarios I can’t control.
  • I’ve worked in media for 25 years and can’t honestly get enthusiastic about the prospects of controlling the president or the press’ coverage of the president. You can be certain that the president has a team already at work to exploit this event and to avoid any faux pas. He longs for this photo op. Is it possible to withhold that from him? I don’t know how. Nevertheless, I do pray and I do believe in miracles. I just don’t count on them! If I did they wouldn’t be ‘miracles’, would they?

When all is said and done this is a prudential decision that should not require me to believe in a miraculous solution nor should it jeopardize faith and morals. Being a prudential decision doesn’t make it unimportant. The electoral consequences could be catastrophic for pro-life advocates and the women and babies they represent.

Cardinal Dolan could have played it safe and not issued the invitations like his predecessors had on at least two separate occasions. I suspect even the press would have recognized how awkward the night could have been and that it was in everybody’s best interest to just avoid the mess. But the Cardinal chose not to play it safe. He has essentially said, “trust me. This is my call. I can achieve a greater good by inviting him than by disinviting or not inviting him.” He’s right, it is his call. So do I trust him?

Civility is not an absolute; love is. St. Paul says “love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” What does love require of me in this situation?

As Catholics we believe in hierarchy, not merely some chain of command. Hierarchy means we all have our place in a priestly universe, i.e., a universe that contains items that have an above and below quality to their relationships. Letting Cardinal Dolan know what this looks like from my vantage point in the “battle” was the right thing to do. But what’s next?

  • What does love require?
  • Am I being asked to participate in evil?
  • Am I confident that I know this situation better than he does?
  • Is there an area of jurisdiction that is mine through which I can bring about a better outcome?
  • As a member of Christ’s body what allegiance do I owe the successors of the apostles when they act in their proper sphere? Even in prudential matters? (This is a legitimate exercise of the Cardinal’s governance.)

Nobody can convince me that this was a wise decision. Depending on the outcome, the future might.

Nobody can convince me that I can secure a better outcome by undermining Cardinal Dolan’s leadership.

Nobody can convince me that being passive/aggressive or rebellious or apathetic is virtue.

Nobody can convince me that all is lost or that this skirmish is decisive for the war.

Nobody can convince me that everyone’s opinion merits consideration.  Some people are ignorant on the issues; others are just plain inexperienced about managing institutions. Others are simply uncharitable; others are spiritually immature and unable to live with spiritual ambiguity. Others are irrational. Naming names isn’t yet necessary.

I pondered these matters as we celebrated the feast of the Assumption (August 15th) where Jesus, in the generous overflow of the Resurrection, not only raised his body but raises the body of the one from whom he received his body. This is a remarkable mystery of love. The Son says to the Mother that “I have come to receive you, mother inseparable in her inseparable Son.”

When I fall out of the web of these immediate strands of conflict and confusion and look at the grand moments of salvation history, the things of this world begin to assume their proper perspective. We believe in God, the Father Almighty and in his Son Jesus Christ born of the virgin, suffered, died, was buried and raised on the third day. He ascended into heaven and rules at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and dead and his Kingdom will have no end…

I am trying to see this world in light of story of salvation history. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Ps 42:11) If Israel was to believe that in captivity, certainly I am to believe it while I’m still in the land of the free.

Being disappointed and bewildered is no justification for sabotaging a man’s reputation or undermining his legitimate authority. We’ve all lived in families or worked in businesses where we suspected bad decisions were being made. In this case, we’ve had a series of good decisions and now one that appears to be a real boner. Hope thou in God.

Follow Al Kresta over at his blog.  You can find it at  Listen to the show live weekdays from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Eastern.  If you don’t have a Catholic station in your area, listen live at the website.

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