Yesterday, in Al Smith Scandal?, Anna Williams wrote on the controversial invitation to President Obama to attend the annual Al Smith Dinner. Offering a more critical response are our friends at the Human Life Review, who just posted an article from the upcoming issue which, though written before the invitation, addresses the question.
In Sleeping With the Enemy?, George McKenna reflects on the Church’s relation with the state and particularly with politicians who promote policies in opposition to the moral law and the Church’s freedom. At this point in our history, he argues, a “certain kind of etiquette ought to prevail when representatives of church and state meet with each other.”
The generally philo-Catholic attitude of the last century’s Washington politicians may have produced an excessively cordial relationship between the two estates. One thinks of the annual Al Smith dinners, where presidents and would-be presidents roast and backslap each other as they confabulate with clergy, pundits, and celebrity lawmakers.
In the current era this may be drawing to a close—on two occasions, in 1996 and 2004, neither presidential candidate got invited, apparently because of flare-ups on the abortion issue. And that is as it should be. Is it possible that Obama thought he could roll the bishops on the mandate because, on the basis of his reception at Georgetown and Notre Dame, his charm would be enough to subdue them?
Whatever the case, I would like to see a somewhat cooler atmosphere prevail when prelates meet with politicians. In the language of old-fashioned diplomacy, I would think that a “correct” relationship would be enough. If Jesus was right to draw a distinction between the respective “things” of God and Caesar, it follows that our shepherds need to keep a sharp eye out for people who want to grab things that don’t belong to them. This requires great attentiveness and sobriety, because some of those people have learned to wear the clothing of our flock.
It’s a vexing question. I don’t have a settled view on it. Much of the problem is the nature of the Al Smith Dinner, which is a Catholic social event and at the same time an independent fund-raising event. It’s both like a dinner party you give in your home for good friends and like a Lenten Friday fish dinner in the church hall your parish offers the community to make money. It’s a social event, but one blending two different kinds of relation. It’s a fund-raiser, yes, but it’s a Catholic party as well.
But though I understand the cardinal’s reasoning, which treats the dinner like the dinner in the church hall, there are times that making such careful distinctions hurts as much as it helps, or more than it helps. An invitation may not in strict fact convey approval of a politician’s policies, but an invitation to an affair like the Al Smith Dinner, because it is in some ways like the dinner party in your home, does say that he has not gone too far, that he’s enough of a friend to have, and have at the head table, even though he advocates abortion and homosexual marriage and assaults (not too strong a word) the Church’s freedom and integrity.
As I say, I don’t have a settled view on this. But if I were hosting such an event, I wouldn’t be comfortable inviting the president. The invitation may not, strictly speaking, convey approval, but it does in fact because so many people within and without the Church understand the nature of the differences and will wonder why the Church doesn’t seem to. Without more confidence that I ought to invite the president, I’d think prudence requires me not to.