The end of an era, the interment of an event

George Weigel

Alfred Emmanuel Smith (1873-1944) served as Governor of New York for four terms and earned the gratitude of all civilized people by opposing Prohibition when that disastrous experiment in social engineering was, weirdly, at the center of our national politics. In 1928, Al Smith was the Democratic candidate for the presidency and took a bludgeoning from Herbert Hoover, virulent anti-Catholicism helping to defeat the “Happy Warrior.” Shortly after his death, the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation was created to support children in need. And this year, as in the past, the two major-party candidates for President were on the dais at the Al Smith Memorial Dinner, the Foundation’s principal fund-raiser, where they were to show, in the words of the invitation, “light humor and political savvy.”

No one doubts that raising funds for New York’s poorest children is a worthy cause, although the amount raised annually at the dinner is smaller than many would expect. Still, the question posed by the Al Smith Dinner, at least in recent decades, bears serious reflection: What is this white-tie extravaganza at the Waldorf Astoria saying about the Catholic Church in the United States, and particularly in America’s greatest city?

It’s hard to avoid the impression that the Al Smith Dinner has been, and still is, a public ritual of tribal Catholicism: We’re here; we’ve made it; see, we can deliver the two most important people in the country, a few weeks before the election. That statement of Catholic pride (which not infrequently risks lurching into hubris) may have had its place at a previous moment in U.S. Catholic history. But today it strikes me as moth-eaten, even somewhat sad.

It’s also rather out-of-touch with the grand strategy of 21st-century Catholicism, which is the New Evangelization – the intentional offer of friendship with Jesus Christ and incorporation into the company of his friends, the Church. By contrast, the Al Smith Dinner seems based on the premise that the old ethnic transmission-belt by which the faith was passed on to new American generations for centuries still works. But it doesn’t.

Then there’s the problem, every four years, of how to square the dinner’s proud, tribal Catholicism with the fact that one (or in 2016, both) of the principal guests advocate public policies that starkly contradict the Church’s settled moral teaching, based as it is on both reason and Revelation.

Hillary Clinton is the most perfervid, indeed fevered, supporter of the abortion license ever nominated for the presidency by a major political party: which means that she and the Church are at loggerheads on the most fundamental principle of Catholic social doctrine, the inalienable dignity of every human person at all stages of life and in all conditions of life. Her understandings of the nature of marriage and the dimensions of religious freedom are also in sharp contrast to those taught by the Catholic Church.

As for Donald Trump, his concept of the dignity of the human person seems to end at his own mouth, beyond which he spews venom at war-heroes, Mexican-Americans, women who have displeased him, immigrants, political foes, and a variety of others he deems losers. His “I, alone” authoritarianism is just as serious a contradiction of Catholic social doctrine’s principle of subsidiarity as Mrs. Clinton’s Leviathan-state progressivism. And Trump’s record on right-to-life issues over the years has been, at best, extremely sketchy, and not infrequently off-side.

Yet there they were on October 20, sharing the dais at the Al Smith Dinner, as if their profound differences with the Catholic Church in matters of moral sensibility and moral judgment were small beer.

This is demeaning. And it’s a self-inflicted wound. In a city as awash in money as New York, there are any number of ways to raise needed funds for at-risk kids other than this charade of bonhomie, in which the candidates pretend to be witty by reading jokes written by others. Once, the Al Smith Dinner contributed to breaking down anti-Catholic prejudices. Now, its tribalism and its seeming indifference to grave moral issues are an impediment to the New Evangelization.

The Al Smith Dinner has become the Al Smith Embarrassment. It’s time to give thanks for what it once did – and then give it a decent burial.

Featured Image: Cardinal Timothy Dolan sits between, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump attend the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria on October 20, 2016 in New York City.The white-tie dinner, which benefits Catholic charities and celebrates former Governor of New York  Al Smith, has been attended by presidential candidates since 1960 and gives the candidates an opportunity to poke fun at themselves and each other.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

COMING UP: Russian Orthodoxy’s aggressive obsessions

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What does the Lord’s injunction to turn the other cheek in Matthew 5:39 require when it comes to ecumenical dialogue? The question regularly poses itself to those familiar with the website of the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church (https://mospat.ru/en).

There, on September 17, the chief ecumenical officer of the ROC, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, complained about the “aggressive rhetoric” of the Greek Catholics in Ukraine” (a theme he has belabored for years), before laying down another gauntlet: “the Unia” (meaning the full communion of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and other Eastern Catholic local churches with Rome) “remains a bleeding wound on the body of Christendom and the main stumbling [bloc] in Orthodox-Catholic dialogue.” Three days later, on September 20, the site reported that Metropolitan Hilarion said essentially the same things to Cardinal Kurt Koch, the Vatican’s chief ecumenist, during a meeting of the Catholic-Orthodox Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue in Chieti, Italy. In that instance, and after his now-routine attack on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Hilarion said that “the issue of Unia needs to be revisited” by the Joint Commission.

It would be inappropriate to slap back, even at such provocations and lies. But surely a calm, forthright response is fully in keeping with the Lord’s command, the self-respect of the Catholic Church, and the settled conviction in true ecumenical and interreligious dialogue that the only dialogue worthy of the name is dialogue in truth.

So with that in mind, here is what ought to be said to Metropolitan Hilarion the next time he tries these gambits.

1. The full communion of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and other Eastern Catholic Churches with the Bishop of Rome and the bishops in communion with him is not a matter for negotiation. It is a settled fact of ecclesiastical life in the third millennium. Attempts to suggest otherwise are a form of aggression that has no place in genuine ecumenism.

2. What needs to be “revisited” before anything else is a real “bleeding wound”: the Lviv pseudo-Sobor (synod) of 1946. There, an effort was made, virtually at gun-point (the guns being in the hands of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD), to liquidate the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church by forcing its “reunion” with the Russian Orthodox Church. Until this act of political, imperial, ethnic, and ecclesiastical aggression is acknowledged for what it was by 21st-century Russian Orthodox leaders, and forgiveness asked for the untold suffering it caused Ukrainian Greek Catholics who remained faithful to the bond with Rome during four decades of life as the world’s largest illegal underground religious community, no genuine progress is possible in Catholic-Russian Orthodox relations.

3. In the future, and absent the distraction caused by Metropolitan Hilarion’s polemics, the Catholic-ROC dialogue should focus on the search for a sound theology of Church-state relations. That exploration should include the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which has been a model of the kind of “public Church” that is not a “partisan” Church envisioned by the Second Vatican Council and St. John Paul II. Moreover, the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine has embodied the evangelical independence from state power – and the prophetic willingness to hold state power to account for its crimes – that is notably lacking in the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin (and previous czars). Thus the question of a theological development beyond the classic Eastern Christian “symphony” theory of Church-and-state should be high on the ecumenical agenda, as that “symphony” has never worked itself out in anything other than the subordination of Church to state, which is a grave impediment to evangelization.

4. And while everyone is welcome to his own bureaucratic nomenclature, might the implications of the title “Department of External Church Relations” be discussed? Is Catholicism (including the Eastern Catholic Churches) completely “external” to Russian Orthodoxy? Do we not share the same Baptism?

These points need not be raised aggressively. But unless they are raised, and then satisfactorily addressed by the ROC, the transformation of important ecumenical meetings into forums for Putinesque propaganda and the Stalinist rewriting of history will continue – as will the self-degradation of the Catholic Church implied by a failure to say, quietly but firmly, “Enough of this is quite enough.”