The Rules of Engagement Print
Real Life Catholic
Thursday, Sep. 20, 2012 -- 12:00 AM

Real Life Cathoic by Christopher Stefanick

Since 1945, the New York Archdiocese has hosted the Al Smith dinner, a black-tie event named in honor of Alfred E. Smith, the first Catholic presidential candidate.

Millions have been raised through the dinner to support charities in New York City. Speakers have included Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Bob Hope, and, during election years, presidential candidates invited as the guests of honor.

It’s a break from debate. It’s not an endorsement and no awards are given. Candidates’ speeches take on a humorous tone. As described by the Al Smith Foundation Web site: “In the days before Saturday Night Live, the Al Smith dinner served as a kind of ‘proving ground for the candidate as entertainer,’ as one reporter described it.”

Cardinal Dolan’s invitation

In keeping with tradition during election years, Cardinal Timothy Dolan invited both presidential candidates to the dinner, which has brought him harsh criticism from some vocal corners for causing scandal by dining with an ardently pro-choice president. Others have questioned whether the cardinal is forgetting the pro-life people laboring daily for an end to abortion.

Cardinal Dolan offered a simple response: “In the end, I’m encouraged by the example of Jesus, who was blistered by his critics for dining with those some considered sinners.” I’m not sure whether Jesus would’ve handed the “sinners” the microphone at one of those dinners, but there is a good lesson for us in the Al Smith dinner this year nonetheless, and I think we should take note.

It would be hard to believe that Cardinal Dolan is forgetting the gravity of the issues at hand. He’s engaged the Obama administration very publicly over the Health and Human Services mandate. I think what he was attempting to do at the dinner was to publicly state the “position” of the Church that we need to stay personally engaged with people we’re at odds with. That’s not only good political strategy, it’s good evangelization. It worked for the early Church.

Example of early Christians

Christians had it far worse 1,800 years ago. On any given Sunday one could go to the Roman Coliseum and see fellow believers being eaten by lions to the loud cheers of their neighbors. Failure to publicly worship the emperor resulted in execution. Worship and catechesis took place in secret.

They had good reasons to be angry! Very angry. They had every right to flee the world. But they didn’t. They spoke out.

Christians engaged all levels of society from standing up for the dignity of the poor to St. Sebastian’s legendary face-to-face confrontation with the emperor, for which he was pierced with arrows.

They didn’t budge an inch when it came to the evils of their day. Countless Christians faced death rather than offering a single pinch of incense as worship to the emperor.

They stayed engaged in the issues at hand, but resisted the temptation to disengage their hearts from their persecutors. The early Christians were able to engage the world as much with their love as with the truth. That’s why Christendom was born within 300 years of Christ’s death.

Communicating the Gospel

We’re becoming very effective at communicating the truth about the issues at hand. But sometimes I wonder if we’re becoming ineffective at communicating the Gospel that all our teachings and public policies as a Church stem from.

We’re good at speaking against gay marriage, for instance, but how effective is our ministry to the gay community? How many of us who march against abortion also volunteer at crisis pregnancy centers to help women who are tempted by abortion?

We tend to become insulated so quickly from those we disagree with, and then galvanized against them, that we stop proclaiming the Gospel to them. And that makes us irrelevant. And when we’re irrelevant, we set ourselves up to be pushed to the margins of society.

I’m not sure if a public dinner with Obama is the right move for the president of the USCCB to make at this time. I’ve heard good arguments for and against his decision. But there is a good lesson to glean from this year’s Al Smith dinner, either way. Namely, that in our personal lives, people are won over at meals. And if we stop having them with those we disagree with, we won’t win anyone.

If early Christians failed to follow the example of Jesus, who could dine with “the opposition,” and if they failed to engage the world with their love and friendship as much as they did with the truth, Christianity would’ve ended in the Coliseum as soon as the last Catholic was eaten for lunch.

Speaker and author Christopher Stefanick is director of youth outreach for YDisciple. Visit him at