Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Cardinal Dolan Defends Invitation to Obama for Al Smith Banquet

New York cardinal says the invitation affirms the importance of civility and dialogue, but acknowledges concerns that gesture could cause 'scandal.'

Then-Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain, the nominees for president in 2008, joined Cardinal Edward Egan at the 2008 Alfred E. Smith Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York.
Then-Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain, the nominees for president in 2008, joined Cardinal Edward Egan at the 2008 Alfred E. Smith Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. (photo: Andrew Theodorakis-Pool/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York defended his decision to invite President Barack Obama to the annual Alfred E. Smith Dinner, but acknowledged, and even sympathized with, the concerns of his critics who said the president’s appearance at the Catholic fundraiser would be a cause for “scandal.”

“Some have told me the invitation is a scandal,” the cardinal said in a blog post on the website of the Archdiocese of New York. “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?”

The archbishop of New York rejected any suggestion that the invitation extended to the president constituted a retreat in the U.S. bishops’ campaign to address the federal “contraception mandate” through legal or legislative remedies. Rather, he presented the appearance of both President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, as an affirmation of other, important elements of Catholic and democratic virtues: civility and openness to dialogue.

“For seven decades, the Al Smith Dinner here in New York has been an acclaimed example of such civility in political life. As you may know, every four years, during the presidential-election campaign, the Al Smith Dinner is the venue of history, as it is the only time outside of the presidential debates that the two presidential candidates come together, at the invitation of the Al Smith Foundation, through the archbishop of New York, for an evening of positive, upbeat, patriotic, enjoyable civil discourse. This year, both Obama and Romney have accepted our invitation. I am grateful to them.

“The evening has always had a special meaning, as it is named after Gov. Alfred E. Smith, the first Catholic nominated, in 1928, as a candidate for president, who was viciously maligned because of his own Catholic faith. 

“Smith was known as ‘the Happy Warrior’ because, while he fought fiercely for what he believed was right, he never sought to demonize those who opposed him.  And the dinner named in his honor is truly life-affirming, as it raises funds to help support mothers in need and their babies (both born and unborn) of any faith, or none at all,” wrote Cardinal Dolan.

Since the contraception mandate was approved on Jan. 20, Cardinal Dolan has accused Obama of “strangling” the Church and of betraying a promise to resolve the Church’s concerns about an “unprecedented” threat to religious liberty. In recent months, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gave teeth to the heated rhetoric, approving more than 23 legal challenges to the mandate across the nation and a two-week period of prayer, education and action dubbed the “Fortnight for Freedom.”

No surprise, then, that some Catholic and pro-life activists reacted with shock and dismay when they learned that Cardinal Dolan had invited Obama to the annual dinner.

“We cannot set aside our deeply-held differences and put in any place of honor those who continuously attack the tenets of our faith, and even our very ability to practice that faith,” Human Life International’s president Father Shenan Boquet said in an Aug. 9 statement about the Smith dinner invitation.

“We cannot pretend for one moment that such an honor at any function promoting the work of the Church doesn’t give legitimacy to their position while harming the Catholic Church’s image.”


Engage the Culture

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, in an interview with the Register last week, described the decision as “inexplicable.” But in a statement issued today, he noted that he had spoken with the cardinal on Aug. 9, and learned the cardinal was as determined as ever to fight the HHS mandate Subsequently, Donohue then “vigorously defended” the dinner invitation on “Lou Dobbs Tonight” on the Fox Business Channel that evening.

“If Catholics want to change the culture, they need to engage it,” Donohue said today.

During presidential election years, the Smith dinner has become a favored destination for both Democratic and GOP presidential candidates to deliver humorous speeches and trade jokes in a civil manner.

In his blog post, Cardinal Dolan drew readers’ attention to a new initiative of the Knight of Columbus designed to promote civility during a contentious election year.

“Last week, I was out in Anaheim for the annual Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus. It was, as usual, a most uplifting and inspirational event.”

“In his rousing address to the thousands of delegates, representing 1.8 million knights, Carl Anderson, the supreme knight, exhorted us to a renewed sense of faithful citizenship, encouraging us not to be shy about bringing the values of faith to the public square,” wrote Cardinal Dolan.

“This duty, he reminded us, came not just from the fact that we are Catholic, but also from the fact that we are loyal Americans.

“He then went on to announce a promising initiative of the Knights of Columbus to foster civility in politics. Quoting a very recent study, he noted that over 80% of Americans are fed up with the negativity, judgmentalism, name-calling and mudslinging of our election-year process and eagerly want a campaign of respect, substance, amity — civility!”

It is far from clear whether Cardinal Dolan’s statement will resolve the controversy. Critics of his decision to invite the president say that too much is at stake: Obama should not have been invited, given his extreme record on abortion and his refusal to restart negotiations to resolve the impasse on the contraception mandate.

Michael Hichborn, director of Defend the Faith for the American Life League, argues that many of the faithful will be confused when they see the president’s “photo-op” at the Smith dinner on the front page of newspapers just weeks before the election.

“It is highly inappropriate for the Church to host him at a dinner while it is in the middle of a contentious legal battle over something deeply moral,” asserted Hichborn.

He added: “It is not unprecedented for a sitting president or a presidential candidate who strongly opposes Catholic teaching not to be invited to the Smith dinner.”

Joseph Zwilling, the archdiocese’s longtime spokesman, acknowledged that the dinner’s organizers have occasionally departed from the practice of inviting the presidential candidates. But he downplayed critics’ suggestion that some candidates weren’t invited because of their record on abortion or other hot-button issues.

“It is true that in 1996 and 2004 the foundation did not invite the presidential candidates,” said Zwilling.

“They did not discuss their decision in 1996,” he added, in an email message last week that responded to a request for comment. “There was a statement from me on behalf of the foundation in 2004 that said, in part, ‘The tradition of the Smith Dinner is to bring people together. Given that issues in this year’s campaign could provoke division and disagreement that would detract from that spirit, it was felt best to proceed in a different direction, while maintaining all of the ideals and values of the dinner.’”


Not a Religious Event

Ed Mechmann, who works with the New York Archdiocese’s Family Life and Respect Life Offices on public-policy issues, had also defended the cardinal’s decision to invite the president in a blog posted on the New York Archdiocese’s website.

“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.”

Last May, Cardinal Dolan publicly criticized Georgetown University’s decision to invite Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services and a strong abortion-rights supporter, to a graduation event at the Jesuit institution. Increasingly, it has become the policy of the bishops to bar or discourage abortion-rights supporters from receiving awards or giving speeches at Church-affiliated institutions.

Mechmann did not directly address this common Church policy in his blog post, but he noted that the Smith “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.”

The public statements of the cardinal’s critics have not suggested that he is endorsing any candidate or departing from his strong leadership on pro-life issues. Indeed, Catholic and pro-life bloggers have speculated that he might be gearing up for another phase of intense negotiations with the White House on the mandate.

Further, some commentators have suggested that the decision to invite Obama was the cardinal’s way of responding to attacks by some Democratic leaders and their Catholic allies that the Church leadership has become too “politicized” in a way that provides traction for GOP social conservatives.

In a May 23 column in The Washington Post, E.J. Dionne, a self-described “progressive” Catholic, claimed that some leaders of the Church were increasingly concerned about the “outspokenness of its most conservative bishops.”

Dionne’s assertion was promptly denied by one bishop cited in his story, but similar charges continue to be leveled against the Church leadership, reflecting a consistent effort to characterize their opposition to the mandate as both unnecessary and potentially counterproductive for Catholic interests.

Pro-life activists assert that there is good reason to fear how the Obama campaign might try to use the “photo-op” generated by his appearance at the dinner. That said, it can be hard to predict how such public meetings and occasions will actually play out.

In February 2009, then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., paid a well-publicized visit to Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, and her critics in the Catholic and pro-life communities predicted that she would use the resulting photographs of the papal audience to tamp down criticism of her abortion advocacy.

But no such photograph was ever released because photographers were not present at the meeting. Subsequently, the Holy See confirmed that the Holy Father had “briefly greeted Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the United States House of Representatives, together with her entourage.”

The statement added: “His Holiness took the opportunity to speak of the requirements of the natural moral law and the Church’s consistent teaching on the dignity of human life from conception to natural death which enjoin all Catholics, and especially legislators, jurists and those responsible for the common good of society, to work in cooperation with all men and women of good will in creating a just system of laws capable of protecting human life at all stages of its development.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.