THURSDAY, AUGUST 16, 2012
The Al Smith Dinner and the Big Dinner
Diplomacy and civility have its place in public discourse to be sure. More than any other institution on earth, the Catholic Church prefers peaceful negotiations over conflict. Nevertheless, this same Church holds up Saints and Pastors as models of virtue and heroism, models worthy of imitation. Chief among them are the Apostles, the Church Fathers and the martyrs who, down through the ages, bore witness to the Gospel. And if their sanctity tells us anything, it is that the means of diplomacy and civility are to be exercised up to a point. But by no means are they to be made an absolute. Indeed, under certain circumstances they cease to be virtues. The pastors of old knew that the Church was not only an agent of peace and brotherhood, but, as with her Founder, was a “sign of contradiction” as well.
On August 14, 2012 Cardinal Timothy Dolan issued a response to critics across the nation who were troubled over the President Obama’s invitation to the Al Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner; due to be celebrated this year on October 18, just two weeks before the presidential election. Cardinal Dolan made the case that this invitation can be justified on four fronts. In short, they are the following:
First, the Al Smith Dinner is an occasion for a non-partisan conversation. Second, the purpose of the Al Smith Dinner is to show the best of our country and our Church in an evening of “friendship, civility and patriotism.” Third, this occasion demonstrates the Church’s willingness to engage and dialogue with those who disagree with her. And finally, contrary to what some critics have expressed, giving an invitation to President Obama is not a slackening in the U.S. Bishops vigorous promotion of values; rather, it is a gesture of solidarity in which both Church and political leaders “assemble on behalf of poor women and their babies, born and unborn, in a spirit of civility and respect.”
Before moving forward, it is worth mentioning from the outset that Cardinal Timothy Dolan, as the president of the USCCB, is in the unenviable position of having to respond to political leaders who are exercising coercive measures against the Church, as in the case of the H.H.S. mandate. Having to balance the interests of the Church and, at the same time, being attentive to the spiritual welfare of souls is a daunting task. On the other hand, members of the Catholic media have to weigh, on a daily basis, the pros and cons of being a diligent observer and an honest commentator along with the responsibility of being reverential and obedient to their spiritual fathers. This too can be difficult.
It is helpful, therefore, to know that the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church issues the following directive as it pertains to the laity: “By reason of the knowledge, competence or pre-eminence which they have the laity are empowered- indeed sometimes obliged –to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church.” But just as important, “Nor should they fail to commend to God in their prayers those who have been placed over them…”
The Catholic Church is at a critical juncture in our nation’s history. The responsibilities weigh heavy on both the clergy and laity. With great cause for concern, the lay faithful are not only praying for their spiritual leaders but have insisted that they emulate those saintly pastors the Church holds up as models; models such as the Apostles and the Church Fathers. As she increasingly becomes the target of discrimination and coercion by the government, her leaders still assume the role of diplomats over that of watchmen. Or to put it another way, many U.S Bishops favor dialogue, almost exclusively so, over the traditional missionary approach of pastoral discipline.
It is interesting to note, however, that the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults teaches that evangelization through dialogue is just one way to preach the Gospel. It reads: “The Church has received from Christ the mandate to make him known to all people. She does this in many ways. Dialogue is one way, but another way is the missionary activity of the Church.” Still, one would think that from observing the pastoral practices of the last fifty years or so, dialogue is the only way!
With that said, there are some who are suggesting that a change is in order. For instance, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, then-bishop Bridgeport, Connecticut, addressed the General Assembly of Bishops on November 16, 2011. The topic was religious liberty. By recalling the words from Ezekiel, he called upon his brother bishops to be watchmen: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel.” (Ezekiel 33:7) A watchman, as Pope St. Gregory the Great said, is a preacher who always stands on a height so that he can see from afar to see if there are any predators looming; not to invite them into the pasture, but to chase them out! After all, did not St. Paul say, “Do not be led astray: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals.’" (I Corinthians 15:33)
This is why the Lord admonishes the watchman in the book of Ezekiel to go above and beyond the norms of diplomacy: “If I tell the wicked man that he shall surely die, and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked man from his way, he (the wicked man) shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.” (33:8) If we but thumb through the pages of the bible and make our way into the New Testament, we should observe that the Apostles saw themselves as watchmen when faced with obstinate sinners. They too warned, with outspokenness, that to presume God’s mercy is to provoke His justice!
In fact, St. Paul instructed St. Timothy to “reprimand publicly those who do sin, so that the rest also will be afraid.” (I Timothy 5:20) He further published names of sinners; namely, Hymenaeus and Alexander. (I Timothy 1:20) And, if that weren’t stern enough, he wrote to the Corinthians to not associate with immoral people, telling the elders of the church to purge such people from their midst. (cf. I Corinthians 5:9-13)
Now, at first sight, St. Paul’s admonition seems to conflict with the Lord’s practice of dinning with sinners. This example, reaching out to sinners, was cited by Cardinal Dolan as his rationale for inviting President Obama to the Al Smith Dinner. Jesus did indeed eat with sinners. But He did so with the clear purpose of calling them to repentance.
For instance, when Jesus did reach out to the tax collector, Zacchaeus, he- the tax collector -demonstrated a willingness to make amends for his past practices of extortion. And when the sinful woman anointed His feet at Simon’s house, our Lord did not hesitate to candidly reprove Simon for his self-righteous attitude. Publicly calling sinners to repentance, sometimes by name, was our Lord’s way of inviting souls to the most important dinner of all- the heavenly banquet! Recall the parable of the heavenly banquet. Jesus was brutally candid about the guest who attended the heavenly banquet without the white wedding garment. When the King entered the banquet hall and noticed that one guest was improperly dressed, He summarily dismissed the guest.
This is the point. Our Lord Jesus gave clear directives to the Apostles in His pastoral mandate (Matthew, chapter 18) of calling sinners to repentance so that they will be prepared for eternity. In so many words, He instructed the future bishops of the Church to dialogue with a brother who goes astray; warning him once or twice; if necessary, in the presence of one or two witnesses. To be sure, they are to begin with diplomacy. But there comes a point when dialogue and diplomacy runs its course.
The Fathers of the Church understood this well. Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine, said, “[I]f he [the sinner] should still deny the charge he must be confronted publicly with the other witnesses so as to be convicted not by one mouth alone, but by many… Should he refuse to perform his penance, and has not departed of his own accord, he must be cast out of your society. Nor is such treatment cruel, but merciful, for many must not be suffered to perish by the pestilent example of one.”
Let us also learn from St. Ambrose of Milan, bishop of Milan and the spiritual mentor of St. Augustine. He publicly withstood Roman emperor Theodosius II at the cathedral door. It just so happened that the emperor had not yet repented from a serious sin. But after the saintly bishop pushed him away…away from the entrance, the Roman emperor yielded and did public penance.
This, I think, answers Cardinal Dolans question. In his response to his critics, he asked, “What message would I send if I refused to meet with the President?” Answer: The message he and others need to hear! That he is no friend of the Church if he coerces it to distribute contraception through her health insurances. And if he is no friend of the Church- and if he does not repent from his aggressive pro-choice and ant-Christian policies -the chances are good that he forfeits the privilege of wearing the white wedding garment for the biggest dinner of all- the heavenly banquet.