The Al Smith dinner: the cardinal and the tax collector
By Phil Lawler
August 09, 2012 9:36 AM
Jesus ate with tax collectors. And Cardinal Dolan plans to eat with President Obama—who, Chief Justice Roberts tells us, has imposed a “tax” on employers who refuse to subsidize contraception. But there’s a difference.
When Jesus sat with tax collectors, the dinners were private. They were not “photo ops” for political candidates. The Lord could speak directly to the hearts of his dining companions, and convert them. Remember, St. Matthew left the tax-collecting business to follow Christ. Does anyone believe that after the Al Smith dinner, Obama will decide to rescind the contraceptive mandate?
The annual fundraiser for Catholic Charities in New York is a non-partisan event, the organizers assure us; politics will play no part in the night’s events. Non-partisan it may be, but not apolitical. There are no apolitical public events on the schedule of a presidential candidate during the last few weeks of a campaign. Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will attend because they expect to gain some political advantage. They know exactly what they’re doing. Can the same be said for the host, Cardinal Dolan?
During the dinner, the Cardinal and Obama and Romney will laugh and joke together. (The cardinal will be the star of the show, because unlike the other two men, he has a detectible sense of humor.) All good fun. But is it really harmless?
On the morning after the dinner, millions of Americans will see, prominently displayed on the front pages of their hometown newspapers, pictures of President Obama and Cardinal Dolan smiling together. What message will they receive? Can these be the same men who are fighting a bitter political battle on a matter of conscience? The same two men who are the principal forces behind opposite sides of a landmark lawsuit? If they’re laughing and back-slapping together, the disagreement can’t be all that serious, can it? So maybe that “matter of conscience” isn’t so important after all? Apparently it wasn’t important enough to interfere with a night of fun.
In attendance at the dinner, appropriately clad in white ties, will be corporate executives who have donated large sums to the Obama campaign. The Catholic bishops of the US—Cardinal Dolan prominently among them—have repeatedly told the faithful that it is gravely wrong to support political candidates who promote unrestricted legal abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage. Yet Catholics continue to support Obama, disregarding the bishops’ warnings. When they see Cardinal Dolan arm-in-arm with a President whose administration has done so much to advance the culture of death, will they be more or less likely to take the bishops seriously?
Cardinal Dolan may be the most gregarious man I have ever met. He seems quite genuinely to take delight in the presence of everyone he meets. That’s a quality that I admire: an enormous strength of his character. However, a man who habitually thinks the best of everyone can fail to pick up on the telltale signs of enmity. Cardinal Dolan seemed genuinely surprised that after promising to accommodate the consciences of Catholics regarding the HHS mandate, Obama did nothing of the sort. Call me a cynic if you want, but I wasn’t surprised.
During the past several months Cardinal Dolan has proven remarkably tough in his statements regarding the mandate and feisty in his willingness to do political battle with the White House. Yet now, in the thick of that battle—and, not coincidentally, of the presidential campaign—he has offered a temporary truce. Is he making a calculated gesture, as part of some Machiavellian plan? I’d like to think so. But the cynic in me fears that the cardinal has slipped back into the naïve belief that political disagreements can be put aside for an evening of joking and backslapping without any adverse consequences. And on political affairs, sad to say, the cynic in me is almost always right.