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.