October 26, 2012

The Al Smith Dinner: The question of diplomacy and public perception

By Joe Tremblay *

I think most Catholics are still coming to grips with how people think and behave in response to what clergy and laity do or fail to do either in the public square or within the confines of the Church. It is becoming more evident that the average person does not make the same distinctions, acknowledge the same exceptions or discern the same nuances that a well-educated and spiritually formed Catholic does. Anticipating how our words and actions will be perceived always must be factored in our decision making. The bottom line: Good intentions are no substitute for faithfully following our ideas and actions to their logical conclusions.

As many people know, every four years the Archdiocese of New York extends an invitation to the two contending presidential candidates for the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner. Although it is not unprecedented that such invitations have been withheld from certain presidential candidates, Cardinal Timothy Dolan decided that it was best that the invitation remain in effect for President Obama. In his August 14th blog post he said, “(I)t’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.” As such, on Oct. 18, 2012 the Al Smith Dinner went on as planned with President Barak Obama and Governor Mitt Romney in attendance.

If anything, this invitation, and the justification for it, has ignited a debate within the Church (a much needed one) as to when or at what point does the exercise of diplomacy turn into a fault.

This is good. This is a discussion we must have.

So what about the limitations of diplomacy? Allow me make an illustration. A father who, after having learned that his 20 year old nephew was physically violent towards his teenage son, continues to invite this nephew over for dinner, will give a certain impression to onlookers. Naturally, his own son will interpret such good-intentioned hospitality with confusion and resentment. The invitation to the nephew, in this context, suggests indifference on the part of the father toward the physical aggression of his son. But from the father's vantage point, he is only trying to reform his troubled nephew through acts of love. By having him over for dinner and reaching out to him, the father of the family hopes to win him over to God.

Still, the unintended consequence is that the son is receiving mixed signals. The boy might ask himself, “Can the physical aggression really be that bad if my dad continues to invite this young man over to our house for dinner?” To the boy, it would seem not.

Let us return to the Al Smith Dinner. If you read the Associated Press, you will see this headline: “Cardinal suing Obama invites him, Romney to dinner.” Also, one headline for the New York Times reads: “Dolan Will Let Obama and Romney Joke it up at the Al Smith Dinner.” There is a saying in the media that public perception is reality. In our media-driven age, this adage is not too far from the truth. And the public perception of this event- especially with a picture of Cardinal Dolan laughing as he sits between President Obama and Governor Romney –is that the injustice of the HHS Mandate leveled against Catholic institutions is not really that bad. How can it be when these powerful men are having so much fun together?

Just as the good intentions of the father to change the nephew through kind and loving dinner invitations can be misconstrued by the son, so too do many Catholics working in the trenches on behalf of the Church are receiving mixed signals. Mind you, both clergy and laity will have to endure considerable burdens and loss because this unprecedented encroachment by the federal government. This is an unnecessary burden. On the one hand, the U.S. Catholic Hierarchy is protesting and suing the Obama administration for its violations of religious liberty. Yet, many Catholics woke up on the morning of Friday, Oct. 19 only to see an image of Cardinal Dolan robustly laughing with President Obama on the front page of newspapers.

Furthermore, sitting behind President Obama, Cardinal Dolan and Governor Romney are those members of the media who daily shame the Catholic Church for holding to her Gospel-inspired values. For instance, Chris Matthews and Katie Couric, two members of the media, have publicly taken to task men and women who defended the sanctity of marriage and the rights of unborn babies on several occasions.

Now, I do not doubt for a second that Cardinal Dolan had the best of intentions in extending an invitation to the Al Smith Dinner to President Obama. It’s just that many sons and daughters of the Church, the very same Catholics who want the Bishops of these United States to succeed in their mission, are wondering when diplomacy becomes a fault. They ask: Is there ever a reason to stand up and be counted? Is martyrdom irrelevant now? Is there ever a justification for drawing the line in the sand? Is there ever a reason to publicly rebuke and discipline an obstinate sinner of high public profile? After all, Jesus did. The Apostles did. The Fathers of the Church did. The Saints did.

Moreover, does not the same Catholic hierarchy hold up these pastors as models to imitate? If so, then why not learn from their example? To be sure, Cardinal Dolan and the U.S. Bishops have not been silent as to the injustices of the contraceptive mandate. But when the public perceives silence, reluctance or weakness on the part of any Catholic in our current situation, then it only encumbers the mission of the Church in defending her religious liberties. As Pope Leo XIII said, “This kind of conduct is profitable only to the enemies of the faith, for nothing emboldens the wicked so greatly as the lack of courage on the part of the good …”  The lack of courage is one thing. The public perception of it is yet another. I’m afraid that not a few good Catholics have lost sight of the latter.

Joe Tremblay writes for Sky View, a current event and topic-driven Catholic blog. He was a contributor to The Edmund Burke Institute, and a frequent guest on Relevant Radio’s, The Drew Mariani Show. Joe is also married with five children. The views and opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily reflective of any organizations he works for.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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