NEW YORK — "Our two candidates claim that both your parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, are ‘big tents,’ containing extraordinarily diverse, even contrary, opposite people and groups," Cardinal Timothy Dolan noted Oct. 18 at the Al Smith Dinner. "Well, you don’t have a thing over the Catholic Church. We got both Biden and Ryan!" Dolan continued.
The 67th annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, raising money for Catholic charities, enjoyed its most successful year, with 1,640 people in attendance, at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. The event raised $5 million for the likes of the Good Counsel Homes for young mothers in need and the New York Foundling Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection.
Cardinal Dolan flew in from the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization in Rome for what has become an oftentimes controversial political tradition.
In the spirit of the roast-like nature of the fundraising dinner, the cardinal’s light-handed "big tent" remark met with guffaws, but his words were also loaded. For the first time in history, both national parties’ presidential tickets include Roman Catholics: Joe Biden, running for re-election with President Barack Obama, and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., running as the Republican vice-presidential nominee with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
On the very day that Catholics marked the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the opening of Year of Faith, the two Catholic vice-presidential candidates debated in Kentucky at the only vice-presidential debate. They were asked to explain their views on abortion in light of their shared Catholic faith. They provided extraordinarily diverse, even contrary, views: Biden relegating his faith on the issue of the protection of the most innocent human life to his personal life; Ryan explaining its influence on his entire life. Perhaps nothing more prominent in U.S. culture could cry out for the need of the Year of Faith, 365 days dedicated to relearning just what it is Catholics believe.
The elephant in the room at the Al Smith Dinner, that did not go unmentioned by at least two of the lead speakers, was a lawsuit. The archbishop of New York, Cardinal Dolan, the traditional host of the charity dinner, is currently a plaintiff in a religious-freedom case against the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services.
Neither Romney nor Cardinal Dolan missed the opportunity to mention the religious-liberty controversy.
"The president has put his own stamp on relations with the Church. There have been some awkward moments," Romney said.
"Like when the president pulled Pope Benedict aside to share some advice on how to deal with his own critics," Romney joked. "He said, ‘Look, Holy Father, whatever the problem is just blame it on Pope John Paul II.’"
The Republican presidential candidate was, of course, referring to the current administration’s tendency to blame President Obama’s predecessor for its own failings.
And focusing on what can unite Americans despite differing creeds, backgrounds and politics, Cardinal Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, took it upon himself to assume that those gathered were "grateful to be people of faith and loyal Americans, loving a country which considers religious liberty our first and most cherished freedom, convinced that faith is not just limited to an hour of Sabbath worship, but affects everything we do and dream."
"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," Cardinal Dolan tweeted before the dinner, obviously in reference to controversy over the dinner invitation to the president, given the educational campaign the Catholic bishops have been leading about religious liberty, among people worried that the playful dinner would obscure the fundamental moral issues before voters this November.
Romney seemed to join that spirit: "In our country, you can oppose someone in politics and make a confident case against their policies without any ill will, and that’s how it is for me. There’s more to life than politics." At the dinner, both candidates seemed to genuinely express respect for one another as men, husbands and fathers.
Yet amidst the jocular mood of the event, differences between the candidates remained clear — and not just on the topic of religious freedom, but also on the dignity of the most innocent human life.
Near the end of his remarks, Romney paid tribute to the work of the New York Archdiocese, the Al Smith Foundation and Catholic charities: "No matter which way the political winds are blowing, that work goes on, day in day out, by this organization and you."
He went on to say: "You answer with calm and willing hearts and service to the poor and care for the sick, in defense (of) the rights of conscience and in solidarity with the innocent child waiting to be born. You strive to bring God’s love … (to) every life."
Romney’s reference to both the HHS mandate and abortion was not a tribute the president could join him in, given his administration’s policy. Instead, the president offered these words to his hosts: "In all seriousness, I couldn’t be more honored to be here this evening. I’m honored to be here with leaders of both the private and public sectors and particularly the extraordinary work that is done by the Catholic Church."
With Catholics in swing states having a potential for deciding the next president, the decision to invite both candidates to the dinner was greeted by concern from some and welcome by others.
Did the laughter confuse Catholics and other voters at a pivotal moment before a presidential election?
Or was the evening an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the issue of religious freedom and show the crucial contribution religious organizations and the Catholic Church in particular and historic ways bring to civil society through service and charity?
The verdict is still out, as the journey is ongoing.
In his closing remarks, Cardinal Dolan hit upon a theme of his: "Joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence." He challenged all to live in that joy, always remembering it is "in God we trust," including in discerning our own role in the lives of those most in need, "not, ultimately, in government or politics."
Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor at large of National Review Online (NationalReview.com)
and a nationally syndicated columnist. She also blogs at K-Lo@Large on Patheos.com
and co-hosts a radio show on the Catholic Channel on Sirius XM 129, Silent Radio.