What is Cardinal Dolan up to? According to reports, Dolan has extended an invitation to President Obama to the annual Al Smith dinner in New York City. The president, reportedly, has accepted.
Historically, the dinner is one of the most prestigious political events in New York City particularly during a presidential election year and candidates from both parties usually attend.
Known for its lighthearted political speeches, the major speakers deliver a series of self-deprecating jokes while ribbing their opponent at the same time. In October 2008, Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama both attended the dinner, accepting an invitation by Cardinal Egan of New York. During the dinner, Cardinal Eagan expressed his “delight” that Obama and McCain had attended, called them “outstanding exemplary Americans.”
But this year, some Catholics are surprised to hear that Archbishop Dolan had invited Obama, now that he is president. Should the Archbishop associate a fundraiser for Catholic Charities with a leader whose administration remains defiantly opposed to Church moral teachings?
It’s not unprecedented in a presidential election year for a candidate not to be invited. In 1996, Cardinal O’Connor did not invite President Clinton or Senator Dole to the dinner and, in 2004, neither Sen. John Kerry nor President Bush were invited.
Obama’s attendance at the dinner this year could be awkward, particularly since the Catholic Church’s relationship with Obama has been severely tested in the battle over his administration’s contraception coverage mandate issued by the Department of Health and Human Services.
According to Dolan, Obama assured that his administration would not “impede” the work of the Catholic Church. But once the mandate was issued, Catholic bishops publicly denounced the move, calling it a threat to religious freedom. What’s worse, administration officials who met with the bishops about the mandate refused to compromise in any meaningful way.
Dolan spoke out against the mandate, but was charitable when publicly speaking about Obama’s motives.
“I think I believe him when he says that he highly regards the work of the Church and does not want his administration to impede any of that,” Dolan said about the President on CBS during the controversy.
But Dolan insisted that the mandate is “straightjacketing,” “handcuffing” and “strangling” the Church and suggested that the members of Obama’s administration were either insensitive or ignorant of their concerns.
The Archdiocese of New York joined the University of Notre Dame and over 40 other religious organizations filing suit against the Obama administration to block the mandate. After announcing the lawsuit, Dolan issued a statement declaring that the issue was now up to the courts.
“We have tried negotiation with the administration and legislation with the Congress—and will keep at it—and there’s still no fix,” he stated. “Time is running out, and our precious ministries and fundamental rights hang in the balance, so we have to resort to the courts now.”
Additionally, Obama has further dismayed faithful Catholics after he expressed his support of same-sex marriage. Obama has also refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court.
In spite of their differences, Dolan appears willing to extend an olive branch to the president. Perhaps in this case, Dolan is conceding the political battle to be charitable and out of respect of the tradition of the dinner. The dinner raises millions for Catholic Charities each year and often serves as a symbol of bi-partisanship right before the presidential election.
Already, some Catholics are grumbling that the Archbishop’s public association with Obama may suggest a reluctance to oppose the president’s policies on abortion or religious freedom.
It has not been confirmed whether or not Republican candidate Mitt Romney has been invited, but presumably he will don a white tie and exchange jokes with the president and some of the wealthiest American citizens in New York City.
Dolan will also be given the opportunity to address both candidates in the national spotlight. While it is unlikely he will be able to change the president’s mind on these issues, he might see the dinner as an opportunity to defend religious liberty before the American public.
Hopefully the irony of Obama’s relationship with the Catholic Church will not be lost in the humorous tone of the event. It certainly won’t be lost on the media, who will frame it in the most dramatic terms.
Dolan is known for his sense of humor, which often characterizes his public remarks.
“What weighs on me the most,” Dolan explained in an interview in 2011, “is the caricature of the Catholic Church as crabby, nay-saying, down in the dumps, discouraging, on the run. And I’m thinking if there is anything that should be upbeat, affirming, positive, joyful, it should be people of faith.”
Perhaps Dolan can be both gracious and critical while speaking about the president. The end result may teach Americans a significant lesson just before the presidential election.