If we can thank Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton for one thing, it might be that they may have put an end to the Al Smith Dinner — at least the every-four-year component of the dinner that invites presidential candidates for a night of “good-natured” fun. This year wasn’t fun or good-natured. One candidate was brutish and boorish and the other had stale jokes and a delivery style as dry as the expensive chardonnay at every table.
A little context: Al Smith was the first Catholic to run for president in 1928 and lost in large part due to rampant anti-Catholic sentiment that suggested, if elected, Smith would have the pope over to the White House to impose rule on all of America. Upon his election defeat, Smith, a man of great humor, quipped to an aide, “Tell the pope to unpack.”
We Catholics have come a long way — maybe too far.
For decades, the Al Smith Foundation, in conjunction with the archbishop of New York, has held a white tie and tails gala for a bunch of heavy hitters in the hardest hitting city on the planet. The purpose? To raise money for the Archdiocese of New York’s work with the poor. This year’s dinner raised $6 million in one night. We should all pray for the continued success of this great event and be thankful it produces so much support for people in need.
But it’s time for the-every-four-year anachronism of the Al Smith Dinner inviting presidential candidates to go the way of the Dodo. We’re on the other side of the looking glass now. Once upon a time, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates gathered at the Al Smith Dinner, put their animosities aside and each took a turn at the podium to tease, roast and make jokes at the other candidate’s expense.
For decades, the differences between Republicans and Democrats at the Al Smith Dinner were almost entirely political, not cultural. Al Smith might have had one idea about how to help grow an economy and Herbert Hoover another, but neither would have disagreed on the concept that a child growing in her mother’s womb was anything other than a child growing in her mother’s womb.
Cardinal Dolan, good man that he is, has gotten flak recently because people are upset that as one party has grafted the “right” to abortion-on-demand into its political DNA, while the other party has nominated a person who has mangled the sixth commandment like it was the U.S. Tax Code. It is unseemly for either to be “honored” at the dinner. Cardinal Dolan’s response has always been that, if he required only saints to attend, the Al Smith Dinner would play to an empty room.
True enough. Jesus caught a lot of flak for associating with less than reputable first-century Galileans. But Jesus never had a neutral meeting with anyone he broke bread with or met on the street or at a well. I think it comes down to comfort — we all want it. The woman at the well just wanted to get a pitcher of water. The tax collector just wanted to do his job and be left alone and the adulteress only wanted to not get stoned by an angry mob.
There are no free lunches (or dinners) when it comes to Jesus. He knows more about the woman at the watering hole than she is comfortable with and is left to ponder a well that will never run dry. The tax collector is so transformed by his encounter with Jesus that he leaves his profession to become an apostle. And the adulteress is saved from the mob and not condemned by Jesus, though he is pretty clear on his instruction to her before he lets her completely off the hook.
Under the auspicious of cordiality and respect, the presidential contenders — one an absolutist on abortion and the other a self-proclaimed and unapologetic (fill in the blank) — were granted a sense of validation and justification. They probably — and this is conjecture on my part — climbed back into their limousines thinking it was a nice evening with these maladjusted medieval types. To his great credit, Cardinal Dolan did not let the evening pass without championing the Church’s position on protection for the unborn and care for the stranger.
Feting presidential candidates of either party increasingly requires Catholics to perform logical, theological and philosophical head stands. Cardinal Dolan’s predecessor Cardinal John O’Connor may have been feeling that as well when he suspended the presidential candidate component of the Al Smith Dinner in 1996 and 2004.
In recent years, the Church has engaged those who adamantly wander from sound Catholic moral teaching, like the two guest speakers at this year’s Al Smith Dinner, with mixed results. We are on the cusp of two consecutive Catholic vice presidents who are steadfast and unwavering in their support of abortion at any time.
So continue to pray for all politicians and public servants, regardless of their stripes, but, as far as the Al Smith Dinner goes, maybe an act of omission is called for and, four years hence, why not leave the next presidential candidates off the guest list.
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry.