Alfred E. "Al" Smith (1873–1944), a three-term Governor of New York was the Democratic presidential candidate in 1928. He lost by a landslide. It was a period of national prosperity - and Smith was a Roman Catholic. Being the first Catholic presidential candidate of a major political party has given Smith a permanent place in American Catholic history. His defeat – and the anti-Catholic hysteria his campaign provoked – remained a sinister specter in presidential politics until John F. Kennedy’s successful win in 1960.
Smith was a devout Catholic, unapologetic about his faith, the faith of an ordinary, non-theologically trained believer. (When a constitutional lawyer said Smith as President would have to follow papal encyclicals rather than the Constitution, Smith supposedly responded, “What the hell is an encyclical?” I suspect JFK would have appreciated that!)
Since 1945, the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner on the 3rd Thursday of October each year is the Archdiocese of New York’s premier charity event, raising millions of dollars for Catholic Charities. Since Eisenhower, every President but one has spoken at this high profile Catholic event. In 1960, candidates Kennedy and Nixon both spoke. Since 1976 the two presidential candidates have attended the dinner more often than not - in 1976, 1980, 1988, 2000, and 2008.
Thankfully, that valuable tradition will continue this year with President Obama and Mitt Romney. In extending this invitation, New York’s Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan, has continued an important American Catholic example of institutional engagement with secular society. Al Smith, whose whole life combined unapologetic Catholicism with an active political career would surely approve.
Neither of this year’s candidates is particularly attuned to Catholic concerns and sensibilities. Neither are the parties, both of which have largely lost touch with their historic principles and with some of the most fundamental facts about human nature and society.
In such circumstances, it is easy to withdraw from engagement – precisely when engagement is so critical.
Back in 1977, sociologist Peter Berger (Facing Up to Modernity: Excursions in Society, Politics and Religion) warned that “to go on proclaiming the old objectivities in a social milieu that refuses to accept them, one must maintain or construct some sort of subsociety within which there can be a viable plausibility structure for the traditional affirmations.” That is precisely what people of faith are experiencing today, as society subdivides into separate entities each with its own presuppositions about human nature and society.
Of course, people of faith are a sub-society of a sort. But one of the defining characteristics of a Catholic self-understanding has been an aspiration to talk to society, to partner with the world.
In itself, inviting the candidates to the Al Smith Dinner is a small matter – more symbolic than substantive. But symbols speak. And this symbol speaks to the conviction that Church and society need not oppose each other in irreconcilable conflict, but need to speak to each other. But to do that we will need to relearn a once common language about human nature and society.