Monday, October 20, 2014

Sex and the Synod: What Women Think

In talking to my sources on the Synod, I noticed many of my emails beginning with "Dear Gentlemen." So I set out to discover what women think of the Synod. To my pleasure and surprise, I was able to interview Prof. Janet E. Smith, known for her expertise in the Theology of the Body, as well as marriage policy expert Maggie Gallagher, and my friend Sr. Anne aka "nunblogger".  Here's what they had to say in this article that originally appeared at Aleteia.

          Although the Catholic Church has often faced accusations of waging a war on women, many intelligent, successful, and accomplished women strongly support the Church’s countercultural teaching on marriage, family, and sexuality. Confronted with secular voices falsely depicting the Church’s teaching on sexuality and forces inside the Church pushing the Synod fathers to overturn settled doctrines, women like Prof. Janet Smith, Sr. Anne Flanagan, Maggie Gallagher and others stand firm.

Married Sex and the Synod

            Many eyebrows were raised when a lay couple from Australia told the Synod fathers, in explicit terms, how important sexual intercourse was to their marriage. NBC’s Ann Curry characterized this “sex talk” at the Synod as a stunning contradiction of the view within the Church that married sex is only “’ an imperfection that is permitted.’”  But Theology of the Body expert Prof. Janet Smith explained that Ann Curry got it wrong. If any Catholics have gotten the impression that their religion barely tolerates married sex, “that means they have been taught badly,” said Prof. Smith. 

            Curry’s stereotype expresses a “reductionistic view of what the Church teaches on sexuality,” agreed Dr. Deborah Savage, professor of philosophy and theology and Director of the Masters Program in Pastoral Ministry at St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota. “The old and somehow lingering perception that the Church thinks sex is bad” is positively “medieval,” she continued. “It made me laugh!” Pre-Cana programs like the Archdiocese of New York’s teach instead that “when two people totally give of  themselves” in free, faithful, and fruitful married love “they image God,” explained Marga Regina, Marriage Preparation Coordinator for the Archdiocese.

            These days, it is “unlikely anyone ordained” – particularly the bishops at the Synod – “would not know about the beauty of the marital act and the importance of marriage as a vocation,” stated Dr. Savage.

            “The problem is people have convinced themselves that all the Church gives is rules to follow” about sexuality, said Savage. But particularly through Pope St. John Paul II’s groundbreaking Theology of the Body, the Church offers a complete understanding of what it means to be human, created by God in his image and with the ability to generate new life through the sexual act.

             “At least in the United States many bishops have held sessions for their priests on the Theology of the Body and Natural Family Planning. I suspect they are very accustomed to speaking frankly about sexuality,” Prof. Smith opined. Most U.S. seminaries are now doing a good job educating future priests on these topics, according to Smith, who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. “The Institute for Priestly Formation has formed a large portion of the recently ordained and they speak freely about sexuality and provide an excellent formation based on the TOB. The Theology of the Body Institute [also] has first rate programs for priests and laity,” she continued.

            John Paul II’s teaching on the Theology of the Body may not be as well known outside our borders, however. “It does seem to me that the Theology of the Body is much better known in the U.S. than in other countries,” stated Smith. “The predominance of speakers at international conferences are Americans, though some countries, such as Ireland, Portugal, Australia, some places in India and Africa, have strong programs,” she added.  Moreover, the 2014 Theology of the Body Congress in Philadelphia, where Dr. Savage delivered the keynote address, had attendees from 18 countries. So interest is definitely spreading.

            Greater dissemination of the Theology of the Body should go a long way to correcting any false views that linger in the way sexuality is taught, according to Prof. Smith. The Synod fathers could help by encouraging Catholics worldwide to take greater interest. “My view is that if the Church made wide use of the materials already available we would make rapid progress,” opined Smith.

Homosexuality and the Synod

            In an effort to put pressure on so-called “anti-LGBT bishops,” the homosexual advocacy group Human Rights Campaign (“HRC”) has organized a series of vigils called "Pray, Listen, Discern" to take place while the Synod is occurring. HRC’s stated goal is to convince Church leaders to "recognize our humanity and our right to seek civil recognition of our relationships and our families." Such tactics have become the norm, according to Maggie Gallagher, founder of the National Organization for Marriage and the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy. Advocacy efforts previously targeted at the “mushy middle” are now being directed at Christian churches and communities, she said.

            In HRC’s fact sheet about the Synod, the group claims that 71% of U.S. Catholics support same-sex marriage and 60% favor allowing same-sex couples to adopt children.  Although Gallagher emphasized that “polling on gay marriage varies depending on the wording of the question,” she noted that other polls have also found that at least a slight majority of mass-going Catholics now support same-sex marriage in the United States.

             “The cultural pressure to conform is very strong,” Gallagher continued, “and I suspect Pope Francis’ call to us to show mercy is getting translated [into] ‘standing down in anything that smacks of culture war’ in the minds of many U.S. Catholics.” She nonetheless sees nothing wrong with HRC’s hope that the Synod could secure "the baptismal sacrament for children of LGBT Catholic families." Caring for a “child’s immortal soul” does not amount to political support for same-sex marriage itself, Gallagher said.

            To avoid misinterpretation, however, it is important for the Synod to confirm “the complementarity that characterizes men and women,” who alone can cooperate in procreation, stated Dr. Savage. The purpose of sexuality is not only to unite the couple, but also to result in new life. By removing the possibility of procreation from their sexuality, practicing homosexuals show a “confused understanding of what their sexuality is for,” explained Dr. Savage. If the Synod doesn’t come out with a clear restatement of Church teaching on the meaning of sexuality, “it will only add to the confusion,” she warned.

Communion for Divorced and Remarried

            Prominent American nun Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, formerly with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently cast her lot with Cardinal Walter Kasper who has repeatedly urged the bishops to find a way to allow the divorced and civilly remarried to receive Holy Communion. The Synod “dare not do nothing,” Walsh argued, or the Church will face a wave of dissent similar to that following the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, which upheld Church teaching against artificial contraception despite broad public expectation of doctrinal change.

            “Nonsense,” responded theology professor Dr. Savage. “The Synod is under no obligation to change doctrine.” Moreover, Humanae Vitae’s dire predictions that greater contraceptive use would lead to more infidelity and less respect for women have been proven to be prophetic, in her opinion. “People were upset about Humanae Vitae, but they were wrong,” she proclaimed.

            Prof. Janet Smith, who has authored several works on Humanae Vitae, was likewise undaunted by implicit threats of dissent. “There is much more fidelity in the Church today than there was at the time of Humanae Vitae. We have had over 40 years of struggle within the Church and fidelity, in important ways, has won out over dissent,” she said.

            One of Walsh’s proposals resembled a sort of do-it-yourself annulment process, in which individuals “convinced that their first marriage was not sacramental [can] approach Communion according to their own well-formed conscience.” Rejecting that proposal out of hand, Prof. Smith declared that “marriages are governed by law not by conscience. A well-formed conscience would want to submit to the Church.”

            Sr. Anne Flanagan, known as “nunblogger” to her more than 15,000 Twitter followers, similarly looked askance at Walsh’s proposal. “Even in ordinary human matters, we are often quite blind to things we really ought to know about ourselves. How can we appraise our own spiritual condition, especially in matters of the heart?” asked Flanagan. She emphasized that reception of the Eucharist involves much more than the individual’s personal relationship with God, because it is also a public act of communion with the Church.

            “The communion issue is so huge for people today … because at this point, Catholic life has been reduced to Sunday Mass,” continued Flanagan. “Fifty+ years ago, it was not odd to see five or six people remain in a pew at Communion time, and communicants had to awkwardly step between kneelers and legs to get to and from the aisle.  … While frequent Communion was the ideal, it was not a given as it is now.” She mourned a lack of vibrant parish life that could fully welcome people in social and communal activities outside of Mass. 

            Dr. Savage similarly sympathized with the divorced and civilly remarried, seeing them as “victims of a culture that has taught them that marriage is a convenience.” But she cautioned that we must “be realistic” in our hopes of providing them with a warmer welcome without breaking with the history and traditions of the Church. The Synod “isn’t a Vatican Council [such as Vatican II]. We need to peg our expectations to the forum,” she stated. The Synod’s role is merely to advise Pope Francis.

            Observing that not all Catholics run in the same circles, Dr. Savage noted that “some people are anxious for change, and others are hopeful that the Church will stay the course. I’m with [the latter group]. I see the Church as the last bastion in pushing back the tides of secularism.” There’s a tidal wave of cultural collapse looming, she predicted, and “there’s one wall left.” That wall is the Catholic Church.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

How Sinner-Turned-Saint Augustine Can Teach You Temperance

In the midst of constant media kerfuffle over the Synod on the Family taking place in Rome, I'd like to take a deep breath and return to the fundamentals of personal holiness -- the only real engine of evangelization. Personal holiness derives from the pursuit of virtue, and the saints are our best guides since they have run the race before us and won the victor's crown. So today I'm going to talk about Jean Heimann's new book Seven Saints for Seven Virtues, which was just released by Servant Books on October 7 -- the Feast of the Holy Rosary. I'm thrilled to participate in the launch week blog tour with other luminaries like EWTN personality Donna-Marie Cooper O'Boyle and Catholic Writers Guild president Ellen Gable. Be sure to check out their posts on the tour as well!

Prior to his conversion, St. Augustine led a pretty debauched life, shacking up with a mistress for 15 years and fathering an illegitimate child with her. So I was initially surprised when Jean Heimann's new book Seven Saints for Seven Virtues chose St. Augustine as a role model for temperance -- "the cardinal virtue that helps us overcome weaknesses of the flesh," as Jean put it. Can a man who once famously prayed, "give me chastity but not yet," really teach anyone how to live a life of temperance?

Then I remembered wise words of advice from my former voice teacher: "The best teacher is someone who shares your flaws, but has overcome them." Without a doubt, St. Augustine fought fierce battles with a temptation to intemperance, describing himself at one point as a "slave to lust." Sometimes he won the battle, and sometimes he lost. As Jean notes:
Although he desired to break away from his sexual addiction, it was difficult for him to do so. He was very attached to his sins, as we all are, even though he desired to be celibate. He gradually overcame this sin through prayer, Scripture reading, the graces of the sacraments, and his own willpower and strong determination, based on his strong love for Jesus Christ.
This classic recipe of success in the spiritual life is an excellent guide for us all to follow in developing temperance (or any other virtue).

Seven Saints for Seven Virtues particularly recommends St. Augustine as a role model for cohabiting couples who feel that marriage is unnecessary, pointless, or even constricting. St. Augustine cohabited with his mistress for 15 years, never marrying her and never attaining true happiness. His heart ached when she left him, but he didn't hesitate to move on to someone else afterward. The book explains, "Couples who cohabitate are involved in a charade. They are pretending to be committed when neither one of them has made a true commitment." True love, on the other hand, remains unsatisfied by anything less than a total and definitive self-surrender either to God in celibacy or to each other in Holy Matrimony. This lesson, which St. Augustine lived and learned, has great impact for us today.

The other chapters of Jean's book similarly highlight one saint whose example can teach us one virtue -- Mother Teresa of Calcutta for charity, St. Joseph for humility, and so on. Each chapter also profiles a modern role model of virtue, bringing home to us the truth that people today share the same struggles as saints throughout the ages and with God's help we are equally capable of choosing truth, goodness, and beauty.

The pursuit of virtue and the imitation of the saints, far from being dry and dull, launches us on "the adventure of a lifetime," as prolific author and CatholicMom founder Lisa Hendey reminds us in the book's foreword. Seven Saints and Seven Virtues provides an excellent road map for the quest.

My thanks to the author for providing a free review copy.


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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Marriage vs. The Cult of Momentary Well-Being

Maggie Gallagher liked my last article on Pope Francis' Synod on the Family, so she agreed to share her thoughts with me for this next article. For all those currently worried by the press coverage on the Synod on the Family, I encourage you to be not afraid! Pope Francis and the bishops are searching for the right balance between justice and mercy, and they will find it with God's help.

The current crisis in marriage and family life arises from “a cult of momentary well-being,” stated Cardinal Peter Erdö, the relator general of the 2014 Synod of the Family. In his opening speech, one which traditionally sets the tone for the whole synod, the Cardinal emphasized that “many look upon their lives not as a life-long endeavour but a series of moments in which great value is placed on feeling good … . The future appears threatening, because it may happen that in the future we will feel worse.”

This view of the current marriage crisis is shared by Maggie Gallagher, founder of the National Organization for Marriage and the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy. “Too many of us no longer believe it is possible to make a lifetime vow of love and live up to it,” so we become trapped in “alienation from our deepest longings,” she explained.

This widespread emotional and spiritual malaise can only be overcome by a “truth cure,” that is, the joyful good news of sacramental marriage, according to Cardinal Erdö. The main ingredients of this truth cure, he remarked, involve cooperation between bishops and priests, laypeople, Church juridical structures, and social institutions. Bishops and priests need clearer directions, laypeople need better education in the faith, annulment procedures need reform, and governments need better policies. To reverse the decline in stable, life-long commitment, everyone needs to work together.

Clear Direction to Pastors

In light of ongoing disputes in the Church over how to treat cohabiting couples, same-sex couples and their children, and the divorced and civilly remarried, it comes as a relief to hear that the Synod hopes to offer “clear guidelines” to bishops and pastors on how “to help those living in difficult situations,” as Cardinal Erdö announced. “It is unrealistic to expect that by themselves” the bishops will find the right solutions, he continued. Above all, local pastors must avoid “the improvisations of a ‘do-it-yourself ministry’ which ends in making the acceptance of the Gospel of the Family more difficult,” he said.

The Cardinal cautioned that the Church must offer truth tempered with mercy, rather than a superficial form of tolerance that hides “a basic indifference and inability to be attentive.” The Church should combat error and “affirm the indispensable value of the truths of the indissolubility of marriage,” but with “recourse to the medicine of mercy rather than … the weapons of rigidity,” he noted.

Although specific Church teachings on marriage and family are not well-known, “this does not mean that the teaching, in principle, is put in doubt.” Therefore, “what is being discussed at this synod of an intense pastoral nature are not doctrinal issues, but the practical ones,” he said. This further insistence by Synod leaders that doctrinal issues are not up for grabs will, one hopes, silence those who are clamoring for impossible and impractical doctrinal changes.

Better Marriage Preparation

As cultural conditions have degenerated to the point where pro-marriage messages are rarely heard and barely understood, the burden has fallen increasingly on the Church to showcase the goodness of married and family life. Marriage preparation, or “pre-Cana” programs, are an essential way to spread that message, and the cardinal’s opening speech focused strongly on them. Cardinal Erdö stressed that the primary tasks of pre-Cana programs are to “show the value and attractiveness of a life-long bond” and help engaged couples “conquer their legitimate fears” about their emotional and financial security.

“The number one burden” that engaged couples bring into a pre-Cana program “is fear,” in the experience of Marga Regina, Marriage Preparation Coordinator for the Archdiocese of New York. “The fear of divorce is tremendous,” she stated, noting that some cohabiting engaged couples might have already experienced the breakdown of multiple previous cohabiting relationships.

Marriage preparation instructors welcome the emphasis that the Synod has so far placed on their programs, and they have well-thought-out ideas for how to accomplish the goals the Synod has announced.

Deacon Scott Dodge, of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Utah, believes that first of all, “it is crucial to have married couples prepare couples for marriage.” Regina agreed that engaged couples often admit that they don’t have a good example of marriage to follow, so “they like to see a married couple witnessing to the faith.” The importance of this type of everyday witness will take center stage at this year’s Synod on the Family, where the bishops and cardinals will begin each day of discussion listening to a short presentation from a married couple.

Marriage preparation by lay couples needs to present an authentic picture of “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of married life, maintains Deacon Dodge. “Staying married is a huge challenge for virtually every couple,” and there is “no need for unrealistic, overly idealistic, witness.” Married couples should share how God’s grace through the Sacrament of Matrimony has helped them to persevere through their inevitable struggles.

Second, Church teachings on sexuality and contraception should be central. Most engaged couples have no idea “what does it mean to be open … to children, what does it mean to be male and female,” stated Regina. “Women are afraid the idea of the feminine will bind and constrain them. Men are growing up with fewer and fewer images of and incentives for civilized masculinity,” agreed marriage policy expert Gallagher.

Cardinal Erdö stated that the Church needs to re-promulgate the positive message of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 papal encyclical which, while praising the married couple’s mission of love and fertility, prohibited the use of artificial contraception.

Unfortunately, marriage prep is often “the last rung on the ladder” of a religious education that should have begun in childhood, according to Regina. “Children must grow up with an appreciation … for their masculinity and femininity, seeing it as a great gift, as a talent to be multiplied,” concurred Deacon Dodge. Instruction in Natural Family Planning is also crucial to teach couples about the gift of their fertility, he maintained.

Regina stressed that, as a third essential element of marriage preparation, engaged couples should have the opportunity to go to Confession while attending their pre-Cana program. She added that programs in the Archdiocese of New York routinely make the sacrament available to couples. People are “very open to the whole notion of healing” that comes through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, she observed. “When you talk to where their wounds are, that’s when they begin to trust,” she said. “The very thing you don’t want to talk about … is the very thing Jesus says ‘give it to me, and I’ll heal it,'” she added. The graces of Confession and of sacramental marriage can set us free “to love authentically and be loved authentically,” she said, and “we all want” that.

Reform of Annulment Procedures

It seems clear from Cardinal Erdö’s opening speech that annulment reforms will occupy a great deal of discussion at the Synod. In addition to reiterating several of the reforms already proposed, the Cardinal also suggested that “in each particular Church, at least one duly prepared priest is needed, who can offer counsel, without charge, as a first step for parties in ascertaining the validity of their marriage.”

Aldean Hendrickson, Director of the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal of New Ulm, Minnesota, enthusiastically welcomed this proposal. Tribunal staff, he explained, “spend much time in back and forth” trying to explain the annulment process and how it might apply to a couple’s particular situation. “A single trained point of entry … could well ultimately lead to a more efficient start to cases,” he noted.

On the other hand, many tribunals already have advocates to assist people requesting an annulment. “Why would such an office require priestly ordination?” wondered Anthony St. Louis-Sanchez, judge of the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal of Colorado Springs. “It sends the message that the Church is taking this duty seriously. But otherwise, it seems to be reinventing the wheel. Priests do not receive this kind of training in the seminary. …In the end, this office would seem to be the same thing we already have, just repackaged,” St. Louis-Sanchez concluded.

The success of any reforms will depend mostly on the people implementing them. Tribunal Director Hendrickson pointed out that, “the marriage nullity process has been set up to fail by many tribunals, some of which cut corners or ignore portions of the process as it is carefully prescribed in canon law, and others, at the other extreme, that focus on the finest minutiae of the procedural law but seem blind to the human beings whose lives are represented on the pages of the case file.”

Tribunals should instead learn to balance, “careful observation of the procedural norms,” and, “loving pastoral care of the people,” never forgetting, “the inevitable third party in every case implied: the spouse from the first marriage.”

These first spouses, “are not seeing anything in the current coverage of the Synod that indicates that the Church is concerned for them and their plight. So I am increasingly concerned by every proposal to make the annulment process any more ‘pastoral’ until it is clearly looking out for the spiritual interests of ALL parties involved, not just those who are eager to move on with their lives,” Hendrickson added.

Improved Governmental Policies

Although better marriage preparation and streamlined annulment procedures may help, the Church alone can’t solve the crisis in marriage and family life, because it is a societal problem influenced by external pressures. “With regard to external pressures, increasing job insecurity is a nightmare for many families; migration often creates large imbalances in the family,” Cardinal Erdö pointed out.

The Church cannot offer adequate support for families “without a pro-active commitment through appropriate policies by governments and public agencies responsible for the protection and promotion of the common good,” he continued. In particular, caring for people from conception to natural death “requires … creating, at the institutional level, the conditions which make this care possible.” The Cardinal warned against the “privatization of love,” a phenomenon in which “the Western world risks making the family a reality entrusted exclusively to the choices of the individual, totally detached from a regulatory and institutional framework.”

According to Ms. Gallagher, though, “the Church should avoid becoming just another voice on political policy … because it diverts our time, energy and commitment away from things we can and should do.” If we blame or shift responsibility to institutions outside of our control, “it leads to lethargy and inaction,” she added.

With regard to the “privatization of love,” Gallagher agreed that “we have a much reduced sense of the centrality of marriage to children and society.” But on a political level, “we have ‘publicized’ not privatized love in America and Europe in the sense that the government is now involved in regulating and supporting (and interfering with) families in strikingly extensive ways,” she noted. Ultimately, the Church needs to do the best it can within the governmental and societal framework in which it exists. We all hope that the Synod on the Family can help show us the way how.

This article appeared at Aleteia under the title "What Maggie Gallagher and Other Marriage Experts Think About the Synod's Agenda." It also appeared on Catholic Lane.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Why and How Natural Family Planning Works for Us: Ben & Tina

This month's Natural Family Planning poster couple (so-to-speak) are Ben & Tina Butera from Bloomingdale, Illinois. They've used NFP for all of their 14-year marriage, and they have three children -- Antonio, age 12, Francesca, age 10, and Marianna, age 7. Although their main reason for using NFP is "doing what God wants," Tina and Ben also received an immense medical benefit when NFP helped them recognize warning signs early in Tina's last pregnancy, leading them to take steps to avoid possible miscarriage. To learn more about Ben and his faith, you can visit his Faith & Reason blog called Two Catholic Men & a Blog.

1. Why do you use NFP?

Aside from the obvious of wanting to live as God wants, we’ve always been uncomfortable with hypocrisy with ourselves or in others. We’re either in or out when doing something important, hot or cold. We live by either all Church teaching or none, and NFP certainly offers better family planning than no method at all. [Editor's Note: The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks out against artificial contraception, but praises Natural Family Planning.]

It brings a sense of peace to be in line with Church teaching. It is doing what God wants, even when one does not have full comprehension of natural law or the Theology of the Body, plus it’s something we do together.

2. Which method of NFP works best for you?

We have always used the sympto-thermal method. We primarily use body temperature and mucus signs, but also other, more subtle signs like cramping, temperament (mood), appetite and time (the day of the fertility cycle), etc.

3. What are the biggest pros and cons of using NFP, in your experience?


More knowledge fosters better family planning: It’s not only for avoiding pregnancy and spacing children, but also achieving pregnancy. You’ll know if you’re pregnant before a doctor can know. Many women miscarry without even knowing they were pregnant. We knew we were pregnant with our 3rd child not long after conception and noticed some unusual signs, so my wife consulted with a doctor. A prescription to boost a hormone may have prevented the miscarriage of our youngest daughter.

The method of NFP we use is “green,” costs nothing, and is all-natural. In fact, there are those who use NFP simply because they prefer to do things naturally instead of artificially (no theological reason). It’s really just common sense.

NFP also fosters better communication. Whether avoiding or achieving pregnancy, if you’re going to be intimate with each other, you’ll need to stay in “intimate” communication on a fairly regular basis. It’s gotten better with time for us. We experienced how a women’s cycle can become more regular after having children, which makes NFP easier to do. As you start having children, spacing them out can become more and more important, so the woman’s cycle becomes easier to read. God knows what he’s doing when he designs something. Also, if avoiding pregnancy, the cycles of abstaining and being together mirror a natural dating-honeymoon cycle that continually breathes new life into a marriage.


As that Tom Petty song says, “The waiting is the hardest part”. If avoiding pregnancy, waiting until an infertile time can be challenging.  Also, the women may be “in the mood” most around ovulation time. But truly, all the pros far outweigh the cons. If the Church changed its teaching tomorrow (which is not possible by the way), we would still live as we do now.

4. What NFP resources does your diocese have?

Our diocese, the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, offers classes on the Billings Ovulation Method (BOMA) of NFP.

5. What NFP resources have been most useful to you?

We basically have only used those resources offered from the Couple to Couple League.

6. How do you think your marriage would be different if you used artificial contraception instead of NFP?

It’s hard for us to judge since we have practiced NFP for so long. We think intimate times might become routine or less special. We might see each other more as objects in terms of intimacy. With NFP we are on the same page in terms of when we should be together or not. There is communication even without talking. Without it we might wonder what the other is thinking in terms of when is the next time we might “be together” which could lead to frustration or resentment.

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Monday, October 6, 2014

Mingling with Cardinals and Governors at the Waldorf-Astoria

Last Wednesday, I attended the annual Al Smith Dinner, a Catholic charity event at the Waldorf-Astoria, so I could cover the event for Catholic news site Aleteia. The guests at the $2,000-a-plate dinner got surf-and-turf with white truffle risotto fritters on the side and a chocolate and caramel dessert whose mere description made my eyes roll back in my head in ecstasy. The reporters got sandwiches and bottled soda. Oh well. The reporters didn't get a chance to talk to any of the dignitaries on the dais, but I did run into a friend of mine there who blurted out, "Why the #&*! is Cardinal Egan sitting next to Governor Cuomo? I just think it's wrong!" I'm sure she wasn't the only one thinking that, since staunchly opposed pro-lifers and pro-choicers rarely make amicable dinner companions. But the point of the dinner, after all, was to overlook political differences and come together to donate funds to the poor of New York City. Be sure to visit the original article at Aleteia (the following version has been somewhat modified) to see great pictures of the event by art director and photographer Jeff Bruno, who also snapped the pic of me, hard at work at the Waldorf. Thanks, Jeff!

"It is time to cancel" the annual bi-partisan charity event known as "the Al Smith Dinner and all the other 'Catholic' traditions that have been hijacked by the world," recently asserted Msgr. Charles Pope in a column that was quickly removed from the official website of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.. "In the old days the death of 50 million infants was not what divided" the major political parties, the column continued. "But now we are being asked to raise toasts and enjoy a night of frivolity with those who think it is acceptable to abort children by the millions each year."

Since 1945, the annual Al Smith Dinner has raised millions of dollars for the needy children of New York City in honor of Alfred E. Smith, a 4-term New York State governor and the first Catholic to be nominated as a U.S. presidential candidate. In presidential election years, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have traditionally attended the Al Smith Dinner to indulge in some friendly roasting while taking a much-needed break from the campaign trail. But the Dinner came under fire in 2012, when Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan invited contending candidates President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, even though the Archdiocese of New York had filed suit against the Obama administration over the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most employers to provide health insurance coverage for birth control. "The public perception of this event - especially with a picture of Cardinal Dolan laughing as he sits between President Obama and Governor Romney - is that the injustice of the HHS mandate leveled against Catholic institutions is not really that bad," noted one commentator at the time.

Cardinal Dolan nonetheless hosted this year's dinner as planned, raising nearly $3 million for the destitute women and children of New York. Seated at crystal-laden tables filling the burgundy and gold ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, the 850 guests listened to presentations from this year's honoree, philanthropist and Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone and guest speaker journalist Charlie Rose, as well as from Cardinal Dolan. In this mid-term election year, the major political attendees in evidence were U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY), as well as New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo. Other prominent New York City officials also attended, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, and former city mayor Michael Bloomberg.

All of the proceeds of the $2,000-a-plate dinner went towards the nearly 20 grant recipients, including Catholic Big Sisters and Big Brothers, the Inner-City Scholarship Fund, and Good Counsel Homes for pregnant women in crisis. The Al Smith Foundation itself underwrote the cost of the dinner, which included king crab salad with lacquered prawns, grilled tournedo of beef with white truffle risotto fritters, and a gingered chocolate dessert with salted caramel sauce. As Alfred E. Smith, IV, chairman of the dinner, explained, "The dinner's on us."

The dinner opened with a prayer from Cardinal Edward Egan, Archbishop Emeritus of New York, and a moving, unaccompanied performance of the National Anthem by Bryan Hymel, who is currently playing the role of Rodolfo in La Boheme at the Metropolitan Opera.

Cardinal Dolan then presented philanthropist and Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone with this year's Happy Warrior Award for Langone's great contributions to New York City, including donating to the New York University Medical Center, which now bears his name, and becoming a major fundraiser for the restoration of St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. The Happy Warrior Award "recognizes individuals who epitomize the character, grace, and leadership of Governor Alfred E. Smith ... by having a positive impact on others and the City of New York," stated the dinner program.

In Langone's acceptance speech, he quipped that, considering the mandatory 75-year-old retirement age for cardinals, Cardinal Dolan might need employment soon. Offering the cardinal a job at Home Depot, Langone presented His Eminence with a bright orange apron and then a second, much bigger one, just in case the first did not fit his girth. Poking more fun at Cardinal Dolan's size, Langone joked, "If they ever change the rules about celibacy, I've got a perfect girl for you. Her name is Jenny Craig!", referring to the popular weight-loss program.

Acknowledging that his fundraising efforts on behalf of many Republican presidential candidates had not borne fruit, Langone said it just went to prove the old adage that you keep your enemies close and your friends closer, but apparently out of the White House. Then he laughingly threatened the Democrats in the audience that he would do a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, thus ensuring her failure in any bid for the presidency.

To much applause, guest speaker Charlie Rose, host of the PBS show Charlie Rose and co-anchor of CBS This Morning, stated that "the reason I came this evening was because of Cardinal Dolan. I love him." But Rose wondered why he had been invited to speak, when so many famous people had stood at the podium before him. "I don't have the stature of Churchill, the wit of Kennedy, or the comedy of [last year's guest speaker Stephen] Colbert. But I'm not worried. I'm a Protestant at a Catholic charity event with jokes written by Jewish writers. I'm okay."

Referring to the tradition of inviting presidents and presidential candidates to the dinner, Rose quipped that the Al smith Foundation "has already received an RSVP from Hillary [Clinton] for 2016." In an equal opportunity jab at Democrats, he claimed that President Barack Obama "came to the U.N. hoping to meet with the President of Iran but Rouhani does not play golf."

Continuing in the same light-hearted vein, Rose pondered what would happen if Pope Francis retired, as Pope Benedict did before him. Then, there might be "three popes -- one for venial sins, one for mortal sins, and one for cardinals!"

Turning then to more serious matters, Rose stated the importance of dialogue between people who often find themselves on opposite sides of the fence. The Al Smith Dinner, he said, is where "serious people can talk about serious things" without the need to offer spin or soundbites. Respectful dialogue can form a "bulwark against hate and extremism," Rose said, and that is why he feels so impressed by Pope Francis' demonstration of a genuine "respect for discourse."

After Charlie Rose finished his speech, Cardinal Dolan took the stage for some closing remarks. The Cardinal first mentioned his deep affection for Happy Warrior Award recipient Ken Langone and his wife Elaine. The Cardinal stated that Ken's secret was "a woman named Elaine," but "there's another woman in Ken's life and her name is Holy Mother Church. He begins each day with her," apparently referring to Langone's habit of attending daily Mass.

Perhaps in answer to protests against the Dinner, the Cardinal emphasized the importance of political opponents like "a Kennedy and a Nixon ... an Obama and a Romney" coming together in joy and fellowship in a way that helps others. "Joy is the infallible sign of God's presence," he said. 

The Cardinal then ended with "a simple prayer" that God bless the attendees and the entire great city of New York. To which we can all say, "Amen."