The Al Smith Dinner and the Church’s Real Problem

Worried conservatives reacted negatively to the news that Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York had invited Barack Obama to the Al Smith Dinner in October. But the cardinal plainly believes the invitation serves the best interests of the Church—declaring war on the President of the United States by excluding him from this politically tinged festive event would hardly be helpful.

That’s a reasonable position. But we need also to ask whether war has already been declared—not by the Church but on the Church and what it stands for. With Catholic institutions battling for survival in light of the Obama administration’s “free birth control” rule, this alarming possibility must be taken with the utmost seriousness.

Just how alarming the possibility is was underlined by a recent Pew Research Center survey covering voters’ views. I found myself wondering whether to laugh or cry when scanning the Catholic results. Then reality set in, and the answer was clear: Cry of course. If these figures are correct—and there’s every reason to think they are—the Church is in deep trouble.

Some news accounts found encouragement in particular findings of the survey. But they failed to mention the finding that really catches the eye. Asked who better reflects their views on social issues like abortion and gay rights, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, 51% of Catholics said Obama, against 34% who said Romney. (For all voters, the figures were 50% and 36% respectively.)

This has two explanations, neither consoling.

The first, certainly true in some cases, is ignorance. Obama supports legalized abortion and same-sex marriage. As for Romney, whatever his position may have been when he was governor of Massachusetts, he’s now opposed to both, though neither he nor his campaign people have been very forthcoming about saying so. Catholics unaware of these things should know them—which is not to say they will.

The second explanation, also undoubtedly true in many cases, is that Catholics who say they and Obama stand together on the social issues know where Obama stands and are speaking the simple truth.

This survey was conducted for the Pew people in late June and early July. The researchers did phone interviews with 2,973 adults, including 619 Catholics. For the Catholic sample, the margin of error was 4.6%–in other words, the numbers for all Catholics could be slightly higher or slightly lower. As noted, some readers saw the results as encouraging. But except for matters already known (e.g., Catholics generally take a positive view of their local bishops), I did not.

Throughout, the survey results reflected a familiar split within the ranks of Catholics, between those who attend Mass weekly and those who don’t. (Among the latter, there was no breakdown to show how often or seldom they do attend or whether they attend at all.)

On the Obama-Romney question, 53% of weekly Mass-attenders said Romney better reflects where their position on social issues, against 37% who said Obama. But the results were reversed among those who don’t attend weekly, with 54% giving the nod to Obama and 31% to Romney. Since non-attenders now outnumber weekly attenders by more than two to one in the general body of American Catholics, that presumably accounts for the tilt toward Obama (51%) among Catholics overall.

With more than two months remaining before the election, it’s too soon to say how all of this will play out in November. But one thing already is clear. This will be an election of singular importance for Catholicism in America.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • James Stagg

    I wish I had some confidence in Pew polls and surveys. I simply don’t. CARA (on their web-site) provides some reasons; for myself, I find their sample amateurish, and their premises unfounded (such as 1/3 of all American have at some time been “catholic”….perhaps if you include all who recite the Apostles Creed).

    My belief is that those who are NOT Catholic, i.e., do not attend Mass each Sunday (who are able to do so), should not be counted as “Catholics”. Then, when you take the faithful remnant, you do have to discount the tepid and the uncatechized….many as a result of growing up in the post-Vatican II years, when catechetical study was a joke…..remember, it was all about “feelings”.

    The old maxim we applied on the Parish Finance Committee was 1/3, 1/3 and 1/3:
    1/3 Support the Church by their donations….best they can;.
    1/3 give less than five dollars a week;
    1/3 give nothing.
    Does that indicate to you who may be the 53% of church-going Catholics who support Romney, and disdain the “child-killer”?

  • spudnik

    When I went through RCIA a few years ago, we were taught that the Bible reflects people’s primitive thoughts about God and that nothing is a mortal sin as long as you truly don’t believe it’s wrong. One of the instructors expressed support for female priests, same-sex marriage and told me there was even a lesbian couple in the parish who received Communion together. I recently saw in another parish that they dropped the requirement that members of the ministerial council be in communion with the teachings of the Church. When I see things like this, I don’t know whether I’d rather believe that the bishop is ignorant or complicit. Is it too much to ask that people either get with the program or stop pretending to be Catholic?

  • Clementius

    The bishops are truly to be blamed. When did we ever hear from the pulpits about the evils of artificial contraception, abortion and sodomy (homosexuality in all of it’s agenda)?. NEVER! Salvation, which is the principal law and purpose of the Church is never preached either. And what do Catholics know about the last four things — Life, Death, Heaven and Hell? Zilch. It is not surprising to know that St. John Chrysostom (echoed by St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Athanasius) said that the floor of hell is lined with the skulls of bishops. Woe to you for you have chosen not to heed the Commission entrusted to you by Our Lord. Matthew 28:19 Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. 20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you:
    and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the

  • we had only one priest who preached the truth in our area, the people accepted the truth.Then the bishop sent him away to do chaplain work ,in a monastery.He nows lives in Portugal ,and has become a hermit,praying all day.A third of the parish left after they sent a liberal priest in.We are left in limbo .

  • CoastRanger

    Could I point out that there is no such thing as “the bishops,” only individual men responsible for their own behavior? I agree that many bishops, who have since left the scene, have failed us.

    But today, we have very solid bishops all over the U.S.A. who are courageously standing up for the truth.

  • Its very simple really though sad.Many probably most people who call themselves catholics are not true catholics at all.They were born into a catholic family,attend mass maybe easter or christmas and pick and choose doctrines they agree with.They are not catholics and probably not christian.Jesus said narrow is the way to life and few that find it.Catholic saints centuries ago have predicted a mass apostasy in church just before the end.Jesus is purifying his church seperating the weat from the chaff.But in the end the church will be triumphant

  • Right on.But this mass apostasy post vat 2 was prophecied by the bible and true cqtholic saints centuries ago.After this trial and purging the true catholic church will be triumphant although there may be one million true catholics out of a hundred million who just claim the name.

  • Clementius

    By “the bishops,” this refers to the Conference, in this case the USCCB, of which Cardinal Dolan is the present president. This conference makes the collective thinking of all the bishops in the USA. Note that this is patterned after the democratic form (of governing). . Prior to Vatican II, the bishop was sovereign in his own See (diocese). Not anymore. Do we have solid bishops? Yes, but you can count them in the fingers of your hand. Maybe only 7 of the several hundreds who we can say are truly orthodox and faithful to the Magisterium.

    It seems that the main concern of the bishops is social justice, the plight of the poor, the illegal immigrant, etc., which is truly a concern in the country. However, this is not what Christ commissioned them to go into the world and to teach what He has commanded. As I have noted earlier, sermons and homilies we hear every Sunday are geared towards watered down doctrine. Nothing about SIN and Hell, or the narrow gate one must take that leads to salvation. When has anybody here heard a sermon about avoiding the wide road that leads to perdition? The protestantized Catholic mind is more concerned about “physical well being, money in the bank, a nice home, good job, etc.” (prayers are “give me, give me, give me.”).

  • Clementius

    Yes, unfortunately this is the case when we have a priest faithful to the teaching of the purity of the Catholic faith. The latest was Fr. Rodriguez of El Paso, Tx, Because of his preaching against the immorality of homosexuality and same sex marriage he was banished to a god-forsaken remote parish in Texas. Another priest who was removed of his priestly faculties except in the diocese where he is incardinated was Fr. Pavone of Priests for Life.

  • mt

    My husband and I just left our parish of 10+ years. There was no “one” thing, it was a cumulative effect. Culminating with the straw that broke our backs; a couple of weeks ago our bulletin announced that our tithe for that Sunday was going to the “Network Education Program” (see Unfamiliar with that organization, as our parish tithe usually goes to a local charity that we recognize, we looked it up online. GOOD GRIEF! Welcome to the “other” Catholic’s, the “Nuns on the Bus” crowd, the ones who want to change the Church and it’s doctrine. Suffice to say, that was it for us. We are most blessed and fortunate to have another Catholic church, although it’s over an hour away, that we have been to many times and have decided to join. It’s Pastor is a fine priest who embraces the FULL doctrine of the Church, respects the USCCB, and is happy to profess his allegiance to the Pope. We of course emailed the pastor of our former parish, and respectfully expressed our sorrow at leaving our community of Catholic friends, and our absolute disdain and disappointment over his decision to donate money to the NETWORK group. His reply was that we have made an “error in judgement, assuming things that are not necessarily so, letting politics get in the way”, etc. Nope. No mistakes, no assumptions, because in this case, as in most, the truth is black and white. Frankly, our faith forms our politics, and NOT vice versa.

    There is something of a schism going on within the Catholic Church, and it largely revolves around the Churches teaching of “social justice”. A cadre of outspoken “Catholics” are trying to hijack the Church’s social teachings, and turn it into what works best for their agenda. Very scary, these people, and to no surprise, many of them are not just lay persons (like the very “active” social justice committee at my former parish), but religious women and priests.

    Sadly, half or more of the Catholics in this great country of ours do not know the Doctrine of their own Church, and many of them don’t care to know. I would pose a question to them then, why remain Catholic? There are thousands upon thousands of churches in this country that they could join tomorrow without a single “rule or regulation” to abide by. Nothing to learn, no two thousand-plus year old traditions to live up to. No strings attached, just show up and sing praise and worship tunes! I don’t mean to be glib, but really, why call yourself a Catholic if you don’t know and don’t want to learn, or know and disagree with, the tenants of the Church?

    This is how the enemy conquers, he divides. My comfort is in Christ’s words: “…you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it”.

  • CoastRanger

    Each bishop is still sovereign in his diocese, so the “thinking” of the USCCB is only an individual bishop’s if he chooses it to be. The USCCB is not in charge of the Church in this country.

    Where I live, my bishop is superb, and all the dioceses around mine have fine bishops. I think this is a time of great hope for renewal and the new evangelization.

  • What you say is very true. Unfortunately too many Catholics do not understand this. They also don’t realize that most statements propagated by the USCCB, many which support left wing causes, are written by liberal bureaucrats and are never even run by a bishop.
    I love Cardinal Dolan, but the best thing he could do for Catholicism in the U.S. is to dissolve the bureaucratic organization of the USCCB that has been built up since the 1970’s.
    I also love the Holy Father, but the best thing he could do for American Catholicism is to abolish the USCCB entirely and appoint an American Primate. THE Church is not a democracy it is the earthly branch of the Kingdom of God. It’s time American Catholics remember that.


    Cardinal Dolan is creating a scandalous environment for himself. Inviting Obama to the Al Smith Dinner and then petitioning to say a prayer at the DNC can only spell trouble for Catholics. The numbers in this article show what we weekly church going Catholics have known for years, that most people who claim the Catholic Church as their base are far removed from the social teaching of the church and always vote for the candidate that supports social teachings that are intrinsically opposed to Catholic social thought. Cardinal Dolan is making the church look weak, he is making it seem as if our principles are easily compromised for a little peace. His actions are going to cause a division in the Catholic vote in November, and unfortunately most of that vote will go to the candidate who is doing more harm to the Church than anyone who has held his office has done before. I understand that Cardinal Dolan is coming from a view of peace at all costs, but does that mean that we lay down as martyrs without properly fighting for what is right and just? I understand that the Church is not a political party, but the Church does have ideologies, and those ideologies are in direct opposition to those of the pro-baby murder ideology of the liberals. We must fight for the lives of the innocent at all costs. Cardinal Dolan needs to understand that he is not the Messiah and that while promoting peace is good, he cannot acquiesce to intrinsically evil principles for the sake of a false singularity and transparency. The same same transparency that Obama calls for, states that we’re lacking, and does not show in return. Obama and his fellow liberal ideologists have taken their stance, and now it is time to take ours. There are not shades of grey, the lines are drawn and Cardinal Dolan is standing at our line with an eraser in hopes that the liberals will have a last second change of heart. Cardinal Dolan’s ignorance of his own actions and what his actions are promoting is going to be compounded atop the blatant ignorance of the large number of so-called “Catholics”, and this can only spell trouble for the future of the Catholic Church in the United States.


    the church is triumphant and we have our victory in the cross. however, does that mean that we do not do what we can to fight for what is right and just? to defend catholic social teaching and the life of the church at all costs? Jesus is our triumph, and it is through Him that we are saved, but the Lord also did works to show us what is right and what is wrong, He gave us a narrow path, and He paved it with His blood. We must defend that sacred path and be examples just as Christ was on the road to Calavary. We are walking on that road right now, we always have been, the difference is that now the top of the hill is in better view, and some have grown tired of the journey, they take solace in the triumph of the One who walked before them, but they do not seek to follow His example as he asked of us. We must defend the church and Her teachings, and Cardinal Dolan must do the same. When we turn towards our detractors we must forgive them, but we must also make it known that we are a people of life and a people that will defend life at all costs. That far from us asking for solidarity, we must point to the line that we have drawn in the sand with the burden of our daily crosses, and they shall know that when we are lifted up on our crosses, that we died defending what was right and just, following the example of the One who went before us.

  • D.

    Cardinal Dolan is making a serious mistake on both the Al Smith dinner and addressing the political conventions. We can only guess at the number of “Catholics” who will see only one thing in both actions-the leader of the Catholic bishops “honoring” the anti-Catholic, abortion supporting, gay marriage advocate, socialist leaning current President. For the millions of Catholics who do not follow the inside baseball of politics or church hierarchy, such nuances are totally lost, and result in simplistic and ignorant support for politicians who are in direct opposition, and active persecution of, the Catholic Church.

    Such “outreaches” as Cardinal Dolan’s current examples are best left for private conversations and not for public misunderstanding. As to the Al Smith dinner, the good Cardinals’ predecessor had no such need to pander to President Clinton-who was not invited to the dinner during his term.

    Finally, by his participation in both conventions he does not appear neutral but woefully ignorant of how it is playing “outside the beltway” where such prelates and politicians rarely understand the response to such actions.

    I admire and respect the Cardinal, but worry about such politically correct decisions.