Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York laughs alongside U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York Oct. 18. The dinner honors the memory of t he former governor of New York, who was raised in poverty and was the first Catholic nominated by a major political party to run for president of the United States. (CNS photo/Jason Reed, Reuters)
NEW YORK (CNS) – As headliners for a glittering event that raised $5 million for Catholic health care programs in the Archdiocese of New York, President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney briefly suspended their vociferous campaign rhetoric to exchange humorous jibes Oct. 18 at the 67th annual dinner of the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation.
The host of the event, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York was seated between them on the four-tiered stage. They faced more than 1,640 formally attired donors who filled the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and its two balconies.
By tradition, speakers poke fun at themselves, one another and various prominent guests, without inflicting wounds. This does not preclude delivering a serious message with a smile.
Cardinal Dolan was criticized for inviting Obama because of his administration's mandate requiring most Catholic employers, like other employers, to provide free contraceptive coverage for employees over the church's moral objections. The church considers the mandate, currently being challenged in federal court, a threat to religious freedom.
But the cardinal managed to land a few direct punches that were met with appreciative applause.
He said the annual dinner shows the United States and the Catholic Church at their best.
"Here we are in an atmosphere of civility and humor hosted, fittingly, by a Church that claims that joy is the infallible sign of God's presence," he said.
"We are grateful to be people of faith and loyal Americans, loving a country which considers religious liberty our first and most cherished freedom, convinced that faith is not just limited to an hour of Sabbath worship, but affects everything we do or dare and dream."
He said the dinner's namesake, Al Smith, believed that government should partner "with family, church, parish, neighborhood organizations and community, never intruding or opposing, since, when all is said and done, in God we trust, not in government or politics."
The Al Smith dinner honors the memory of the former governor of New York, who was raised in poverty and was the first Catholic nominated by a major political party to run for president of the United States in 1928.
Cardinal Dolan said Al Smith was "a man of deep Catholic faith and ringing patriotism, who had a tear in his Irish eye for what we would call 'uns,'" whom the cardinal described as including the unemployed, uninsured, unwanted, unwed mothers, unborn, undocumented, unhoused, unhealthy, unfed and undereducated.
He said both candidates' political parties claim to be "big tents containing extraordinarily diverse, even contrary, opposing people and groups.
He quipped, "You don't have anything on the Catholic Church. We got both Biden and Ryan."
In a historic first, both parties nominated Catholics as vice presidential candidates, Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Paul Ryan.
Cardinal Dolan said Governor Romney and President Obama are "two honorable men called to the vocation of public service whose love for God and country is surpassed only by their love for their wives and children."
Gov. Romney joked that he prepared for the debates by refraining from drinking alcohol for 65 years and finding "the biggest available straw man to attack." He deadpanned, "Big Bird didn't even see it coming. In the spirit of Sesame Street, President Obama's remarks are brought to you by the letter 'O' and number 16 trillion."
Governor Romney said President Obama put his own stamp on relations with the Catholic Church by advising Pope Benedict XVI: "Look Holy Father, whatever the problem is, just blame it on Pope John Paul II." He suggested the media favored President Obama in its coverage, and imagined the headlines from the Al Smith dinner as "Obama embraced by Catholics; Romney dines with rich people."
To sustained applause, Governor Romney said the Al Smith foundation and the Archdiocese of New York "answer with calm and willing hearts and service to the poor, care for the sick, in defense of the rights of conscience and in solidarity with the innocent children waiting to be born. You can be certain in the great causes of compassion that you come to embrace, that I stand proudly with you as an ally and friend."
President Obama made light of his lackluster performance at the first presidential debate, where he said he had "a nice, long nap" that left him well-rested. "Although it turns out millions of Americans focused in on the second debate who didn't focus in on the first debate – and I happen to be one of them."
The president said the dinner was an occasion to focus on what he and Romney have in common, "beginning with our unusual names. Actually, Mitt is his middle name." He paused and added, "I wish I could use my middle name."
Describing the upcoming third debate, President Obama said he and Governor Romney would discuss foreign policy.
"Spoiler alert: We got bin Laden," he said to both laughter and applause.
President Obama called attention to his opponent's gaffes at the Olympic Games in England. "After my foreign trip in 2008, I was attacked as a celebrity because I was so popular with our allies overseas. And I have to say, I'm impressed with how well Governor Romney has avoided that problem."
President Obama acknowledged the "extraordinary work that is done by the Catholic Church" and said the perseverance and character of ordinary Americans have brought the country through some very tough years.
Both candidates lauded their opponent as a dedicated family man and loving father.
Alfred E. Smith IV, Al Smith's great-grandson marked his 25th year as the event's master of ceremonies. He delivered pointed barbs about both candidates, saying the foundation was not quite as happy to welcome President Obama as it was four years ago and remarking that Governor Romney considered his white-tie outfit to be "business casual."
Mr. Smith said the Catholic Church owed a debt of gratitude to President Obama. Citing Jesus' teaching that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, Mr. Smith said because of the current economy, "it's going to be a lot easier for a lot more people to get into heaven."
Patrons of the dinner enjoyed poached lobster tail and roasted rack of lamb. Tickets for 2012 event started at $2,500. The proceeds support Catholic health care programs. Grants totaling $2 million were distributed to 12 organizations serving children in the archdiocese after the 2011 dinner.