Not sure how much attention this is getting outside the New York area, but here it's big news that Cardinal Dolan has invited President Obama to the annual Al Smith dinner -- and the President apparently has accepted.
The result has been a furor. Although an invitation to the Al Smith dinner -- a non-partisan, non-political affair in which both presidential candidates have typically been invited to give short, self-deprecating speeches -- is not the same as an invitation to be a university's commencement speaker (much less be awarded an honorary degree), you can see the confusion. One member of the archdiocese's staff has defended his boss here, but, judging from the comments, he hasn't been persuasive. These comments are worth reading.
Now, the issue here is not the Cardinal's commitment to Catholic teaching, unborn life, or the fight against the contraceptive mandate. The Cardinal has been pretty tough. I am a huge fan of the Cardinal, yet the decision does raise questions about prudence. Not being privy to the reasoning that went into this, I'm willing to have my mind changed. Still, my gut feeling is that it was a very very unwise thing to have done.
The Cardinal's defender rightly notes that Jesus sat down with tax collectors, and that this is a civic, not a religious event. With regard to the first, Phil Lawler points out that no one is objecting to the Cardinal meeting with President Obama per se. The objection is that the context is essentially a photo op: We can guarantee that on the front page of the next day's New York Times we will have a photo of the Cardinal laughing it up with the Commander in Chief. No doubt that is why the President has agreed to come. If the Cardinal and the Pres can laugh it up, can this mandate really be the threat the Cardinal says it is? That too is a cause of understandable confusion.
As for the latter, it seems to me that the fact that this is a civic affair adds to the problem rather than mitigates it, because it makes the invitation optional. No doubt the Cardinal weighed these things -- the great political advantage President Obama will get from it in the midst of an election, the demoralization of many who support the Cardinal's fight against the mandate, the confusion it sends the faithful. Paris may be well worth a Mass, but it is hard to see how the Al Smith dinner is worth this. Indeed, the whole idea of Al Smith dinners, which allow our pols to get nice photos with the members of the hierarchy they are busy undermining, strikes me as something that itself ought to be re-examined in our present climate.
The Cardinal is no dummy, and he is a good and decent shepherd. I hope I have it all wrong. My sense, however, is that good, faithful people who are the Cardinal's true friends and allies are utterly utterly dispirited, and I see no good coming of it.