Blog Post

Cardinal Dolan Responds to Criticism Over Al Smith Dinner

Writing on the feast of St. Maximiliam Kolbe, New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan published a response to the criticism he is receiving over inviting President Barack Obama to the annual Catholic Charities fundraiser known as The Al Smith Dinner.

After admitting that he has been receiving "stacks of mail" protesting the invitation to President Obama - and noting that a few people are even objecting to the invitation to Governor Romney - he says this is indicative of the controversy that frequently surrounds the dinner because of the politicians who frequent it.

"The objections are somewhat heightened this year, since the Catholic community in the United States has rightly expressed vigorous criticism of the President’s support of the abortion license, and his approval of mandates which radically intruded upon Freedom of Religion," he writes. "We bishops, including yours truly, have been unrelenting in our opposition to these issues, and will continue to be. So, my correspondents ask, how can you justify inviting the President? Let me try to explain."

First, he reminds that the Al Smith Dinner is not an award, or the provision of a platform to expound views at odds with the Church. It is an occasion of conversation; it is personal, not partisan.

Second, "the purpose of the Al Smith Dinner is to show both our country and our Church at their best: people of faith gathered in an evening of friendship, civility, and patriotism, to help those in need, not to endorse either candidate," he writes. "Those who started the dinner sixty-seven years ago believed that you can accomplish a lot more by inviting folks of different political loyalties to an uplifting evening, rather than in closing the door to them."

Third, the teaching of the Church is that the posture of the Church towards culture, society, and government is that of engagement and dialogue. "In other words, it’s better to invite than to ignore, more effective to talk together than to yell from a distance, more productive to open a door than to shut one."

It is in this spirit that many of our popes receive leaders of nations with whom they have serious disagreements, such as when Pope Benedict XVI received President Obama at the Vatican. 

"And, in the current climate, we bishops have maintained that we are open to dialogue with the administration to try and resolve our differences.  What message would I send if I refused to meet with the President?" he asks.

Last, an invitation to the Al Smith Dinner "in no way indicates a slackening in our vigorous promotion of values we Catholic bishops believe to be at the heart of both gospel and American values, particularly the defense of human dignity, fragile life, and religious freedom," the Cardinal writes.

"In fact, one could make the case that anyone attending the dinner, even the two candidates, would, by the vibrant solidarity of the evening, be reminded that America is at her finest when people, free to exercise their religion, assemble on behalf of poor women and their babies, born and unborn, in a spirit of civility and respect."

However, he does say that being charged with causing scandal by inviting the President "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 we might think of this decision, the Cardinal is asking for prayers for both himself and his fellow bishops and priests who are faced with making these decisions so that they will be wise and faithful shepherds.

"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."

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