First of all, I'd like to agree strongly with Simcha Fisher's post today, in which she essentially says that it's fine to disagree with Cardinal Dolan's decision to invite President Obama to the Al Smith dinner, but it's not fine to sit in moral judgment on him for doing so. This is exactly right; as Cardinal Dolan himself explains (an explanation which he didn't actually owe any of his critics), this is a prudential decision, not a moral one; even if he's making the wrong choice, it's not a moral fault, and shouldn't be declared such by people who have no business to judge anybody's souls but their own--and that goes for all of us.
But secondly, I'd like to ask everybody for a moment to consider the opposite scenario: let's say Cardinal Dolan doesn't invite Obama to the dinner. What then?
I know there's precedent for a presidential candidate not to be invited: John Kerry wasn't. Kerry, though, was and is a Catholic who is seriously at odds with Church teaching in a number of important areas. I think it should be recognized that a Catholic prelate inviting this kind of Catholic candidate to a dinner could, indeed, lead to scandal. Nobody expects either Obama or Romney to model Catholic teaching, though, and so the same objection doesn't really hold up.
So what would actually happen? I think we could have counted on the following:
1. Obama's divide between the Right Sort and Wrong Sort of Catholic would have gained new ground. Obama already seems to think that the Right Sort of Catholics are the ones who invite him to parties and who are also presumably in favor of abortion, gay "marriage," and forcing people to purchase immoral products for other people to use; these Catholics are only opposed to fattening foods, Church teaching on anything related to the Sixth Commandment, and uppity small business owners who think that they did, indeed, "build that." On the other hand, the Wrong Sort of Catholics oppose abortion and gay "marriage" along with contraception and other sins against the Sixth Commandment, will admit that too much fattening food falls under "gluttony" but will also admit that they're still working on that one, and tend to like small businesses, especially the ones that are standing up to the tyranny of the HHS Mandate.
If Cardinal Dolan had chosen not to invite Obama to the dinner, the narrative of "Right Sort/Wrong Sort" would have been reinforced, with Cardinal Dolan as the opposite of Father Jenkins as a prototype of the "Wrong Sort" of clergyman. Don't get me wrong: I think it could be argued that the Obama camp already sees the good cardinal that way. But they're not getting the chance to say so in public, which leads us to:
2. The media would have had a field day. Imagine the headlines, if you will: Embattled conservative church leader in scandal-plagued diocese bars President Obama from traditional fundraising dinner in controversial decision (Sidebar: Is the cardinal a closet racist? See p. 11). The media never misses an opportunity to continue beating their own favorite long-deceased equine friends--of that we can be sure. Other headlines would have been: Cardinal plays politics with allegedly non-partisan event; Donors, others disappointed in Cardinal Dolan's decision to exclude Obama from traditional campaign year dinner; Church leaders call for focus on diversity, civility in wake of cardinal's choice to ban president from fund-raising dinner...and so on. The unrelenting message would be that Cardinal Dolan was unfairly playing politics with a dinner usually held as a respite from the rhetoric and nastiness of a political campaign season, with dark hints that the cardinal was doing so out of personal spite against Obama or a sort of pressure on the administration over the HHS Mandate. I haven't even speculated on what the op-ed article titles would have been, but I can imagine that Maureen Dowd's would have been a doozy, something like: A Bitter Pill--why the fight over reproductive rights led to an episcopal snubbing for the real hero of women everywhere...
3."The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend..." would have been the object lesson. There is no way that Cardinal Dolan could have chosen not to invite Obama to the Al Smith dinner without that choice being seen as a de facto endorsement of the Republican ticket. And for all those Catholics nodding and saying, "What's wrong with that?" I respectfully ask for a moment's consideration.
It is not a good idea for spiritual leaders to be taken as political supporters of any party. Causes, such as the pro-life cause or the anti-HHS Mandate cause, are a different story, and many spiritual and religious leaders call out heroically to remind their flocks of the way to live the Gospel by supporting what is good and standing firmly against what is evil, in the civic and political spheres as everywhere.
But to step from that place down to the level of partisan politics is to risk scandalizing the faithful, because no political party has as its platform the spreading of the Gospel through prayer and good works through the whole world (and, to be fair, that's not really proper to the realm of politics, anyway). So, sooner or later, when the Republicans do something dreadful and not at all in line with Christ's teachings--and they will, we can be sure--it would be very bad for a cardinal or an archbishop or a bishop to be seen as being so much in the pocket of that party that he feels it necessary either to defend them, or, the more likely ill, to remain silent in the face of the thing upon which he--and the Church--do not agree with the party.
We criticized many bishops of the past for being in the pocket of the Democrats in this way--why is it that we think things will go any better if some of our bishops leap from the left suit-coat pocket to the one on the right? Nobody should be able to count on keeping the bishops in their own political pockets, not if the bishops are doing the job of being bishops.
I can honestly recognize the justice of some of the objections to Cardinal Dolan's decision to invite the president as usual. But I also think that the objectors ought thoughtfully to consider the alternative and its likely outcomes. The truth is, Cardinal Dolan had a tough choice to make, and since he has made it, our best response is to appreciate his thoughtfulness and pray that things go well and according to God's will.