I don't presume to judge whether or not Cardinal Dolan ought to have suspended the tradition of inviting both presidential candidates to the Al Smith Dinner, in view of the Obama administration's political and legal violence against life and against conscience. Perhaps keeping the tradition alive is the right thing to do, the best way of doing most good. There's a case to be made on both sides. It's a prudential decision, the Cardinal's to render.
My plan had been to stay silent on the controversy. But then yesterday, in response to a wide and spontaneous outcry among the faithful, the Cardinal published a defense of his decision, which I find so worryingly weak and unconvincing that a crique seems called for.
First, his repeated italicizing of the word civil and civility strikes me as strange in a bishop—as if that were his main goal: to be civil. I'm all in favor of civility, but isn't it more a mode of proceeding than an end-in-itself? And I don't like the implication that a decision not to invite Obama, or to cancel the dinner, would have been uncivil.
Elsewhere, too, the Cardinal's excessively mild language seems to me to obscure the seriousness of the crisis we're facing.
The objections are somewhat heightened this year, since the Catholic community in the United States has rightly expressed vigorous criticism of the President’s support of the abortion license, and his approval of mandates which radically intruded upon Freedom of Religion.
"Vigorous criticism"? This is surely too weak a way of describing the Church's opposition to absolute evils. We criticize policy proposals and platform planks and campaign tactics. Concrete evils like abortion and coercion of conscience we oppose absolutely. They call for total resistance, even "to the point of shedding blood".
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.
Two points here.
1) The opposition to Obama isn't about "political loyalties," but moral essentials and the first principles of the American founding, which transcend politics and party.
2) The idea that you can accomplish more by an invitation than by closing the door may be generally true, but it is by no manner of means of always true.
I remember reading a striking anecdote from Dietrich von Hildebrand's soon-to-be-published memoirs. Very early on in Hitler's rise to power in Germany, von Hildebrand sounded the alarm in a conversation with the German Provincial of a religious order. Naziism was radically evil and must be absolutely opposed! The Provincial chided von Hildebrand for his extremism and urged that Catholics tone done objections and "focus on the positive" with the aim of influencing Hitler to improve.
Who was right in that case? Who was "accomplishing more"? I don't mean to compare Obama to Hitler, I mean rather to show that sometimes being "open" and "welcoming" does more to spread confusion and weaken resistance to wrong than it does to promote good.
One of the evils of "the dictatorship of relativism" is that it inclines us to tolerate what it objetively intolerable in the name of "charity" and "civility". One of the practical problems of the Church in the first world is that the faithful are bewildered and demoralized. We are looking for clear and firm leadership.
"If the trumpet doesn't sound a clear note, who will run for battle?"
The Cardinal goes on.
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 engagementand 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.
Here he sets up a false alternative. There is ample middle ground between inviting and ignoring, between bonhomie and yelling. The Church can be staunch without being defensive. And again, the "open door policy" is not an absolute good. If it were, how could the Church refrain from giving Holy Communion to unbelievers?
I object perhaps most strongly to these lines.
Some have told me the invitation is a scandal. That charge weighs on me, as it would on any person of faith, but especially a pastor, who longs to give good example, never bad. So, I apologize if I have given such scandal. I suppose it’s a case of prudential judgment: would I give more scandal by inviting the two candidates, or by not inviting them?
Here the Cardinal makes himself sound helpless and hand-wringing.
I hate conditional apologies that serve only to evade responsibility and cast blame on the one you purport to be apologizing to: as if the problem were not your misdeed, but their over-sensitivity. More importantly, it is false to suggest that not inviting the two candidates would have been equally scandalizing. A firm stand on moral grounds never causes scandal—not in the sense here meant.
I say again that I don't judge the Cardinal wrong to have invited President Obama to this occasion. I think the invitation is defensible. But he's defended it badly, adding to the dismay of the faithful.
I'm going to offer Mass for his intentions this afternoon. He doesn't have an easy job.