The Sword of Damocles and Tolerating Political Evil 9

There are two ways to look at the “Tolerance of Political Evil” issue; one is not acceptable, the other is, although it is not optimal for the very reason that it involves the tolerance of evil, which we would prefer not to tolerate at all. I see the Al Smith invitation as an instance of the latter.

The type of political evil we never tolerate is one that involves intrinsically evil behavior. The Church and Cardinal Dolan himself already made it clear that some of Obama’s policies are intolerable and that we must oppose them at all costs. I do not see the Al Smith Dinner invitation as stepping down on that position in any way, nor do I see it as an endorsement of President Obama or his policies, about which the Cardinal and several other bishops in the United States already made themselves clear — the Church is still suing the Obama over the HHS Mandate. Case in point.

The perceived evil in the case of the Al Smith Dinner invitation is an evil in itself, because of the potential scandal, or as it may be, real scandal from the confusion it caused. One question that needs to be considered, however, is whether the action itself of inviting the President, per se, is an evil act. From there, we can go on to consider other factors.

The whole matter is deeply embroiled in politics on various levels. The action not to invite the president would have been seen as political, for that reason. The decision not to hold the dinner (which would have shocked a lot of people and caused quite a stir) certainly would have created a backlash against the Church and brought about several undesired effects — effects that you and I may not be aware of but that the Cardinal might have easily foreseen. Clearly, the City of New York would not have appreciated it very much, since, after all, it is a charitable fundraiser for underprivileged children in the diocese. The Church would have been seen as hurting itself by doing that.

Incidentally, the Church or many of its institutions may be forced to make moves that would be hurtful to its own operations if the HHS Mandate is not reversed, but we are not there yet. So perhaps this was not yet the time to make a (politically perceived) statement by not holding the dinner. Sure it would have been a small loss in the grand scheme of things as far as not being able to raise as many funds through the dinner this year, but the way it would have been spun by the media, especially the local media would have been much more detrimental to the Church in the Archdiocese of NY and would have made the Cardinal a much less influential leader within his own community — something he needs to take into consideration as the pastor in his locality.

Who wouldn’t want to be king (for just a day)

Put your feet in the Cardinal’s shoes, for just a moment. Now, look up and behold the Sword of Damocles, dangling by a thread over your head. If you decide to hold the dinner, someone will get angry and cut the thread; if you decide not to hold the dinner, the same will happen; so any way you look at it, you are involved in an awkward situation. No matter what decision you make, somebody is going to get scandalized, someone is going to get the wrong idea, and the Sword of Damocles is going to fall on your head.

Okay, you can step out of those shoes now and put your house slippers back on.

Now let’s consider whether the invitation is itself an evil act. What is the dinner for? It is not an endorsement, but a charitable fundraiser, where both candidates are invited, and it aims at reminding people, in the midst of a heated campaign, of the need to be more civil and less political.

Will the candidates take advantage of it for political purposes? Of course each of them will. But that opportunity comes with a cost. How comfortable did Obama really feel being there? I don’t know, but he did not look comfortable after Romney’s speech. He looked and sounded in his speech more like he did in the first debate. Was this really a good photo-op for Obama? If it was, it was not his best one, for sure. And if you are suggesting that it was a photo-op for the Cardinal, well that’s just cynical. Maybe you should try walking around in his shoes for a day, and see how you feel about it then.

There are the factors we don’t know about, and for that matter we cannot discuss them. Maybe someone got a little talking to that evening. Maybe the olive-brach-like gesture is a way of saying, “Hey guys, at least in the Catholic Church we can still entertain some format for civil discourse, whereas none of the rest of you people seem to be doing that, anywhere. That being the case, as long as the Church is still around, maybe there’s hope for more civil discussion down the road, when you need it… Something to think about, just let us know. And by the way, when you need a friend, we’ll still be here for ya.”


  1. I truly enjoyed your thoughts regarding the quandary for Cardinal Dolan and the Damoclese sword he has been living under during this election long before any invitations to a charity event were mailed. It was a little surprising to me at first seeing detractors of the Cardinal so sure he had made a poor, political, or demured invitation to the president as if he or the Church had capitulated on principles.

    I saw the invitation as wise in the Church’s ancient knowledge, strong in her devotion to God, unmoved by the minusculeness in time of one presidential term, and setting herself above the rhetoric with her focus forever on worship of Him above and help to His children below. I saw it as a powerful strength, one which few institutions on this planet are capable of wielding, and that of the gentle strength inherent in her might that STILL holds the highest standard of fairness, hope, decency, and respect, even when seemingly none is due.

    To me, not inviting the president would have lowered the Church; and Cardinal Dolan with it, to the level of so much of society’s attention to pettiness, their quick succumbing to fad and fashion, and either the inability or refusal to consider today’s outcomes to ten, one-hundred, or one-thousand years from now. To me; in the perspective of the church, the invitation was an acknowledgement of all those things the Church holds dear. What those who were invited chose to do with that invitation, with their time, and with their talents was solely their responsibility. Do any of us truly want to align ourselves with a petty institution unfocused on Christ’s teachings and wallowing under forever-changing authority? If the answer to that is no, then by reason the Cardinal’s decision was exceptionally sound.

    And thank you once more for such an interesting and thought-provoking read! Your blogs are always a blessing!

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Aidan. Thanks for pointing out how the Cardinal’s gesture was Christlike and, therefore, it was the right thing to do. God bless!

  2. A good evaluation of the situation that Cardinal Dolan was thrust into. The outcome, I think, is that the Catholic Church seems to be the adult in the room while the those who clamor for blood are succumbing to their emotions or ideologies. The Church is bigger than both of those. After all, Christ came for the sinner and it is the same task that He gave to His Church.

    • Spot on, SF. That’s the point people tend to overlook when they see everything as politically motivated. I think it is clear to many people that the mission to serve Christ and his Church is what Cardinal Dolan has at heart. When you are able to see it that way, he’s acting as Christ would, because his purpose is to do His work.

  3. Highly logical and well articulated, James.

    The Cardinal did indeed have an imperfect pair of choices, and I feel he made the right one. Often, we as adults must set aside what FEELS right in order to do what IS right.

    By doing so, I agree that the Church can and should rightly be perceived as “bigger” than the current political climate, which is as it should be. Obama’s time will soon be past, but the Church will still be here. It’s the old adage of differentiating between the battle and the war.

    Nicely written. It’s a shame that polite & civil discourse has become so rare that it causes such consternation when it’s practiced.

    • Thanks, JTR.

      I think down the road, people will see that he chose his battles wisely. Or maybe they won’t see it that way. Whatever the case may be, I don’t think this one turned out to be a losing battle for Cardinal Dolan, even if some people still hold the decision against him.

  4. When the topic of sin, forgiveness, 10 Commandments is discussed with the kids in my first communion class, some of the kids will ask “what if” questions…..will Jesus forgive you if…and then they list what they think are outlandish, unforgivable sins. My answer is always the same and I point out that we are called to love the sinner but hate the sin. It’s the same in this situation, I think. Cardinal Dolan, whether politically motivated or not, still showed charity towards Pres. Obama, looking past the politics and acknowledging the person.

    • That’s a great way to look at it, Terry. For adults, maybe it’s getting hard nowadays to look past the politics. We need to be like little children again.

      A bit off the topic, but you reminded me… It’s funny. I taught CCD for a number of years to 7th and 8th graders. They asked the same “what if” questions when we were on the topic of mortal sin — trying to push the envelope. And I always gave them the same answer, until they got the point. My response wasn’t love the sinner, hate the sin response, because they weren’t really talking about other people’s sin at their age, but their own. I really liked watching the wheels in their heads turn when the point started to sink in, after about the umpteenth time I walked them through the process. The young mind is a beautiful thing. The task we have to form them is a priceless gift we hold in very fragile vessels.

      Anyway. Just a tangential thought. Thanks for your comment!

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