Cardinal Timothy Dolan has caught so much right-wing flak for inviting President Obama to the New York archdiocese's annual Al Smith Dinner that he's taken to his blog to defend himself. It's good that he's done so, but he's got only himself to blame for being in this position.
The essence of Dolan's defense is 1) the invitation is not "an award, or the provision of a platform to expound views at odds with the Church"; 2) the dinner is about people of different political persuasions gaithering in "friendship, civility, and patriotism"; 3) the church, especially since Vatican II, is all about "engagement and dialogue," not least with those with whom it disagrees; and 4) the invitation in no way signals a "slackening" in the church's promotion of Catholic values in the public square.
But then, uncharacteristically, the cardinal gets a little diffident:
Some have told me the invitation is a scandal. That charge weighs on me, as it would on any person of faith, but especially a pastor, who longs to give good example, never bad. So, I apologize if I have given such scandal. I suppose it’s a case of prudential judgment: would I give more scandal by inviting the two candidates, or by not inviting them?
Now it's important to understand that by scandal Dolan is referring to a doctrine in Catholic moral theology going back to the Middle Ages, defined in the current edition of the Catechism as "an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil...Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others." (2284-85)
Dolan thus believes he had prudentially to weigh the evildoing his invitation to the president might lead to against the evildoing his failure to invite the president might lead to. Thomas Aquinas, however, would have told him not to bother.
Recognizing that people may be led to do evil by good deeds as well as bad (envy of a righteous act, for example), Thomas insisted that scandal can only be caused by something that itself lacks "rectitude." By its nature, a good deed cannot lead to someone's spiritual downfall. So if, as Dolan argues, inviting the president to the Al Smith Dinner was the right thing to do, it could not, by definition, give scandal.
Perhaps, though, Dolan is suffering from a bit of a guilty conscience. His arguments on behalf of his invitation add up to a pretty good defense of Georgetown University's invitation to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius last May, which Dolan criticized with these words: "When they would invite someone that is so dramatically at odds with one of the central tenets of the faith, that does bother us.” Yet no honorary degree was involved and Sebelius did not expound views at odds with the church. It was, one might say, a fine example of the spirit of Vatican II.
The problem is that Dolan and other conservative bishops have taken the position that Catholic institutions should simply not extend invitations to public figures who support abortion rights, engagement and dialogue be damned. So now he finds himself under fire and having to draw a fine prudential line between what's not OK for them and what's OK for him. Just desserts, I'd say.