Has the Al Smith Dinner Ceased to Be a Worthwhile Event for the Catholic Church?

COMMENTARY: After three contentious debates and in final stretch before Election Day, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will trade humorous barbs at tonight's annual fundraiser in New York.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump shakes hands with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the town hall debate at Washington University on Oct. 9 in St Louis. The two will attend the annual Al Smith fundraiser in New York tonight.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump shakes hands with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the town hall debate at Washington University on Oct. 9 in St Louis. The two will attend the annual Al Smith fundraiser in New York tonight. (photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Since 1945, the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel has been a potent election-year symbol of Catholic political clout in United States, as it raises money for poor and needy children in the Archdiocese of New York.

For the presidential nominees of the two major political parties to adorn themselves in white tie — a near-extinct practice in the 21st century — less than three weeks before the election to pay homage to the cardinal-archbishop of New York and his flock is as illustrative of the rise of Catholics in the Land of the Free as John F. Kennedy’s arrival at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in 1961.

But are the candidates any longer acknowledging the moral prestige of the Catholic Church every four years by gracing tonight's Midtown Manhattan charity gala with their presence? Or have the tables turned? And is the Church now cheapening its own dignity?

Is the Al Smith Dinner actually legitimizing stances opposed to Catholic moral teaching that the Democrat and Republican presidential hopefuls do or did hold, as it provides them with a forum for self-deprecating jokes and the opportunity to garner Catholic votes — the very opposite of what this evening of Catholic national pride was intended to be?

It was no surprise that President Barack Obama’s two appointments to the Supreme Court — Catholic Sonia Sotomayor, the product of Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx and other archdiocesan institutions, and Jewish Elena Kagan — are both squarely at odds with the Catholic Church on abortion and other issues. And it is that high court that holds all of the political power regarding the unborn, a power it seized from the 50 states — undemocratically, many argue — in 1973.

But a casual observer of Obama’s two appearances at the Al Smith Dinner would have heard him four years ago extol “the extraordinary work that is done by the Catholic Church” and eight years ago call on the assembled Catholics to “come together at this moment of crisis” so that the nation can, “in the words of Al Smith, walk once more in eternal sunshine.”

Like Hillary Clinton this year, Obama chose a Catholic for vice president. Unleashed just a few days before Election Day 2012, Joe Biden even starred in a “Catholics for Obama” ad, breathtaking in its chutzpah.

Featuring crucifixes and an open Bible, it had a devout-sounding Biden (better known for dropping F-bombs near open mikes) relate that “as a practicing Catholic like many of you, I was raised in a household where there was absolutely no distinction between the values my mom and dad drilled into us and what I learned from the nuns and priests who educated me.”

Biden said, “We call it Catholic social doctrine,” and “I’m here to tell you that President Obama shares those values.”

That same president has tried to force abortifacients upon the consciences of Catholic religious orders as they serve the poor and did a 180-degree turn on his 2008 claim, “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman; I am not in favor of gay marriage.”

According to Obama’s top political adviser then, David Axelrod, the president was lying.

Democrats don’t have a monopoly on misleading pro-life Catholic voters. The Republican nominee four years ago, Mitt Romney, used the dinner to praise the Church’s “solidarity with the innocent child waiting to be born.” But when he ran for the Senate in Massachusetts in 1994 against Ted Kennedy, he ran as a supporter of abortion rights, telling voters he was “committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter. And you will not see me wavering on that.”

This year, the Al Smith Dinner will hear from Hillary Clinton, a Democrat who has never wavered in her support for taxpayer-financed abortion on demand, and Republican Donald Trump, a now self-described pro-lifer who in 1989 co-sponsored a big Manhattan fundraising dinner for a former president of the National Abortion Rights Action League and in 1999 told NBC, “I’m very pro-choice” and said he would not even ban the barbaric practice of partial-birth abortion.

Noting this, Catholic senior political columnist for the Washington Examiner, Tim Carney, referred to Trump as “a pro-choice, thrice-married, serial-philandering, Clinton-donating, factually challenged, eminent-domain abusing, pro-corporate welfare, crony capitalist con-man” who cannot be depended on to appoint judges and justices who won’t demand that Catholics violate tenets of the faith.

On “the truly pressing matters of religious liberty — the state coercing religious people to violate their consciences on abortion, marriage and contraception — Trump is silent, and seemingly ignorant,” Carney wrote, and “clearly has no principled commitment to religious liberty.”

Now add the “October Surprise” disclosure of 11-year-old audio of Trump obscenely boasting of pursuing a married woman and groping others without their consent. But for Catholics, much of this may be trumped by what Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia called “the contemptuously anti-Catholic emails exchanged among members of the Clinton Democratic presidential campaign team” disclosed by WikiLeaks. The high-ranking campaign operatives discussed Catholic front groups established by liberal Democrats with the revolutionary goal of overturning Catholic moral teachings on life and marriage.

Sandy Newman, president of Voices for Progress, for instance, emailed Clinton campaign chief John Podesta complaining of the Church’s ban on contraception and hoped for “a Catholic Spring, in which Catholics themselves demand the end of a middle ages [sic] dictatorship.” Podesta replied, “We created Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good to organize for a moment like this ... likewise Catholics United.” Another email found John Halpin of the Center for American Progress mocking the Church’s “severely backwards gender relations” and charging that Church leaders “throw around ‘Thomistic’ thought and ‘subsidiarity’ and sound sophisticated because no one knows what ... they’re talking about.”

The two parties’ presidential candidates aren’t the only ones in the spotlight at the Al Smith Dinner whose presence hurts the Catholic Church’s moral authority. In 2012, the master of ceremonies was MSNBC host Chris Matthews, a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter and chief of staff to House Speaker Tip O’Neill, both of whom supported abortion rights, O’Neill then being the highest-ranking Catholic in the U.S. government.

It apparently doesn’t matter that Matthews considers the Catholic position on abortion “fascistic.”

The overall message the Al Smith Dinner now sends to Americans, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, is that Catholic teachings on human life and marriage can’t be allowed to muss relations between the Church and an increasingly anti-Catholic state. But in both 1996 and 2004, the abortion-friendly position of first Bill Clinton and then Catholic Democrat nominee John Kerry led to both parties’ candidates not being invited by the Archdiocese of New York.

As praiseworthy as the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation’s work on behalf of poor children continues to be, it may be time for the famed event that raises so much money for that institution to stop breaking bread — permanently — with politicians with whom Catholic Democrat Al Smith himself might well be ashamed to be seen.

Thomas McArdle writes from New York.

He was senior writer for Investor’s Business Daily,

a White House speechwriter for President George W. Bush and

director of communications for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.