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New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan has been taking flak for inviting President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to speak at the upcoming Al Smith Dinner. During election years, the gala — an annual fundraiser for the Archdiocese of New York — typically features the rival presidential contenders as speakers. Catholics have often objected to this tradition on the grounds that it (seemingly) signals the Church’s approval of even the most radically pro-choice politicians.

This year, of course, Cardinal Dolan’s invitation to President Obama has revived controversy over the president’s record not just on abortion but also religious freedom, a record that the bishops have rightly protested . Reacting to the invitation, Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, said , “I don’t think it is acceptable for the church to extend an invitation to a President who has made an all-out assault on the Catholic Church . . .  Anytime you’re asking someone to speak, you are sending a message that who they are and what they’ve been doing is okay.” Similarly, Human Life International’s president, Fr. Shenan J. Boquet, stated:

As faithful Catholics, we cannot set aside our deeply-held differences and put in any place of honor those who continuously attack the tenets of our faith, and even our very ability to practice that faith. We cannot pretend for one moment that such an honor at any function promoting the work of the Church doesn’t give legitimacy to their position while harming the Catholic Church’s image and the perceptions of those looking for guidance from our bishops and Church leaders.

Writing on the Archdiocese of New York’s website yesterday, Cardinal Dolan issued a patient response to his critics, explaining why an invitation to President Obama is justified:
For one, an invitation to the  Al Smith Dinner  is not an award, or the provision of a platform to expound views at odds with the Church. It is an occasion of conversation; it is personal, not partisan.

Two, the purpose of the  Al Smith Dinner  is to show both our country and our Church at their best: people of faith gathered in an evening of friendship,  civility , and patriotism, to help those in need, not to endorse either candidate. Those who started the dinner sixty-seven years ago believed that you can accomplish a lot more by inviting folks of different political loyalties to an uplifting evening, rather than in closing the door to them.

Three, the teaching of the Church, so radiant in the Second Vatican Council, is that the posture of the Church towards culture, society, and government is that of  engagement  and  dialogue.  In other words, it’s better to invite than to ignore, more effective to talk together than to yell from a distance, more productive to open a door than to shut one. Our recent popes have been examples of this principle, receiving dozens of leaders with whom on some points they have serious disagreements. Thus did our present Holy Father graciously receive our current President of the United States. And, in the current climate, we bishops have maintained that we are open to dialogue with the administration to try and resolve our differences. What message would I send if I refused to meet with the President?

Finally, an invitation to the  Al Smith Dinner  in no way indicates a slackening in our vigorous promotion of values we Catholic bishops believe to be at the heart of both gospel and American values, particularly the defense of human dignity, fragile life, and religious freedom. In fact, one could make the case that anyone attending the dinner, even the two candidates, would, by the vibrant solidarity of the evening, be reminded that America is at her finest when people, free to exercise their religion, assemble on behalf of poor women and their babies, born and unborn, in a spirit of  civility  and respect.

I would add that those who fear scandal — believing that Catholics will mistakenly conclude from the dinner that the president’s record has the Church’s approval — seem misguided in this case. Anyone following the news closely enough to hear about the Al Smith Dinner will almost certainly also know about the Church’s public objections to (for example) the HHS mandate. And media coverage of the former will likely mention the latter, as the New York Times did .

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