After a grueling and, at times, brutal 2016 Presidential campaign, the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner on October 10th typically represents a lighthearted break from the mudslinging and name calling. Traditionally, the Presidential candidates are invited to speak at the podium on the dais. There, they mix self-deprecating humor for the audience with witty barbs toward their opponents.
Still, we must remember that this is the 2016 Election, where standard conventions and political playbooks have long been tossed aside. Watching the event on C-SPAN was both fascinating and uncomfortable. The Republican candidate opened the discussion with some fairly harsh comments which, for the first time I can recall, received audible boos on the live feed.
Last week, my article described on how Catholics can approach the imminent Presidential Election with hope. My esteemed colleagues have offered other reflections on this political season, too. Honestly, I was expecting to see a more charitable tone from Mr. Trump, mixed with some good-natured ribbing at Mrs. Clinton’s expense. But for a solid five minutes, he returned to his debate tactics of attacking his opponent’s character. Thus, I cannot write the article I hoped to publish, where I could share my cause for hope that some lingering civility might finally have arrived at this campaign.
Instead, I think it is helpful to recall the Dinner’s purpose and the Honoree’s accomplishments. We can also find some interesting parallels between the Presidential race of 1928 and the current campaign in 2016.
The meal brings together wealthy New Yorkers and national elites to the Waldorf Hotel in New York City. The money raised from this pricey dinner (individual tickets begin at $3000) is used to help the city’s poor children. According to Alfred Smith IV, the great grandson of the first Catholic Presidential candidate and host for the event, this year’s Memorial Dinner raised $6 million for charitable services. Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, alluded to poor women who make difficult decision about providing Catholic education, obtaining American citizenship and even giving life for their children and families. In his closing remarks, he commented that “none of these brave women could afford a ticket to the Al Smith dinner as it’s is more than they make in a month.” Nevertheless, he concluded, they would be grateful and well-served by the generosity of the attendees.
More importantly, the Dinner honors the memory of Al Smith, who became the first Catholic to run for President in 1928. According to the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation, the candidate, who served multiple terms as Governor of New York, campaigned for President on a populist platform that sought to improve working conditions, housing requirements, and social services. He also dealt with severe anti-Catholic sentiments especially throughout the Southern States, which typically would have voted for him as a Democrat. As a result, his opponent Herbert Hoover won by a landslide as the Republican carried 40 of the 48 states at the time.
We might learn some lessons from that first Catholic candidate and the 1928 Presidential race. Like this year’s election cycle, voters had serious misgivings about both candidates even within their own parties. Each candidate had to deal with scandalous associations in business and politics. For Smith’s part, he developed policies designed to help society’s least well-off citizens, yet his anti-Prohibitionist stance did not endear him to voters who might look past his Catholic faith.
Nevertheless, the real election result was disastrous for the nation. The Great Depression began within a year after Smith’s loss, and Hoover was the last Republican to serve in the White House for over 20 years. While historians do not like to deal in contra-factual scenarios, I am still left to wonder if Smith’s Catholic, common-good approach on fiscal and social policies might have had any effect on mitigating or avoiding altogether the global collapse of 1929.
By the time of Smith’s campaign for President, the doctrines that we call “Catholic Social Teaching” (CST) were still relatively new, even though the Magisterium has often attempted to relate the Catholic faith to human social conditions. This is not to say that the church’s hierarchy was uninterested in social matters prior to the late nineteenth century, but it is customary in Catholic theology to locate Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) as the starting point for modern social teaching. Likewise, it is not implied here that CST has been monolithic since Rerum Novarum. For example, Leo XIII accepted social and economic inequalities as symptomatic of our fallen world, a position clarified seventy years later by the Second Vatican Council.
It also must be stated that this development over time in no way represents a quantum leap. To honor Leo’s groundbreaking encyclical, it has become customary for popes comment on human social progress in each decade. In the intervening years between Rerum Novarum and Vatican II, these papal documents emphasize the relationship between common good and social justice. One such encyclical is Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno in 1931. His eponymous letter commemorates the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, and addresses a world which is suffering through the global Great Depression. This economic crisis correlates with Smith’s defeat just three year’s earlier, as President Hoover continued many of the dangerous fiscal policies from the earlier part of the 1920s. Pope Pius XI describes social justice with words that we hear in the 2016 election. He urged the Catholic faithful that
“each must be given his own share of goods, and the distribution of created goods… is laboring today under the gravest evils due to the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered propertyless, must be effectively called back into conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social justice” (para. 58).
Thirty years later, John XXIII teaches (over Leo’s claims to the contrary) that both private and public institutions must be directed toward the common good (Mater et Magistra, 1961, para. 40). During St. John Paul II’s long reign, he had the opportunity to write two commemorative encyclicals, and reflected up the struggle toward advancing the common good both during and after the Cold War. As CST developed, though, it has consistently upheld three basic values: the inviolable dignity of the human person, the social nature of human beings, and a universal notion of the common good.
While my hope for civil public discourse remains stymied at the Al Smith Dinner, I continue to hold stubbornly to the prospects of finding a fruitful path toward faithful citizenship and a prosperous nation after November 8th. Please join SPES in prayer for our country – that America might embrace the Gospel message and that the Catholic Faith will be spread far and wide in our nation. Thus, all may truly live free in Our Lord, Jesus Christ!