Many of our conservative Roman Catholic friends are quite upset over the fact that New York’s Timothy Cardinal Dolan will be hosting both of the major-party presidential candidates at a charity fundraiser in a couple of months. I agree with our own Kathryn Lopez that Dolan is right to do this, but I would like to discuss some points about it.
First of all, while I condemn all the bloggers and comboxers who fling words like “Herod” at Obama (and “Judas” at Dolan), I don’t think their batpoop-crazy rhetoric should be considered a dispositive case against their basic point. We should remember that, in our politically poisonous time, just about every point of view will be defended by a lot of people who are unhinged. For every person who calls Obama “Herod,” etc., there is at least one equal and opposite person who carried a sign three years ago calling our last president “BusHitler.” So that’s not decisive. (I don’t know who’s going to win this election — I give the slightest of edges to Romney — but one thing I’m sure of is that the guy we elect in November is going to be treated to the same level of vilification by his opponents for the next four years. We can pray that this will change some day; it would be foolish to expect that it will change soon.)
Second, let me address the most legitimate point made by the dissenters. The following is a quote from a comboxer at the blogsite of the Catholic archdiocese of New York. Ignore his stupid comment about the “Anti-Christ,” and focus on the basic point “Kevin Doran” is making:
Kevin Doran says:
Let’s see if I get this straight. We (the laity) are asked to pray and fast for two weeks but the Cardinal and his friends drink cocktails and have dinner with this representative of the Anti-Christ. Call me when you get your act together!!!!
This is probably the most pointed statement I’ve seen of why, specifically, so many conservative Catholics feel betrayed by Dolan’s decision to host Obama. The “two weeks” the writer is referring to were the so-called Fortnight for Freedom, a national campaign to raise awareness of the threat to religious freedom posed by the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate. I agree that this mandate is an unconstitutional infringement on freedom of religious conscience, and have written about it rather too frequently (one example is here). But what we see in this comboxer’s post — and in the writings of the anti-dinner folks generally — is that Dolan has become the victim of his own success. He knew about the polls saying a majority of Catholics don’t think there’s any threat to religious freedom at all — at that last link, I mention one important recent poll showing 57 percent believe there’s no threat, versus only 38 percent who think there is one — so he decided to marshal his considerable rhetorical forces to sound the alarm. The Fortnight for Freedom was his effort to get Catholics to understand the threat.
I have not seen any poll results yet as to whether the Fortnight has cut into the 57 percent who didn’t think there was a threat — but it clearly has succeeded in whipping up the 38 percent who did to such a level of commitment on the issue that they now believe they’re in a give-no-quarter fight, and that anyone who “fraternizes” with the “enemy” is being disloyal. Dolan himself has never, as far as I can tell, referred to President Obama as an “enemy,” nor to his own pro-religious-freedom effort as a “war.” But his Fortnight did elevate the HHS mandate to a struggle of existential importance for very many people. If I am correct in my suspicion that this was not against Cardinal Dolan’s intention — please let me know if I’m wrong on this, Your Eminence? — then Dolan bears some of the blame for his current predicament. You can’t whip people up into a frenzy against someone’s policies and then act surprised when they’re outraged by your inviting the same person to dinner.
One right-wing Catholic I know personally is upset by the Obama dinner invitation because, she says, it represents “business as usual.” Why would “business as usual” be a bad thing? one might ask. Answer: A recent national two-week campaign hyping the threat the invitee poses to religious freedom suggests that these are not, in the view of the leader of that two-week campaign, “business as usual” times. I personally think the Fortnight for Freedom was a case of excessive hype, because I am confident this HHS mandate will be struck down by the courts sooner rather than later. (Heck, as Kathryn Lopez pointed out on the Corner, even Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — the most liberal member of the Supreme Court — recently defended religious free-exercise exemptions from federal mandates. It was in Ginsburg’s Obamacare opinion.) But I don’t fault Dolan for trying, because it is, after all, his job to try to teach his flock their religious faith. Who could have predicted that the Fortnight for Freedom, in one important sense, would succeed too well? Now we are in a situation where the revolution is devouring its own, and the forces Dolan has assembled are turning on him.
Catholic blogger Simcha Fisher has done a witty and intelligent job defending Dolan. But some of the other, louder defenses serve only to underscore Dolan’s problem. Take, for example, the defense of him by another Catholic blogger, Mark Shea. For months now, Shea has been calling President Obama “the Tyrant” — that’s with a capital T, you will notice, to distinguish the president of the United States from just your ordinary, garden-variety lower-case-t type of tyrant — and now Shea is surprised that some people are genuinely outraged that “the Tyrant” is coming to dinner. The opponents have the right to ask: Is Obama “the [capital-T] Tyrant” — or he is just another president of the United States, who should be invited to ordinary events? (Perhaps Shea is just confused as to the meaning of the old Roman phrase Sic semper tyrannis, “thus always to tyrants.” It actually connotes a rather dire fate. It decidedly does not carry the connotation, “All tyrants should be invited to charity fundraisers.”)
All this should let people who are opposed to the Obama invitation know that I understand their objection. And it brings me to my third point: why, understanding the objections, I nonetheless think Dolan made the right choice.
I think he was right to invite Obama because I think he has the intention of using the occasion as a teaching moment — not in the narrowest sense, as an opportunity to lecture the president on the HHS mandate — but to convey to a mass audience the Catholic approach to the world and to major moral and political issues.
What surprises me most about this controversy, actually, is how little faith the Catholic faithful have in the ability of their teacher — the leader of their U.S. bishops — to teach. Our old friend William McGurn, for example, has written about his disappointment that Dolan will give Obama “the front-page, above-the-fold New York Times photo . . . of one happy warrior bishop laughing it up with one happy warrior president.” This photo looms large in McGurn’s imagination:
The White House knows this is a photo op they need in an election season where the Catholic vote in swing states could be the key. The hard question is this: Is giving the President this photo in this election season worth the dollars, worth the confusion, worth the disappointment? Perhaps there are good arguments to suggest it is. I have yet to hear them. I thus remain among the demoralized because I see no good way out, believing the Cardinal cannot invite the president and then cancel after he’s accepted, or have him come and hold him hostage to rude behavior designed to assuage some of the bad feeling this has caused.
I believe that McGurn is presenting, at the end of this quote, a false choice. He presents three options that I think are unlikely, and seems not to have thought of a fourth that I think somewhat more likely. The three options he presents us with are a) give a terrific photo-op to the president, end of story; b) rescind the invitation to the president; and c) be rude to the president. I invoke my rusty high-school Latin here: Quartum non datur? Isn’t there a fourth possibility? I think that for a person of Dolan’s charm and intelligence, it would be entirely possible to make important points about Catholic thought on important issues without being rude to a guest who disagrees.
Bill McGurn is not alone in his “photophobia”: What many conservative Catholics say they fear most about this occasion is that one news photograph showing Obama “laughing it up,” “yukking it up,” at the “jokefest,” and making Obama look like a great guy. But what they are leaving out of the equation is that this will be a massive media event, with cameras out the wazoo and huge audiences at home watching Dolan’s speech in the hope of fireworks. There is zero risk that it will be reduced, in its importance, to a single photo that helps Obama by showing him with Cardinal Dolan.
Dolan has a chance here to reach people, and I think he’s right to take it. Bill McGurn is correct that it’s a high-risk strategy. I personally would be more worried that Dolan would cross the line into being too tough on Obama, look partisan as a result, and have the event backfire, than that Dolan might just roll over for an Obama photo-op. But here’s the thing: I think Dolan has enough talent to be able to pull this off, to thread the needle between obsequiousness and impoliteness. (Even to phrase it this way is to underline how insultingly low an opinion of Dolan many of the critics seem to have.)
In short: a teaching moment at a tense time in our country’s history. Cardinal Dolan has grabbed the moment to put his church and its views center-stage. His flock should be proud of him, and wish him well as he gets up on the high-wire. For him not to do so, to not take that risk . . . now that would be going back to “business as usual.”