Ursula and the Cardinal

I had not intended to say more on the Al Smith Dinner, partly out of discomfort with the topic, mostly because I am a most reluctant dissenter who greatly admires Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of New York. It is, however, difficult to remain silent when Ursula puts one’s name in the heading of a post, and there is, in fact, news in an explanation from the cardinal himself. I would have replied in that thread — I thought the Ricochet responses were pretty good — but mine is so much more detailed that I am commanded by those at Ricochet Central to make a whole new post of the thing.

In my original post, I said I was willing to be persuaded otherwise, but I confess that I am not persuaded by the Cardinal. As he points out, this is primarily a prudential judgment about politics, not about doctrine or dogma or teaching. 

Some preliminaries in the cardinal’s statement: While being a happy warrior is indeed important when advancing difficult arguments, especially moral ones, in America it is not supremely important. I do not recall the passage where Jesus calls himself a happy warrior, and you can search the Gospels high and low for evidence of a sense of humor. Surely, there are other things that compete with a happy face, including the obligation of clarity. That the cardinal has had to answer the criticisms of people who are otherwise on his side suggests confusion; in this case, as I can tell you from people who have written me, confusion coupled with a terrible feeling of disappointment.

Likewise for civility. We could write volumes on how those who seem to argue loudest and most insistently for civility often brandish it as a club to discredit the legitimate disagreement of others. I do not count the cardinal in this group, but I do include the president and especially his political team. The point is that not inviting President Obama to this dinner is hardly uncivil: if it were, the previous cardinal, who did not invite President Clinton or Senator Kerry, must be counted as uncivil. More to the point, civility is the express reason I am against the suggestions that the Cardinal make pointed remarks or allusions to President Obama’s policies. I believe it rude, not to mention un-Christian, to invite a man, much less the President of the United States, as a guest at a public occasion only to taunt him or make serious remarks at his expense. Especially for an occasion such as the Al Smith Dinner, which is supposed to be a respite from this kind of thing.

As for raising money for worthy causes … really? If there no other way to fund Catholic Charities than to give President Obama a Catholic platform then we are in a very sad state, and not just financially.

So I will now answer the cardinal point by point.

First, Cardinal Dolan is not a naif. This dinner — relic of a different America and a different Democratic Party — is a political event. It comes in the middle of a hotly contested election. It is not the Cardinal’s job to see the President defeated, but we can reasonably expect him to look at it the way politicians, especially pro-choice politicians (including Republicans) view it. Plainly, Barack Obama was eager to accept because he realized a) he won’t be called on to answer for his policies, and b) at a time when the bishops fight has lowered his standing among Catholics, President Obama’s campaign is desperate for the front-page, above-the-fold New York Times photo — and maybe the Wall Street Journal, for it is news in an election year — of one happy warrior bishop laughing it up with one happy warrior president.

Second and related, engagement. This is somewhat of a red herring. No one is arguing for not engaging or for not meeting with the president. I would welcome as many dinners and meetings as possible. I question whether this even counts as engagement because, as a public evening that is supposed to be non-political, actually engaging the President’s propositions would be bad form. Again, we pretend that this dinner exists on some otherworldly cloud of camaraderie, when it in fact is a very public event hot in a presidential election. If the question were shifted to, “Should we give President Obama the photo-op he wants so badly to help in his re-election?” we might not get the answer we want, but we would at least not have to endure the idea that this is some grand collegial engagement disengaged from the political contest of the year.

Third, the idea of supping with sinners, tax collectors and people we might otherwise disagree with: my answer is the same as before. No one objects to dinner with, meetings with, or even an exchange of views with the president. The Cardinal never need dine alone, and in fact we hope he brings many people who disagree with him and the Roman Catholic church to his table.

What people object to is the way this jokefest trivializes the seriousness of the fight. Yes, this is not the honorary degree Notre Dame gave him. But what if ND had not made the additional blunder of that honor. Would not the bishops have suggested — correctly — that the designation of commencement speaker was itself an honor, suggesting someone to emulate? Notre Dame had a tradition too, of inviting presidents. The objection was that his speaking there was not an exchange of views but a platform that gave credibility to his, with no debate. There will not be any debate at the Al Smith dinner either.

Notre Dame does not have a winning argument in wake of Cardinal Dolan’s Al Smith decision, but they have a better one. Whatever the archdiocese might say about its evening of fraternal good cheer it is in fact, in the time and place in our politics, an archdiocesan platform given to a man the bishops are suing under the claim that his policies, in addition to being anti-life, threaten the very freedom of the church. My Roman history is rusty, but I believe it safe to say that Attila was not running for reelection and eager for a public meeting with Pope Leo to shore up his reduced standing with his fellow Huns.

Ditto for Pope John Paul II’s meetings with various Polish and Soviet leaders, which he was always willing to do. It is somewhat libelous to claim that the alternative to inviting President Obama to dinner is to close the door to him altogether.

Now, President Obama, for all his faults, isn’t in the category of a Communist leader or a Hun warlord. He is an elected president from a democratic America. So let me note this line in a news story about the meeting then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi had with Pope Benedict back in 2009. It went like this:

Wednesday’s meeting, in a small room off a Vatican auditorium after the pope’s weekly public audience, was closed to reporters and photographers.

The Vatican also said — contrary to its usual policy when the pope meets world leaders — that it was not issuing either a photo or video of the encounter, claiming the meeting was private.

It went on to say this:

Pope John Paul II’s meeting with [Geraldine] Ferraro in 1985 was never officially announced and — like the Pelosi audience — no photo was released.

In short, I wish I could say that what I’ve read has reassured me, but what I’ve read in defense seems to me to have avoided answering the hard questions in favor of easy and somewhat misleading allusions. The White House knows this is a photo op they need in an election season where the Catholic vote in swing states could be the key. The hard question is this: Is giving the President this photo in this election season worth the dollars, worth the confusion, worth the disappointment? Perhaps there are good arguments to suggest it is. I have yet to hear them. I thus remain among the demoralized because I see no good way out, believing the Cardinal cannot invite the president and then cancel after he’s accepted, or have him come and hold him hostage to rude behavior designed to assuage some of the bad feeling this has caused.

I say this reluctantly, as an admirer of the Cardinal. I have read that some people have written intemperate things about him, suggesting he is insufficiently Catholic or insufficiently committed to the unborn, which is ridiculous. He need not worry about the people who write in with those accusations. I do think he need worry about the many more good, decent and faithful Catholics who are utterly disappointed, who see this not as one errant step by an otherwise admirable prelate but the latest in a long line of disappointments from our shepherds. I further believe it unwise to condescend to their disagreement by suggesting they are people who are in fact arguing that he ought never to sit or sup with those with whom he disagrees.

I do indeed pray for Cardinal Dolan, for my church, and indeed for the man who is my president, notwithstanding that I did not vote for him. I pray that I am wrong, but fear that I may be right, and that this dinner belongs to a category worse than a crime — a blunder. 

  1. Cornelius Julius Sebastian

    “This dinner — relic of a different America and a different Democratic Party — is a political event.”  Amen to that.  The Dems by leaving civil society behind only have themselves to blame.  Cardinal Dolan should not have extended the invite.  But now that he has, let us hope he uses it as an effective vehicle to criticize the assault on religious freedom being promoted by the POTUS.

  2. Ursula Hennessey
    C

    Ah, sorry to drag you in unwilling, Bill. But, as always, we all learn something from you. I have always been too easily swayed — tugged back and forth — on tricky issues. I think it’s called being a squish. Guilty! So relieved to have such a non-squish to admire in you. Thanks for the response. Much to ponder … and, yes, pray about. 

  3. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    I am entirely in agreement with you, Bill.

  4. Mama Toad

    I feel the same way as Bill McGurn, but I am not the Cardinal Archbishop of New York. My personal feelings are damaged by sin — I hold grudges and take things personally. Can he? Must he not be willing always and everywhere to defend the good news? The fundamental purpose of his existence is to bring people to Christ, not to be a prudent manager of material assets. 

    During the sex scandals rocking the Catholic church several years back, we had the example of many bishops who saw their roles as preserving what they had. Prudent managers, hiding evil in order to protect material assets, right?

    This bishop, Cardinal Dolan, may be different. He really is a shepherd and sees his job as being a witness of Christ — a martyr, if you will, who gives himself wholly and completely to the Lord and allows Him to work through him. The dinner is all about politics, but the Cardinal is not.

    If the President had not been invited to this dinner, there would also have been criticism that the Cardinal was taking political sides and endorsing a political viewpoint. The Cardinal could not win this one! but the Lord can.

  5. Leslie Watkins

    As for raising money for worthy causes … really? If there no other way to fund Catholic Charities than to give President Obama a Catholic platform then we are in a very sad state, and not just financially.

    Though I do not share the Roman Catholic viewpoint, with respect I believe that this is the nub of the problem: a pact with the devil. The church needs to make a complete break with the state if it is to return to moral prominence. Short of that, there will be nothing but debate.

  6. Donald Todd
    James Of England: He can treat him charmingly with the exception of a single paragraph in which he publicly, dramatically, and memorably begs him to cease his assaults on human rights and the Church. 

    Sorry James.  I don’t think that we (I am a Catholic) are required to beg for American rights.

    Perhaps the cardinal will show up with a long spoon, given who he is dining with, but I suspect not.

    I am also of the mind that a Catholic public forum where O gets a pass on his policies is an execrable idea, and the cardinal and the useful idiots of the USCCB haven’t figured that out yet.

    God help us when our hierarchy is clueless, or worse.

  7. Bill McGurn
    C

    Mama Toad,

    You make some good points. My point really is about the Al Smith Dinner itself. It is from a time when no political party in the U.S. was making the kind of pro-abortion, pro-same sex marriage, pro-contraceptive mandate. You could do these things in that environment without a problem. You can’t today.

    In addition, the Al Smith dinner is supposed to be completely apological and humorous. No one is supposed to make a political point. This seems to me the most damning. To have a photo of the cardinal and the president exchanging thigh slappers — the message is certainly incoherent. It is not a witness to Christ; it is like a celebrity roast. In this environment, in the midst of this election, I believe it highly imprudent and utterly demoralizing. (Demoralized, by the way, would be a better way to describe the faithful’s reaction than “scandalized.”)

    I make no larger points about the Cardinal’s motivation, which I know to be good, or his character, which I know to be sterling. It comes in the realm of prudential judgments where it strikes me as just a colossal and dispiriting blunder.  

  8. Mama Toad

    Bill McGurn — Are you saying, then, that the Al Smith dinner should be discontinued? If not, then what should the Cardinal have done? 

  9. Pseudodionysius

    My Roman history is rusty but I believe it safe to say that Attila was not running for reelection and eager for a public meeting with Pope Leo to shore up his reduced standing with his fellow Huns.

    Bill, that about sums it up as well as anyone I’ve read. Thank you.

    Tomorrow is the Feast of the Assumption. Let us pray.

  10. Matthew Hennessey
    C

    Who knows? The president’s heart could be changed that night. 

  11. Bill McGurn
    C

    Mama Toad. I certainly believe all these things ought to be re-examined and possibly restructured to face new realities. They were established in different times with different assumptions.

  12. michael kelley

    Out here in the fields, where you see dwindling attendance at Mass, where the ethos of the Church is regarded as an outdated curiousity by the mainstream, out here in the fields, we want fighters.

    We want leaders.

    We want people kicking over the tables of the money changers in the Temple.

    Instead, we’re getting, “Aw yessir, Mr. President, gosh, that’s a nice sounding title, you cm’on right in and set down.  Here, lemme take your coat.”

    After the pedophilia scandals, the few remaining faithful don’t want to hear about negotiation with the enemy.  The city walls are too thin.  Supplies are limited. The drumbeats of their troops are all around us.  Children cry in the night with fear while the elders worry about the end of the world and the faith tradition they have known.

    We need God’s visionaries, not His lawyers.

  13. Mama Toad

    Well, if you are in NYC that night (October 18) and looking for something to do other than the Al Smith dinner, you can try the Great Defender of Life Dinner instead!

  14. dogsbody

    …you can search the Gospels high and low for evidence of a sense of humor. 

    I know this is not your main point, but I can’t agree.  For one example, the episode in Matthew 17:24 – 27 shows Jesus enjoying some gently ironic humor at the expense of the tax collectors.  There are other instances which would take too long in the telling here;  but the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels is serious but not humorless.

  15. Gogol

    And should my own parish invite local leaders from planned parenthood with political clout into our family center so we can keep open the dialogue?  I’m quickly going from disappointed to disgusted.

  16. Ursula Hennessey
    C
    Mama Toad: Well, if you are in NYC that night (October 18) and looking for something to do other than the Al Smith dinner, you can try the Great Defender of Life Dinner instead! · 9 minutes ago

    In fact, Mr. McGurn was the honoree at the 2010 Defender of Life Dinner! Interesting that the two events share the same date….

  17. Mel Foil

    If the Shepherd is going to sit down with a wolf, it should at least be a repentant wolf. Otherwise, what do they talk about? Lamb recipes?

  18. Donald Todd
    Matthew Hennessey: Who knows? The president’s heart could be changed that night.  · 55 minutes ago

    Given the facts of Balaam’s donkey (Numbers 22) and of Saul of Tarsus / Paulus the Roman citizen (Acts), anything can happen.  

  19. DocJay

    This still can be used to hammer home that the man is an enemy of Catholicism.  I don’t like it either but let’s not let Axelrod’s machine control the narrative.

  20. Pseudodionysius
    Donald Todd

    Matthew Hennessey: Who knows? The president’s heart could be changed that night.  · 55 minutes ago

    Given the facts of Balaam’s donkey (Numbers 22) and of Saul of Tarsus / Paulus the Roman citizen (Acts), anything can happen.   · 23 minutes ago

    Saul was knocked off his Damascan horse alone, not in a banquet hall. I don’t see much evidence of public climbdowns in the New Testament, but many private ones. Recall it is the Roman Centurion that is immortalized in the Canon of the Mass, while Pontius Pilate lives on in a less stellar role in the Creed.

Want to comment on stories like these? Become a member today!

You'll have access to:

  • All Ricochet articles, posts and podcasts.
  • The conversation amongst our members.
  • The opportunity share your Ricochet experiences.

Join Today!

Already a Member? Sign In