2020 Al Smith memo­rial din­ner a blunt ap­peal to Catholic vot­ers on both sides

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - FAITH & FAMILY - Terry Mattingly leads GetReli­gion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Ten­nessee. He is a se­nior fel­low at the Overby Cen­ter at the Univer­sity of Mis­sis­sippi.

Dur­ing a nor­mal White House race, the Al­fred E. Smith Memo­rial Foun­da­tion Din­ner al­lows the can­di­dates to don for­mal at­tire, fire off snappy one-lin­ers and make sub­tle ap­peals to Catholic vot­ers.

But noth­ing is nor­mal in 2020. Thus, Joe Bi­den and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump used this year’s vir­tual din­ner to preach to Catholic vot­ers in swing states like Ohio, Penn­syl­va­nia, Michi­gan and Florida. The event pro­duced few head­lines, com­ing a mere six hours be­fore Trump an­nounced his pos­i­tive test for COVID-19.

Salut­ing Catholic pro­gres­sives, Bi­den of­fered a litany about the pan­demic, race, the re­ces­sion and cli­mate change. He warned that many Amer­i­cans have lost faith “in one an­other, in truth, in sci­ence and rea­son.”

The cur­rent pope, Bi­den stressed, em­braced him dur­ing a 2013 White House visit, of­fer­ing com­fort shortly af­ter brain can­cer took his son Beau’s life.

“Pope Fran­cis took the time to meet with my en­tire fam­ily to help us see the light through the dark­ness,” said Bi­den. “I live in an amaz­ing coun­try … where an Ir­ish Catholic kid like me from Scran­ton, Penn­syl­va­nia, would one day be­friend a Je­suit pope. But that’s who we are as a coun­try — where any­thing is pos­si­ble when we care for one an­other, when we look out for one an­other, when we keep the faith.”

While stress­ing that he is guided “by the tenets of Catholic so­cial doc­trine” — help­ing the “least of these” — Bi­den didn’t men­tion his vow to cod­ify Roe v. Wade if the Supreme Court over­turns that de­ci­sion or his prom­ise to re­in­state poli­cies re­quir­ing the Lit­tle Sis­ters of the Poor to co­op­er­ate in pro­vid­ing birth con­trol and abor­ti­fa­cients to staff. He didn’t men­tion his de­ci­sion to of­fi­ci­ate at the same-sex wed­ding of two White House col­leagues, an ac­tion clash­ing with church doc­trine.

It was log­i­cal for Bi­den to avoid pro­vid­ing fresh am­mu­ni­tion for crit­ics. But the speech, once again, trum­peted his Catholic cre­den­tials.

“Joe Bi­den’s choice to run ex­plic­itly on the claim that he is a faith­ful Catholic squarely places on the ta­ble his claim to be a faith­ful Catholic,” stressed le­gal scholar Robert P. Ge­orge of Prince­ton Univer­sity, writ­ing on Face­book. He is a Catholic con­ser­va­tive who has also been a con­sis­tent critic of Trump.

“No way out of this, folks,” he added. “It’s not, or not just, Bi­den’s crit­ics who have raised the is­sue. It’s the Bi­den cam­paign. … It’s crit­i­cally im­por­tant to see that be­ing a faith­ful Catholic means, and re­quires, more — much more — than go­ing to Mass on Sun­days … car­ry­ing a rosary in one’s pocket and find­ing com­fort and con­so­la­tion” in Catholic prayers and rites.

Mean­while, Trump punched some hot but­tons avoided by Bi­den, while steer­ing clear of his own clashes with Pope Fran­cis on im­mi­gra­tion, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism, health care and many other global is­sues. In blunt busi­ness-deal lan­guage, he said that he had kept his prom­ises to con­ser­va­tive Catholics.

Catholic schools? “My ad­min­is­tra­tion is work­ing to ad­vance school choice. It was my great honor to help the Catholic Church with its schools. They needed hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars na­tion­wide, and I got it for them. No­body else. I got it for them. I hope you re­mem­ber that on Nov. 3.”

Help for char­i­ties? “We are once again stand­ing with Catholic char­i­ties … such as the Lit­tle Sis­ters of the Poor. We’ve been with them all in the way in this long fight. We are fight­ing for Catholic adop­tion agen­cies and fight­ing hard.”

Op­pos­ing abor­tion? “We are de­fend­ing the sa­cred right to life. … Ev­ery child, born and un­born, is made in the holy im­age of God.”

Supreme Court nom­i­nee Amy Coney Bar­rett? “We will not stand for any at­tacks against Judge Bar­rett’s faith. Anti-Catholic big­otry has ab­so­lutely no place in the United States of Amer­ica. It pre­dom­i­nates in the Demo­crat party, and we must do some­thing im­me­di­ately about it, like a Repub­li­can win — and let’s make it a re­ally big one.”

It was that kind of cy­ber-din­ner. At the end, Car­di­nal Ti­mothy Dolan of New York noted an im­por­tant fact about the hero hon­ored at this event, the Demo­crat who, in 1928, be­came the first Catholic nom­i­nated by a ma­jor po­lit­i­cal party as its pres­i­den­tial can­di­date.

Both can­di­dates, Dolan said, need to re­mem­ber “that Al Smith was a happy war­rior,” but “he was never a sore loser.”

Terry Mattingly

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