August 15th, 2012
03:22 PM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
Washington (CNN) – Cardinal Timothy Dolan, America’s most prominent Catholic official, defended on Wednesday the decision to invite President Barack Obama to a major Catholic dinner in the face of criticism from conservatives, saying the event is an opportunity for “friendship, civility and patriotism” amid a heated political campaign.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney also has accepted an invitation to the Al Smith Dinner, an annual Catholic fundraiser in New York with a rich history. Since Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy spoke at the event in 1960, it has been a regular stop for presidents and presidential candidates of both major parties.
Some conservative Catholic groups had asked Dolan – the archbishop of New York and the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops - to reconsider the Obama invitation in light of what they say are attacks on religious freedom by the administration.
“As faithful Catholics, we cannot set aside our deeply-held differences and put in any place of honor those who continuously attack the tenets of our faith, and even our very ability to practice that faith,” wrote President Father Shenan J. Boquet of Human Life International.
In the past, some presidential candidates have not been invited to the dinner. For example, in 2004, Cardinal Edward M. Egan did not invite then Democratic challenger John Kerry nor Republican President George W. Bush to the event. In 1996, President Clinton was not invited after Cardinal John O'Connor criticized him for vetoing a bill that would have outlawed some late-term abortions.
In a Wednesday blog post on the Archdiocese of New York’s website, Dolan acknowledged the controversy, writing that he is “receiving stacks of mail protesting the invitation to President Obama (and by the way, even some objecting to the invitation to Governor Romney).”
But Dolan wrote that it is “better to invite than to ignore.”
“The teaching of the Church… is that the posture of the Church towards culture, society, and government is that of engagement and dialogue,” Dolan wrote in his blog post, saying it is “more effective to talk together than to yell from a distance, more productive to open a door than to shut one.”
Bill Donohue, president of the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which has been vocally opposed to many Obama administration initiatives, is defending Dolan’s decision.
“If Catholics want to change the culture, they need to engage it,” Donohue said in a statement. “It means we fraternize with those with whom we disagree with at city, state and federal functions. It does not mean that we are selling out.”
Dolan was clear that his invitation of President Obama did not mean that the religious leader was changing his position on abortion, religious freedom and other issues that the Catholic Church has been at odds with the Obama administration over.
“In fact, one could make the case that anyone attending the dinner, even the two candidates, would, by the vibrant solidarity of the evening, be reminded that America is at her finest when people, free to exercise their religion, assemble on behalf of poor women and their babies, born and unborn, in a spirit of civility and respect,” Dolan wrote.
Dolan has been vocal in his opposing Obama’s stance on abortion, same-sex marriage and the Health and Human Services rule requiring employees to receive free contraception coverage through their health insurance, which he says violates religious freedom.
The Al Smith Dinner is held at the swanky Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, where candidates are asked to give short speeches, which are typically comedic and self-deprecating. In 2008, Obama and then-Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain joked about themselves a few weeks before the November election.
“Maverick I can do,” joked McCain about the admiration surrounding Obama, “but messiah is above my pay grade.” Obama returned the favor and joked about the McCain campaign's attempt to brand Obama as a celebrity.
“[I] punched a paparazzi on my way out of Spago's,” Obama joked. “I even spilled my soy chai latte.”
– CNN’s Simon Hernandez-Arthur contributed to this report.
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