About four years ago I caught the last 20 minutes of the 2008 Alfred E. Smith dinner on CSPAN. Senator Barack Obama's bit was funny, and his comedic timing was impeccable. But I found myself distracted from full enjoyment of the future president's performance by the man seated beside him, who chuckled so hard at Obama's jokes he seemed like he'd cry. Later on in the evening, that same man would characterize Barack Obama as "exemplary." That man was Edward Egan, Cardinal of the Archdiocese of New York.
How was it possible that a Roman Catholic cardinal might find the jokes of a crusader for what he and his fellow hierarchs view as the mass murder of (what the Catholic anti-abortion advocates call) "babies" in utero so hilarious? How could a Roman Catholic prelate so revel in feasting at a table with a popular pro-choice presidential candidate while knowing that in parishes throughout the United States priests were barring pro-choice politicians from "the table of Our Lord?" How? The answer may be that such a thing is possible only if the cardinal doing the chortling doesn't quite believe everything he preaches. Hence the concern on the part of the many Roman Catholics who have criticized the choice made by Timothy Dolan, Cardinal of the Archdiocese of New York and President of the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) to invite President Barack Obama to the Al Smith Dinner.
I am glad the President Obama will attend the Al Smith dinner. I think the mere fact that Obama was invited at all will win him Catholic votes. However, Rev. Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, who objects strenuously to Dolan's choice to invite Obama to the Al Smith Dinner is right to feel betrayed by Dolan in this:
The Rev. Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, a leading abortion opponent based in Staten Island, said Monday (Aug. 6) that "the polite putting aside of differences for a while amounts to scandal."
"There comes a time when enough is enough and we can no longer afford to give people a reason to doubt our position as a Church," Pavone wrote in an email. "So no, I don't think the invitation is appropriate at this time."
"Better to cancel the event than have it become another cause for scandal in the Catholic Church..."
If Timothy Dolan breaks bread with Barack Obama, laughs at his jokes or extends any words of graciousness that might wind up construed as praise, Dolan will siphon out some of the urgency out of his "religious freedom" and "defense of marriage" positions. He will give Catholics cause to doubt his positions on same-sex marriage and contraception. He will cause many Catholics to wonder whether the cardinal's talk of Catholic conscience and religious freedom is genuine -- or just politically driven cant.
As I watched Timothy Egan delight in Obama's performance roughly four years ago, I remember thinking: Maybe the cardinal and his ilk don't really believe what they preach. Maybe obedience, and not belief, fuels their promulgating. They submit to the Magisterium the way soldiers do generals. Maybe they just have to toe the Vatican party line, and belief is not always required.
Does Timothy Dolan truly believe what he says about same-sex marriage, artificial contraception and abortion? Of course there's no sure way to know. Roman Catholicism has an enlightened approach toward doubt. It is no sin to doubt. There can be little doubt, however, in any any Roman Catholic camp, that regarding the president as some perfectly good guy with whom Catholics just don't quite seem to see eye-to-eye poses a threat will to Dolan's already dragging and tenuous credibility.
If Timothy Dolan believes, for example, that an embryo is a child, he views Barack Obama as a man militating (even if with good intentions) with considerable rigorousness, to ensure that the mass murder of "babies" remains legal in the United States. That most Catholics don't hold this position is immaterial. It's what Dolan teaches.
Dolan did not have to invite Obama to the dinner. Cardinal John O'Connor excluded Bill Clinton; Cardinal Edward Egan excluded John Kerry. That precedent exists for excluding pro-choice candidates from this event makes it all the more difficult for Dolan to put the kind of spin he needs on his decision to invite the president to the dinner. That in his putative outrage over the Health Care mandate, Dolan moved to sue the Obama offers all the more reason for Dolan to leave the President of the United States off the Al Smith dinner guest list.
Timothy Dolan's choice to break bread with the President Obama will cast an entirely new light on the religious freedom campaign, a campaign much predicated on demonizing the incumbent. Catholics and non-Catholics alike will have all the more reason to question Dolan's challenges to "ObamaCare" in the aftermath of the gala at the Waldorf.
Read the rest of "The Al Smith Dinner: Why Dolan Should Have Snubbed POTUS and WHY I'm Glad He Didn't" on Indie Theology.