The Personalist Project

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.  

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.  

Comments (7)


#1, Aug 15, 2012 7:50pm

Dear Katie,  Thank you for your thoughtful, balanced and thought-provoking comment.  I would only add that the Cardinal’s response also failed to acknowledge the on-line pleas of the many lay Catholics who, at some risk to themselves, had heeded the USCCB’s call to publicly support the Church’s resistance to the mandate.  Many signed petitions; others attended vigils or spoke up at work, in school, among their neighbors.  Many have suffered increased marginalization, derision, and  scorn at work, in schools, in doctors’ offices and among their neighbors.  Some have already been forced to make difficult and lonely decisions about insurance coverage.  All must wonder how to protect themselves and their families should Obama be re-elected.  Rather than acknowledging the worries of his flock, the Cardinal has offered an interesting explanation for his own risk-taking -- perhaps a “prudential” decision for himself and his dinner guests -- but one that seems excessively risky to those who had thought they were joining a united Catholic front against persecution.    

Thanks again, Katie, for helping to put it in perspective..     Sincerely, Freda


Patrick Dunn

#2, Aug 16, 2012 1:25pm

I think Simcha Fisher offers a solid personalistic reply to Dolan's critics:

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Aug 16, 2012 2:10pm

Great article by Simcha! Could not agree more with her more on this point:

"What would Jesus do?" is not a question that ever sheds light, ever.  It's a question that's used as a stick to beat someone into the proper kind of behavior.  People never ask that question unless they think they already know the answer -- and the answer is generally, "He'd do the opposite of what you're doing right now.  I, on behalf of Jesus, am disappointed in you."

But while I agree, in the main, with her critique of Dolan's critics, I want to make three points in qualification and in defense of myself:

1) If the clerical sex abuse scandals have taught us anything, it's that the laity have to learn to speak up and speak out.  There are good and bad ways of criticzing our shepherds, but it's not wrong to criticize them.  It's among our duties.

2) My own crique of Cardinal Dolan is not of his decision to invite Obama, but of his public defense of that decision, which I found depressing.

3) The Cardinal himself made something of a WWJD argument, didn't he?

Patrick Dunn

#4, Aug 17, 2012 9:29am

Katie van Schaijik, Aug. 16 at 1:10pm

3) The Cardinal himself made something of a WWJD argument, didn't he?

I don't think that was the core of the argument, and I don't think the appeal that he did make to Jesus was of the same kind that Simcha criticized.  That said, I think most attempts to appeal to Jesus by references to Scripture, unto themselves, are often facile and just lead to confusion as an objector can simply suggest another quote that seemingly contradicts the original appeal that was made - which I've seen many do in this case across various articles and their Comments sections.

Rather, Cardinal Dolan seemed to me to be arguing: What would the Church have me do?  How has the Church been seeking to respond to situations like this in recent times?  What is the precedent that helps to define the specific context about which we're considering?

Finally, I think a question that the Cardinal raised is a good one that I myself have been pondering: "What message would I send if I refused to meet with the President?" 

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Aug 18, 2012 10:40am

Patrick Dunn, Aug. 17 at 8:29am

Finally, I think a question that the Cardinal raised is a good one that I myself have been pondering: "What message would I send if I refused to meet with the President?" 

 Assuming it were well done, here would be the message:

These are not ordinary times.  The differences between us are not ordinary political disputes.  The policies being enacted by your administration, in violation of your explicit, personal assurances, threaten human life, violate human rights, and undermine the first principles of our nation's founding.  They drive a stake in the heart of religious liberty and oppress the Catholic faithful and the institutions of our Church, which I am bound to protect and defend.  In such circumstances, to meet as though we are on friendly terms would belie the seriousness of the crisis we face and add to the moral confusion afflicting our society.

I wish you nothing but good.  I stand ready to meet with you at any time to discuss our differences. 

Patrick Dunn

#6, Aug 18, 2012 5:03pm



#7, Aug 18, 2012 5:07pm

Bravo, Katie!   

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