In inviting President Barack Obama to the Al Smith Dinner, NY Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan has exposed himself to criticism on the grounds of inconsistency: if Notre Dame made a "big mistake" - as he was quoted as saying at the time of that kerfuffle - then someone might reasonably ask, "Why isn't it a 'big mistake' to invite the POTUS to the Al Smith dinner?'" Several reasonable responses to such a query are available, ranging from, "Well, I got it wrong the last time," to, "It's really apples and oranges you're comparing...and here are ten reasons why." In any case, I cannot bring myself to be bothered by the invitation. The following is an outline of a few reasons why, try as I might, I cannot be scandalized.
Put aside, for just a moment, the following pair of facts:
- Benedict XVI is not only the Successor to Peter and Vicar of God on Earth; he is also the greatest theologian of the post-Conciliar period.
- Barack Obama is not only the President of the United States; he is the person with the most radically pro-abortion views ever to stand in, let alone be elected to, the White House.
I ask you to put these aside for the time being, not because they are unimportant, but because they are of supreme importance and therefore need to come into the discussion at just the right moment.
Now, consider the following:
- There is a long tradition of inviting presidential candidates to the Al Smith Dinner in an election year.
- There is an even longer tradition of making French Chiefs of State honorary Canons of the Basilica of St. John Lateran.
In order for the argument to continue, I must introduce a premise (one that, I hope, will not be too controversial):
- The order of worship in Rome’s cathedral basilica is rather more important than the guest list at the Al Smith Dinner.
Now, if Pope Benedict XVI could make former French president Nicholas Sarkozy, who is not only a supporter of the permissive abortion status quo in France, but also a public adulterer, an honorary canon of Rome's cathedral basilica - and he did, on December 20th, 2007 - then the Cardinal-Archbishop of New York can have US President Barack Obama over to dinner.
Now, just as it would arguably have been "bad form" for the Pope not to make Sarkozy an honorary canon on his first official visit to the Vatican, so would it have been for Cardinal Dolan to refuse Obama the invitation.
Questions of form aside, one may say the invitation was out of order.
There are concerns over the propriety of giving the most radically pro-abortion President of the United States ever elected in the history of the nation a platform from which to advance his pro-abortion agenda. Anyone concerned about this has never been to (or YouTubed) the Al Smith Dinner.
I think back to the Notre Dame debacle. Many Catholic bishops and public intellectuals were extremely vocal in their criticism of ND's President, Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C., who, in keeping with tradition, invited the newly-elected POTUS to commencement. Much of that criticism was in fact condemnation: of ND's president, of the university over which he presides, and of the person he invited – before, mind you, the POTUS had had a chance to do any of the awful things he eventually did, in violation of his public promises.
There were in that case some interesting parallels with an earlier incident involving a head of state, a prestigious university, and a controversial invitation of the latter to the former.
About a year before the ND invitation in 2009, a small group of disgruntled university professors led a somewhat larger, but still tiny (as a portion of the whole student body) group of radical, ideologically committed and agenda-driven students in raising cain over the invitation of Pope Benedict XVI to give the celebratory lecture at the Solemn Academic Act opening the academic year at Rome's La Sapienza university - this is the rough cultural equivalent of Commencement Day.
They succeeded in making so much noise, that the Pope decided not to go, but the overwhelming majority of public opinion in Italy and throughout Europe was against them. The rector (president) of the university read the Holy Father's entire lecture into the acts of the event, and the radical anti-clerical presence in Italian political culture did itself serious and lasting damage.
In military parlance, they rendered their strategic goals unreachable in a short-sighted attempt to press a tactical advantage. They took the ground, as it were, but lost the field as a result.
In the case of the La Sapienza professors and students, the loss was in public sympathy and prestige.
There are real lives at stake in the present US public contest, not just public sympathies - though, as we are about to see, public standing is intimately related to political effectiveness - and whatever else this contest is, it is political: indeed, it is political in the deepest sense of the term, for it seeks directly to answer in important part the basic political question of how we ought to order our lives together.
In the case of Catholic bishops and public intellectuals, the best they could possibly have hoped for is that ND's president might have disinvited the POTUS, or that the POTUS would have voluntarily decided to withdraw his acceptance of the invitation - but the losses were infinitely greater.
They did not succeed in embarrassing ND and her president, though they did make the POTUS appear gracious in the face of rabid hatred and scorn.
They also burned all bridges with the White House. This is the loss of the field, the result of which was a seriously diminished capacity on the part of the bishops (whether singly or corporately) to press for enforcement of conscience exemptions and institutional autonomy, for the rights of Catholic schools to teach Catholic doctrine in social matters and maintain hiring and disciplinary practices in line with the Catholic vision of the human person and the true good of society.
The outcry never had more than the slimmest of chances to keep the President Obama off the dais on ND's Commencement Day, 2009. It did, however, succeed in placing Catholic health care facilities and schools at greater risk of government intrusion and prevarication, while simultaneously reducing the bishops' ability effectively to champion the rights and immunities of the Church and her organs. Said shortly: the outcry succeeded only in angering a vindictive Chicago pol, who happened at the time to be the most powerful man in the world.
In sum, the end result of the public outcry over ND was a Church with a weakened ability to defend human life from conception to natural death.
The present outcry cannot reasonably expect to achieve even such a victory as that, for which those who raised their voices over the ND invitation might have hoped. At the same time, the outcry risks further diminishing the ability of the Church and Her leaders to engage in effective public action - and this is a consequence neither the Church nor the country can afford.
So, perhaps I am scandalized a bit...by my fellow Catholics who would throw Cardinal Dolan under the bus in order to score a few sympathy points with the "home crowd" while simultaneously giving ammunition to the folks who think Christians generally and Catholics especially are unfit to participate in public life.