Friday, October 19, 2012

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

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 the virtue of prudence.

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 October 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 to illustrate. A father who, after having learned that a relative abused his son, continues to invite this relative over for dinner will naturally give a certain impression to onlookers. Naturally, his own son will interpret such good-intentioned hospitality with confusion and resentment. The invitation to the abuser, in this context, suggests an indifference on the part of the father toward the abuse of his son. But from the father's vantage point, he is only trying to reform the abusing relative 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 abuse really be that bad if daddy continues to invite this 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 abusive relative 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. 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 Friday morning only to see this image of Cardinal Dolan on the front page of the newspaper (picture: below to the right).

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 martyrdom irrelevant now? Is there ever a reason to stand up and be counted? 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.

Below, Pope Leo XIII not only cautions the Catholic world about  fear and trepidation as it really exists, but he also speaks to harmful effects of its perception. This, it would seem, is a truth that we need to relearn. He said:

To recoil before an enemy, or to keep silence when from all sides such clamors are raised against truth, is the part of a man either devoid of character or who entertains doubt as to the truth of what he professes to believe. In both cases such mode of behaving is base and is insulting to God, and both are incompatible with the salvation of mankind. 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…After all, no one can be prevented from putting forth that strength of soul which is the characteristic of true Christians, and very frequently by such display of courage our enemies lose heart and their designs are thwarted.