Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Cancel the Al Smith dinner: Round 2

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 28, 2016

Readers have responded very favorably to my suggestion that the Al Smith Dinner should be discontinued, and when George Weigel seconded the motion, the responses to his column were favorable as well. But New York’s Cardinal Dolan thinks differently, and he will cast the decisive vote.

“The event is great and nothing can ruin the event,” the cardinal told a radio audience. Really? Nothing can ruin it? Is there nowhere a line that cannot be crossed, no political candidate, however loathsome, who would not be welcomed?

A bit of hyperbole there, perhaps. But hold on; there’s more coming. Cardinal Dolan said:

“In my mind, it’s America and the Church at their best.”


It’s inconceivable (isn’t it?) that a Catholic archbishop would think the Church is at her best in a fundraising event—and not, say, in the Eucharistic liturgy. That can’t possibly be what Cardinal Dolan meant.

Nor is it much more plausible to say that America is at its best when politicians tells jokes. Sure, it can be fun when it’s done well. But does it make you swell with national pride? I doubt it.

So I can only conclude that when the cardinal said that the dinner shows “America and the Church at their best,” he meant that this is the time when Church and state work best together—that the relationship between America and the Church is at its healthy peak when the presidential candidates come to crack jokes together for the amusement of a white-tie audience. Yet even that seems manifestly absurd.

Let me respectfully suggest that the opposite is true: that the Al Smith dinner has come to represent the very worst sort of interaction between the Catholic Church and the American political system. Church leaders are seen on cozy terms with the rich and powerful, willing to paper over serious differences on moral issues for the sake of an evening’s entertainment (and, let’s not forget, a fundraising windfall). This is not the Church going out to the peripheries, showing the preferential option for the poor. This is not the teaching Church, bringing truth and clarity to a world that cries out for answers. This is very definitely not the Church at prayer, glorifying God. This is the Church Complacent; this is an anti-evangelical event.

How many people, do you suppose, saw a photo or a film clip from the Al Smith dinner, and said to themselves, “By golly, I want to be a Catholic!” If there were any (and I doubt it), wouldn’t you question their motives? Wouldn’t you wonder whether they were seeking after secular status rather than eternal salvation?

Light-hearted banter makes for a pleasant evening when the participants are friends, or at least friendly rivals. But there is nothing friendly about this year’s Clinton-Trump contest. (Cardinal Dolan apparently considered it a significant accomplishment when he persuaded them to shake hands.) Moreover, it is downright dangerous to play the role of comic in the absence of goodwill. If someone insults your family, and you respond by inviting that person over to your house to have a beer and crack a few jokes, the evening is likely to end badly.

Cardinal Dolan admitted, on his radio show, that the remarks by the two presidential candidates at this year’s dinner had been a disappointment, even from his sunny perspective. Their attempts at humor “really almost became a stump speech, they almost really became a partisan speech, and that’s not the best,” he said. Well, you can’t take the politics out of politics; a few weeks before the election, candidates are going to sound like candidates. But beyond that, I think both candidates recognized what Cardinal Dolan did not: that their rivalry had become too acrimonious to allow for levity. They could not poke fun at each other without sounding nasty, because “nasty” has been the leitmotif of this campaign season.

And what about the involvement of the archdiocese? If it is dangerously imprudent to start up a jokefest with someone who has insulted your family, what about someone who has challenged your faith? It is impossible to make light of a candidate’s calls for the unrestricted slaughter of the unborn, or for torture and war crimes. So the hosts of the Al Smith dinner have no choice but to ignore the grave moral issues on which the candidates have taken unacceptable stands, and thereby send the message that those issues don’t really matter—at least, they don’t matter as much as this opportunity to share a good meal and tell a few jokes and—don’t forget—raise a few millions of dollars.

Over at the National Catholic Reporter, Ed Gaffney argued that “The Al Smith dinner has not outlived its usefulness.“ He mentioned the fundraising, naturally, and that’s fair enough. But Gaffney’s other arguments, as I understood them, were more revealing. He suggested:

  • If the dinner were cancelled, we would no longer be able to enjoy the memories of past Al Smith dinners, such as the one at which John F. Kennedy showed his wit and charm. But that’s ridiculous; we can still enjoy videotapes or newspaper accounts of past events.
  • Some of the jokes were funny. Gaffney’s examples didn’t have me rolling on the floor, but I’ll concede the point. The question then becomes, how much are we willing to sacrifice for a few one-liners?
  • The appearance by Hillary Clinton provided “one of the most effective political speeches.. throughout this seemingly endless campaign.” Evidently Gaffney favors Clinton’s candidacy, so he is happy with the result. But would he be happy if Clinton had bombed, and Trump had brought down the house?

So which is it? Is the Al Smith dinner important because it provides some humor at the height of the campaign season? Or because it provides an opportunity for some effective political rhetoric? What is the point of this event? Why is the New York archdiocese playing any role at all in a partisan political contest? Is it to hobnob with the rich and powerful, or to amuse them? To play the courtier, or the court jester?

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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