Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has defended his decision to invite President Barack Obama to the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner.
Emphasizing that Americans wish for greater civility in politics, Cardinal Dolan said that
for seven decades, the Al Smith Dinner here in New York has been an acclaimed example of such civility in political life. As you may know, every four years, during the presidential election campaign, the Al Smith Dinner is the venue of history, as it is the only time outside of the presidential debates that the two presidential candidates come together, at the invitation of the Al Smith Foundation, through the archbishop of New York, for an evening of positive, upbeat, patriotic, enjoyable civil discourse. This year, both President Obama and Governor Romney have accepted our invitation. I am grateful to them.
Cardinal Dolan offered several reasons:
For one, an invitation to 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.“Some have told me the invitation is a scandal,” Cardinal Dolan added. “That charge 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?”
Two, 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. 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.
Three, the teaching of the Church, so radiant in the Second Vatican Council, 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. Our recent popes have been examples of this principle, receiving dozens of leaders with whom on some points they have serious disagreements. Thus did our present Holy Father graciously receive our current President of the United States. 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?
Finally, 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. 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.