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Romney, Obama and the Cardinal's Big Dinner

10/16/2012 11:37 am ET | Updated Dec 16, 2012

In one of its fun political quizzes, the fine New York Public Radio program "The Brian Lehrer Show" once included a question about the Al Smith Dinner, which this year takes place on Oct. 18. The question went something like this:

Speaking at a posh banquet in October 2000, Governor George Bush quipped, "Some
people call you elites. I call you my base."

This event took place at

a) A Republican fundraiser

b) A convention of oil company executives

c) An event hosted by the Archdiocese of New York.

The answer was, of course, was "c" -- the Al Smith Dinner. But even the best of shows can occasionally slip up; after all, how many listeners had any clue that this event gave equal billing to Al Gore?

As the New York Times noted in 2008, "McCain and Obama Palling Around? Must Be the Al Smith Dinner," while the image on the event's webpage is a photo of then-Sen. Obama.

The West Wing episode called "The Al Smith Dinner," for its part, climaxes with the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates suddenly finding themselves alone together as they wait to enter the banquet hall.

But nothing is ever simple when it comes to Catholicism and politics. In 1996 and 2004 neither party's candidate was invited to the Al Smith Dinner. There were perceived problems on the part of the Archdiocese with the Democratic Party's position on abortion and related issues (and the Republican nominee could hardly be invited solo to a dinner named after a Democratic presidential candidate).

This year, meanwhile, conservative Catholics have been inundating the host, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, with demands to disinvite President Obama. As the New York Times' Sharon Otterman reported:

Mr. Obama's invitation has generated dismay among some opponents of abortion, who point out that there are precedents for barring candidates from the dinner. In 1996, Cardinal John O'Connor decided not to invite the candidates, apparently because President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, had just vetoed a partial-birth abortion bill, and in 2004, Cardinal Edward M. Egan did not invite the candidates, apparently because the Democratic nominee was Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, a Roman Catholic who supports abortion rights.

Cardinal Dolan acknowledged that "I am receiving stacks of mail protesting the invitation to President Obama (and by the way, even some objecting to the invitation to Governor Romney)." But he refused to accede to the protests, writing that

The evening has always had a special meaning, as it is named after Governor Al Smith, the first Catholic nominated, in 1928, as a candidate for president, who was viciously maligned because of his own Catholic faith. Smith was known as The Happy Warrior, because while he fought fiercely for what he believed was right, he never sought to demonize those who opposed him.

In a reference perhaps meant to assuage his "Pro-Life" cohorts, the Cardinal noted, "And, the dinner named in his honor is truly life-affirming as it raises funds to help support mothers in need and their babies (both born and unborn) of any faith, or none at all." He added that he has been a leading, "unrelenting" opponent of President Obama's healthcare mandate even as he acknowledged that some Catholics accused him of causing scandal by inviting its author.

Cardinal Dolan could have pointed out that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which he in fact heads , lobbies against the Republicans on many if not most major issues, starting with the top issue of 2012: the economy. But like most of the bishops he refuses to publicly acknowledge that fact, instead showcasing conservative cultural stances, as in his loud championing of ballot proposals against same-sex marriage.

Nonetheless, in explaining his decision to invite President Obama, Dolan also cited something beloved by Church progressives, the Second Vatican Council -- which, incidentally, celebrates its 50th anniversary this October.

Calling the Council's teachings "radiant," the Cardinal spotlighted its view that, in his words, "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."

So the show will go on: this storied event, established in the 1940s "to honor the memory of Alfred Emanuel Smith, New York's renowned Governor and patron of the 'Little People,'" in the words of the Al Smith Foundation. It notes that the money raised will help 13 charities serving "the neediest children of the Archdiocese of New York, regardless of race, creed, or color."

In these challenging economic times, let us hope that the Al Smith Dinner raises tons of money. Let us also remember that the most important people are not Cardinal Dolan and all those folks in formal attire that will fill the main ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria.

No, the most important people are the ones who will benefit from the funds -- and who also will benefit from any legislation which recognizes "that while the common good embraces all, those who are weak, vulnerable, and most in need deserve preferential concern," in the words of the U.S. Catholic bishops. "A basic moral test for our society," they write, "is how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst."