Having Dinner with Barack Obama

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

A controversy has erupted surrounding the fact that Barack Obama (along with Governor Romney) has been invited to the Al Smith Foundation dinner in New York on October 18th. A “ritual of American politics” is how Theodore White once described the dinner. But the white-tie event’s main purpose is to raise funds for charities in the city (including Good Counsel homes, which long-time readers have heard in this corner of the Internet).

Most presidential-election years, these invites are extended to the Democratic and Republican candidates. (In off years, I think it’s pretty much just me and the local-access guy in the nosebleed section covering it.)

Some think the president should not have been invited to the fundraising dinner this year as punishment for radical policies that are hostile to vulnerable human life at beginning and end, and, of course, the specific redefinition of religious freedom we have seen most distinctly in the HHS contraception, sterilization, abortion-inducing-drug mandate. I think, however, that the dinner is a tremendous opportunity and I agree with Archbishop Lori that it is a distraction for opponents of the coercive HHS mandate to be angry at New York’s Cardinal Dolan for extending the invitation to the president.

While Cardinal Dolan and some of his brother bishops have been frequently accused of being overtly political and even partisan on the topic of the HHS mandate and religious freedom, time after time, the evidence suggests something else. Clear on principles, clear on impact, Cardinal Dolan, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has provided a civic education. And as you heard from Baltimore’s archbishop (see below on the Corner this morning), bishops are not shying away from providing moral leadership in the civic sphere. But their role is not to explicitly say something like “you can’t vote for Candidate X”;  it is to offer moral guidance. Thus, Archbishop Lori points out that if a candidate is supporting an intrinsic evil, and it’s safe to say selling abortion as health care would qualify, I think it is safe to assume that if Candidate X is Barack Obama, a Catholic voter has a problem voting for him. And that is not making light of any other important issue that intimately affects lives and livelihoods. One of the reasons I would wholeheartedly embrace Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate is that he is a Catholic who takes Catholic social teaching seriously in his economic policy. Those who talk about social justice most should be engaging with Congressman Ryan on the same serious level at which he approaches public policy.

I’ve had my moments of dismay about the political framing of the Al Smith dinner in years past, as a photo without added context or conversation that appears in press can be presented as if a Catholic prelate were saying, “this politics stuff isn’t all that serious, vote for whomever.” But, clearly there is something more happening this year, hard to mistake or ignore or manipulate (though some will try). The Catholic Church has been on the forefront of the opposition to the HHS mandate, waging an educational campaign (most notably in their Fortnight for Freedom), not just about this regulation or its implications for religious liberty in America, but about both the moral nature of civic obligation and religious liberty itself.

And since this president has unnecessarily put the very existence of Catholic charities in jeopardy, what an opportunity the Al Smith dinner presents to focus on those charities! It thus makes sense for Cardinal Dolan, a magnanimous figure and a model of Christian communication (check out him on the Today show in Rome, or his blog post the other day on women religious), to extend the invitation to the president who has made him, alongside the University of Notre Dame, the Catholic University of America and the evangelical Wheaton College and Geneva College, a plaintiff in a case against the federal government. The schools and charities the archdiocese of New York supports and runs welcome all, even those who would force them to choose between conscience and the law, imposing fines against non-compliance that threaten the very existence of some of these services. (Washington, D.C.’s Donald Cardinal Wuerl talked to me during the Fortnight for Freedom about the inner-city kids who are unnecessarily threatened by this fight of the president’s own choosing.)

The dinner, though it traditionally provides a forum for candidates to roast themselves, is no joke. Besides the support it lends charities, this year it affords the rest of us another opportunity to talk about the free practice of faith in America, and the federal government’s constitutional role in protecting it.