The Al Smith dinner has not outlived its usefulness

This year's Al Smith dinner won't earn an Emmy for standup comedy. And SNL will still have to go live from New York next Saturday night to keep our country laughing. But do these two points of general accord mean that this annual charity event must come to an end?

In George Weigel's view, this "public ritual of tribal Catholicism … a statement of Catholic pride ... lurching into hubris," is "moth-eaten, even somewhat sad." He urges: "It's time to give thanks for what [the dinner] once did — and then give it a decent burial."

Before the hosts — the Al Smith Foundation and Catholic Charities of New York — accept free counsel from the Grinch, someone should point out that they were not the problem. They did what they were supposed to do on this occasion — raise a lot of dough through the yeast of humor.

Al Smith IV — president of the Al Smith Foundation — obviously understands the purpose of the gathering and the genre of the speeches ("positive, upbeat, patriotic, enjoyable civil discourse"). He got away with teasing both candidates. Smith reported that Mr. Trump asked Secretary Clinton how she was feeling before the dinner. Smith added: "She said, 'I'm fine, now get out of the ladies' dressing room."

At the end of the dinner, Cardinal Dolan got off a pretty good line about what it felt like to sit between the candidates after the dinner party headed south: "Probably the iciest place on the planet. Where's global warming when you need it?" Before he said good night, he announced that the two candidates would shake hands, a small courtesy omitted at the end of their bruising third debate. They did what they were told. Everyone applauded.

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Why cancel a show that evokes such happy memories? Should millenials be deprived of learning that President Kennedy stole the show in 1960? Almost every sentence was a laugh line. Even a long, tantalizing sentence like this one: "Cardinal Spellman is the only man so widely respected in American politics that he could bring together amicably, at the same banquet table, for the first time in this campaign, two political leaders who are increasingly apprehensive about the November election [laughter] who have long eyed each other suspiciously, and who have disagreed so strongly, both publicly and privately, Vice President Nixon and Governor Rockefeller."

Clinton is not old enough to remember Kennedy's wit in 1960, but at least one of her speechwriters was able to let her use it last week when she complimented Cardinal Dolan for persuading Mayor de Blasio to dine with Governor Cuomo. The two pols smiled. Everybody else laughed.

Dennis Coday rightly noted that "the last four minutes of Clinton's address … was one of the most effective political speeches … throughout this seemingly endless campaign." I agree. Clinton connected the dots between religion and public life more intelligently than many have done in the recent past. She took the risk to point out a few simple truths about her faith and ours.

First, in a room packed with Catholics, Clinton acknowledged that she is not one of us. But — pace Trump — she is emphatically not a bigot who hates us.

Second, Clinton opposed the ignorance of the anti-Catholic bigotry that kept Smith from getting elected in 1928. It was not a history class, so she did not name the Ku Klux Klan as the lead culprit of that awful campaign. But she identified religious calumnies confronting Smith: voting for a Catholic would surrender the precious right to own or read a Bible; the newly dedicated Holland Tunnel was "a secret passage between Rome and America to help the pope rule our country."

Third, Clinton emphasized that being a Methodist does not stop her from being "inspired by the humility and heart of the Holy Father, Pope Francis, or to embrace his message ... about rejecting a mindset of hostility, his calls to reduce inequality, his warnings about climate change, his appeal that we build bridges, not walls."

Fourth, Clinton identified what she has learned from her running mate Senator Kaine about Ignatian spirituality: that "magis" means being more attentive to what is happening, more generous in construing what someone else means, and — as Jesuit Fr. Pedro Arrupe once said so powerfully — living more responsibly as "men and women for others."

Fifth, Clinton didn't ask Catholics to leave our faith and become Methodists, but her openness to learning about us is itself an invitation for us to learn more about the social teachings of her church about political responsibility.

Sixth, Clinton rightly insisted that we all need to agree on the imperatives of decency and civility, and to work harder to achieve both agreement and — as George Weigel once reminded us — disagreement on matters of public policy.

[Ed Gaffney is a senior research professor of law at Valparaiso University, where he served as dean for seven years. He served as a translator (Latin-English) at the Second Vatican Council, and as an ecumenical officer in the national dialogue between Catholic and Methodists.]


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