By Michelle Bauman
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York defended his decision to invite President Barack Obama to a traditional fundraising dinner as being an effort to engage, not endorse, the president.
Cardinal Dolan explained that “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.”
Rather, he said, the dinner is “an occasion of conversation,” designed to gather people together for an “evening of friendship, civility, and patriotism, to help those in need, not to endorse either candidate.”
In an Aug. 14 blog post on the Archdiocese of New York website, the cardinal responded to criticism over his invitation of Obama to the upcoming Al Smith foundation fundraiser.
Cardinal Dolan followed a decades-old election year custom of inviting both the Democratic and Republican candidates to the comedy-oriented fundraiser and reported that both Obama and GOP contender Mitt Romney had agreed to attend.
News of the invitation has led to questions and complaints from Catholics who believe that it may undermine the bishops’ work to defend religious liberty from the threats posed by the current administration.
Concerns over religious freedom have grown immensely due to a federal mandate issued by the Obama administration to require employers to offer health insurance plans covering contraception, sterilization and early abortion-inducing drugs, even if doing so violates their consciences.
Bishops from every diocese in the country have spoken out against the mandate, and numerous dioceses have joined with Catholic colleges, businesses and charitable organizations in filing lawsuits challenging the regulation.
The president’s support for abortion and “gay marriage” also clash with Church teaching and have drawn criticism from Church leaders.
Acknowledging the demands of “faithful citizenship” as both a Catholic and an American, Cardinal Dolan said that the Al Smith Dinner has been an example of “civility in political life” for nearly seven decades.
The dinner marks “the only time outside of the presidential debates that the two presidential candidates come together,” he said, and the result is “an evening of positive, upbeat, patriotic, enjoyable civil discourse.”
Named after Governor Al Smith, who became the first Catholic nominated as a presidential candidate in 1928, the dinner raises money to support the needs of mothers and their babies, including their unborn children, he added.
Cardinal Dolan noted the unity and persistence of the bishops’ objections to the mandate and other problematic policies. He promised that the invitation does not indicate “a slackening in our vigorous promotion” of Catholic values.
The cardinal apologized if his actions had given scandal, as some of his critics have claimed, and reiterated that neither candidate’s presence at the dinner is an endorsement. He said that the invitation of Obama was “a case of prudential judgment” based on Catholic principles.
Church teaching, as expressed in the Second Vatican Council, is that the Church should have a posture of “engagement and dialogue” with the “culture, society, and government,” he said.
He explained that it is better to open the doors of dialogue than to close off those with whom you disagree, pointing to the gracious way in which Pope Benedict XVI received President Obama for a visit.
“And, in the current climate, we bishops have maintained that we are open to dialogue with the administration to try and resolve our differences,” he said. “What message would I send if I refused to meet with the President?”
Cardinal Dolan requested that the faithful – whether they agree or disagree with his decision – pray for him and his fellow bishops as they work to make difficult choices.
Recalling that Christ was criticized for dining with those considered sinners, he observed that “if I only sat down with people who agreed with me, and I with them, or with those who were saints, I’d be taking all my meals alone.”