(RNS) Over the past week voices have been raised to do away with this “public ritual of tribal Catholicism, ” as one of those voices called it.
It’s “demeaning” and “a self-inflicted wound,” huffed the voice — George Weigel’s, if you must know — for Cardinal Timothy Dolan to have invited the likes of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, “as if their profound differences with the Catholic Church in matters of moral sensibility and moral judgment were small beer.”
More temperately, Catholic Culture’s Phil Lawler had this to say:
Millions of Americans saw the pictures of the Archbishop of New York flanked by the two presidential candidates. Surrounding them, they saw dozens of wealthy corporate executives in white ties, seated in tiers at a swanky New York hotel. Is this the image of Catholicism that we want to send out to the world—the image of a comfortable Church, living in luxury, at ease with the workings of the Establishment?
Nor, as Lawler pointed out, was it only on the right that thumbs were being turned down. “[T]he idea of watching Donald Trump yucking it up with the cardinal of New York in a room full of wealthy Catholics turns my stomach,” wrote John Gehring at dotCommonweal.
Trump’s improbable 2016 success has been made possible, in part, by the normalizing of a candidate who has inspired white supremacists and who has drawn from the toxic well of demagoguery. What message does it send to voters to have Cardinal Timothy Dolan chuckling alongside a candidate who demonized Mexicans as rapists, proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the country, mocked a disabled reporter, called Pope Francis “disgraceful,” and bragged about sexual assault?
But allow me to disagree.
New York is a city of tribes, and the Al Smith Dinner is where the New York Establishment gathers to celebrate one of its own. As with all good establishments, the name of the game is inclusion, provided you play by the rules.
Hillary Clinton did. Her self-deprecating remarks were funny and she kept the criticism of her opponent within the bounds of good humored roasting, if just barely. She went beyond the usual expressions of host appreciation to say nice things about Al Smith, Pope Francis, and her Catholic running mate, Tim Kaine.
Donald Trump didn’t. The only funny bit of self-deprecation was a joke at the expense of his wife. The criticism of his opponent turned into a stump speech assault, and something worse: “I don’t know who they’re angry at Hillary, you or I. For example, here she is tonight, in public, pretending not to hate Catholics.”
There’s no more heinous rule violation than accusing a fellow guest of hating the hosts. No wonder they booed.
And that’s why Cardinal Dolan is right not to call the whole thing off. Rituals of inclusion are hardly risk-free, but they serve many useful purposes, one of which is to expose the person who doesn’t belong.
Donald Trump doesn’t belong, and the Al Smith Dinner made that clear to anyone who still had doubts.