Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The Al Smith dinner: the cardinal and the tax collector

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 09, 2012

Jesus ate with tax collectors. And Cardinal Dolan plans to eat with President Obama—who, Chief Justice Roberts tells us, has imposed a “tax” on employers who refuse to subsidize contraception. But there’s a difference.

When Jesus sat with tax collectors, the dinners were private. They were not “photo ops” for political candidates. The Lord could speak directly to the hearts of his dining companions, and convert them. Remember, St. Matthew left the tax-collecting business to follow Christ. Does anyone believe that after the Al Smith dinner, Obama will decide to rescind the contraceptive mandate?

The annual fundraiser for Catholic Charities in New York is a non-partisan event, the organizers assure us; politics will play no part in the night’s events. Non-partisan it may be, but not apolitical. There are no apolitical public events on the schedule of a presidential candidate during the last few weeks of a campaign. Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will attend because they expect to gain some political advantage. They know exactly what they’re doing. Can the same be said for the host, Cardinal Dolan?

During the dinner, the Cardinal and Obama and Romney will laugh and joke together. (The cardinal will be the star of the show, because unlike the other two men, he has a detectible sense of humor.) All good fun. But is it really harmless?

On the morning after the dinner, millions of Americans will see, prominently displayed on the front pages of their hometown newspapers, pictures of President Obama and Cardinal Dolan smiling together. What message will they receive? Can these be the same men who are fighting a bitter political battle on a matter of conscience? The same two men who are the principal forces behind opposite sides of a landmark lawsuit? If they’re laughing and back-slapping together, the disagreement can’t be all that serious, can it? So maybe that “matter of conscience” isn’t so important after all? Apparently it wasn’t important enough to interfere with a night of fun.

In attendance at the dinner, appropriately clad in white ties, will be corporate executives who have donated large sums to the Obama campaign. The Catholic bishops of the US—Cardinal Dolan prominently among them—have repeatedly told the faithful that it is gravely wrong to support political candidates who promote unrestricted legal abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage. Yet Catholics continue to support Obama, disregarding the bishops’ warnings. When they see Cardinal Dolan arm-in-arm with a President whose administration has done so much to advance the culture of death, will they be more or less likely to take the bishops seriously?

Cardinal Dolan may be the most gregarious man I have ever met. He seems quite genuinely to take delight in the presence of everyone he meets. That’s a quality that I admire: an enormous strength of his character. However, a man who habitually thinks the best of everyone can fail to pick up on the telltale signs of enmity. Cardinal Dolan seemed genuinely surprised that after promising to accommodate the consciences of Catholics regarding the HHS mandate, Obama did nothing of the sort. Call me a cynic if you want, but I wasn’t surprised.

During the past several months Cardinal Dolan has proven remarkably tough in his statements regarding the mandate and feisty in his willingness to do political battle with the White House. Yet now, in the thick of that battle—and, not coincidentally, of the presidential campaign—he has offered a temporary truce. Is he making a calculated gesture, as part of some Machiavellian plan? I’d like to think so. But the cynic in me fears that the cardinal has slipped back into the naïve belief that political disagreements can be put aside for an evening of joking and backslapping without any adverse consequences. And on political affairs, sad to say, the cynic in me is almost always right.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: geoffreysmith1 - Aug. 23, 2012 5:23 PM ET USA

    He who would sup with the Devil should do so with a long spoon.

  • Posted by: frjpharrington3912 - Aug. 12, 2012 12:56 AM ET USA

    Established in 1945 by A-bishop Francis Cardinal Spellman, the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner honors the legacy of New York's 4-time governor, revered by all as the "patron of the little people." Millions of dollars raised from the dinner go to "health care" causes and to the neediest children of the archdiocese, such as pregnancy and pediatric care centers. President Obama's militant pro-abortion campaign against the unborn dishonors the legacy and memory of this great man.

  • Posted by: kcc - Aug. 11, 2012 10:01 PM ET USA

    I was going to do something that would have made a powerful statement about religious freedom, but it was going to get in the way of raising money and having a good time, so I didn't. Maybe I'll do something tomorrow.

  • Posted by: Bernadette - Aug. 11, 2012 4:54 PM ET USA

    I think the Cardinal is making sure he (and the USCCB) has friends in high places for the govt. (taxpayers) monies he wants for their many "social justice" projects and letters regarding subjects with which they have little competence. Remember how the master commended the steward for his wisdom? (Luke 16:8)

  • Posted by: filioque - Aug. 10, 2012 6:43 PM ET USA

    I think you have analyzed this one exactly right, Phil. Cardinal Dolan's predecessors knew better than to invite President Clinton in 1996 and Sen. Kerry in 2004 because of their positions on abortion. President Obama's hostility to Catholic morals and the works of the Church is much worse. Cardinal Dolan is revealing a tragic naivete. If he does this, why should anyone take seriously any great statements he might make in the future? His actions will have drowned out his words.

  • Posted by: impossible - Aug. 10, 2012 6:23 PM ET USA

    The combination of giving Obama this platform and publication of the latest loophole-laden Faithful Citizenship document aids and abets Obama's successful efforts at dividing the Catholic Church and Catholic voters. Given the past history of the USCCB , one has to suspect that their support of the liberal Democrats is an ongoing scandal.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Aug. 10, 2012 3:54 PM ET USA

    The Democrat party has, particularly with its endorsement of the sham "marriages" arranged for homosexuals, permanently identified itself as an institution entirely hostile to the natural law and the Catholic Church. Therefore we must stop pretending that Democrats (if they really cohere with their platform) have a place at the table, or that the Al Smith dinner has any connection with the spirit of Al Smith. It's time to find another way to raise money. The gloves must come off.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Aug. 10, 2012 3:52 PM ET USA

    Phil, the appropriate analogy is not tax collectors. It is the story of Esther. We should be praying and fasting for Cardinal Dolan and his meeting with Obama to "Put eloquent speech in his mouth before the lion, and turn his heart against" (Esther 14:13) the mandate.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Aug. 10, 2012 9:34 AM ET USA

    Phil, have courage and trust in the Holy Spirit - not for an immediate miricle or any sort of pie in the sky eveything will be all-right. But for inner peace and strength of faith. Look at the Cardinal's actions like this - keep your friends close...but keep your enemies closer.

  • Posted by: Defender - Aug. 09, 2012 11:24 PM ET USA

    What, a politician misspeaks? Really? It seems that the archdiocese is playing fast and loose with the rationale for the dinner, too. Unfortunately, the cardinal has done little to clean up his own archdiocese and the USCCB, so why should hobnobbing with politicians be any different (start with the lesbian NYC mayor-in-waiting who is supposedly Catholic)? The cardinal, as many prelates also do, causes great scandal and makes a mockery of defending our religious liberties.

  • Posted by: FrPhillips1125 - Aug. 09, 2012 5:57 PM ET USA

    I question the wisdom of inviting someone to dinner who wants to kill you and have you as the main course.

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Aug. 09, 2012 1:21 PM ET USA

    During an election campaign, the Al Smith dinner is a political event. Cardinal Dolan has proven that he is naive when it comes to political activities. Obama, on the other hand, is adept at playing others for his political benefit. Dolan has once again decided to play on Obama's turf and Dolan will likely get his clock cleaned while he yuks it up. He should remember Paul's testimony that when he grew up he put aside childish things.

  • Posted by: visions - Aug. 09, 2012 12:40 PM ET USA

    Therefore take up the armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and stand in all things perfect. Stand, therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having on the breastplate of justice, having your feet shod with the readiness of the gospel of peace, in all things taking up the shield of faith, with which you may be able to quench all the fiery darts of the most wicked one. And take unto you helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit that is the word of God.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Aug. 09, 2012 12:34 PM ET USA

    Let's pray for a miracle, of the caliber of Mother Teresa at the White House Prayer Breakfast....Hey, it could happen!

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Aug. 09, 2012 11:53 AM ET USA

    I'm with spledant on this. I'm trusting Cardinal Dolan. Sure, he's probably going to get kicked to the side of the road again, but he is doing his level best to reach this man, which is exactly what the Lord wishes. Who knows what's going on in the Cardinal's prayer? I don't. But the Lord put him in NY for a purpose and it could very well be for this exact thing. I think your inner cynic is wrong on this, Phil. It's a way for the Cardinal to get to Obama in a good setting. Let's pray for them.

  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Aug. 09, 2012 11:36 AM ET USA

    I know what you mean, Phil, but since "Cardinal Dolan has proven remarkably tough in his statements regarding the mandate," I'm going to trust him on this one. My guess is that if tougher statements or even actions are required of him in the future he wants them to be seen as coming from the kind of man people will see at the Al Smith Dinner.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Aug. 09, 2012 11:06 AM ET USA

    Thank you for this. You are very charitable, and that is a good thing, but I think Cardinal Dolan will be intractable on this as I have seen him be on other issues that has caused scandal. I'm so saddend by the Cardinal's decision. It is virtually handing the election to Obama through uncatechized and/or unfaithful Catholics.