NEW YORK (CNS) — The Al Smith dinner in New York brings people of faith together for “an evening of friendship, civility and patriotism to help those in need,” not to endorse either candidate running for the U.S. presidency, said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York.
The purpose of the dinner is to show the nation and the Catholic Church “at our best,” he said in an Aug. 14 posting on his blog titled “The Gospel in the Digital Age.”
“An invitation to the Al Smith dinner is not an award, or the provision of a platform to expound views at odds with the church,” the cardinal said. “It is an occasion of conversation; it is personal, not partisan.”
President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney, his Republican opponent, have accepted the invitation to be the keynote speakers at the 67th Annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner Oct. 18 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York.
In presidential election years, in a tradition of bipartisanship, the foundation’s board has usually invited the presidential candidates of the two major parties to speak.
Cardinal Dolan used his blog to respond to criticism of the invitation to Obama, who supports legal abortion. He said he also has received complaints that Romney was invited.
The dinner “has never been without controversy. … This year is surely no exception: I am receiving stacks of mail protesting the invitation to President Obama — and by the way, even some objecting to the invitation to Gov. Romney,” he said.
“The objections are somewhat heightened this year, since the Catholic community in the United States has rightly expressed vigorous criticism of the president’s support of the abortion license, and his approval of mandates which radically intruded upon freedom of religion,” Cardinal Dolan said.
“We bishops, including yours truly, have been unrelenting in our opposition to these issues, and will continue to be,” he said.
But he pointed out that those who started the Smith dinner started 67 years ago were people who “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.”
Four years ago, Obama traded quips with Republican Sen. John McCain.
In 2004, President George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger for the presidency, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, a Catholic who supports legalized abortion, were not invited to speak. Dinner organizers instead invited former Republican President George H.W. Bush and former New York Gov. Hugh Carey, a Democrat.
The dinner is named for former New York Gov. Alfred E. Smith, who in 1928 became the first Catholic nominated by a major party as a presidential candidate. New York Cardinal Francis Spellman began the dinner in 1945 to inaugurate a hospital wing in honor of Smith and to raise money for health care programs in the New York Archdiocese.
The annual dinner and the Smith foundation have raised millions to provide support for the sick, poor and underprivileged in the New York area.
Cardinal Dolan noted that Smith “was viciously maligned because of his own Catholic faith.”
“Smith was known as the ‘Happy Warrior,’ because while he fought fiercely for what he believed was right, he never sought to demonize those who opposed him,” he explained. “And, the dinner named in his honor is truly life-affirming as it raises funds to help support mothers in need and their babies — both born and unborn — of any faith, or none at all.”
Cardinal Dolan said some people have called the dinner invitation to Obama “a scandal,” but he said the church’s posture “toward culture, society and government is that of engagement and dialogue.”
“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,” he said, adding that recent popes have received “dozens of leaders” with whom they disagree on serious issues.
Pope Benedict XVI received Obama, he noted, 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?” Cardinal Dolan asked.
He said the upcoming dinner does not represent “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.”
He suggested that the “vibrant solidarity of the evening” might illustrate for Obama and Romney “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.”
Civility in politics is what a majority of Americans say they want, he added, quoting a recent poll on the topic.