Cardinal Dolan's defense of engagement with President Obama

New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan — one of the most outspoken defenders of Catholic religious liberty rights — has found it necessary to publish a defense of himself. At issue is the invitation he extended to President Barack Obama, along with Gov. Mitt Romney, to the annual Al Smith Dinner in New York in October. Some interpreted the invitation as a betrayal of the pro-life cause or as a weakening in defense of religious freedom, especially given Obama’s recent digging in on new regulations that would compel Catholic organizations to violate their consciences. 

In a post on the website of the Archdiocese of New York, Cardinal Dolan says he is receiving “stacks of mail” protesting the invitation. “Some have told me the invitation is a scandal. That charge weighs on me, as it would on any person of faith, but especially a pastor, who longs to give good example, never bad.” 

The cardinal offered a justification for the decision to engage Obama rather than shut him out, and it makes for worthwhile reading: 

“The purpose of the Al Smith Dinner is to show both our country and our Church at their best: people of faith gathered in an evening of friendship, civility, and patriotism, to help those in need, not to endorse either candidate. Those who started the dinner 67 years ago believed that you can accomplish a lot more by inviting folks of different political loyalties to an uplifting evening, rather than in closing the door to them. ... 

Cardinal Dolan
Dolan. CNS/Paul Haring

“The teaching of the Church, so radiant in the Second Vatican Council, is that the posture of the Church towards culture, society, and government is that of engagement and dialogue. In other words, it’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. Our recent popes have been examples of this principle, receiving dozens of leaders with whom on some points they have serious disagreements. Thus did our present Holy Father graciously receive our current president of the United States. And, in the current climate, we bishops have maintained that we are open to dialogue with the administration to try and resolve our differences. What message would I send if I refused to meet with the president? 

“Finally, an invitation to the Al Smith Dinner in no way indicates a slackening in our vigorous promotion of values we Catholic bishops believe to be at the heart of both gospel and American values, particularly the defense of human dignity, fragile life, and religious freedom. In fact, one could make the case that anyone attending the dinner, even the two candidates, would, by the vibrant solidarity of the evening, be reminded that America is at her finest when people, free to exercise their religion, assemble on behalf of poor women and their babies, born and unborn, in a spirit of civility and respect.”