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The annual Al Smith Dinner was, in one respect, eerily reminiscent of the presidential debate fresh in minds of most Americans. The differences were that there was no interrupting, and Chris Wallace was replaced by Cdl. Dolan.
Honoring Catholics since the dinner's namesake broke barriers for Catholics in the political arena, Former Vice President Biden and President Trump gave their messages via video feed — and, like Wallace on Tuesday night, the cardinal had the last word.
The annual dinner, attended regularly by presidential candidates in election years since 1960, was in virtual format for the first time on Thursday due to the Wuhan pandemic. It was hosted by Dolan and Mary Callahan Erdoes, the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation vice chair.
Erdoes introduced Biden with a smile and a statement that faithful and believing Catholics would unquestionably dispute: "If elected, Vice President Biden would certainly make Al Smith proud, becoming our nation's second Catholic president."
Al Smith most likely would not have recognized the Catholicism of Biden. Smith was raised before the great sexual revolution against God, in a time when abortion was unthinkable to decent people, contraception was both illegal and universally banned by all Christian denominations as serious sin, natural marriage was respected and homosexual "marriage" was a concept that would have been met with both humor and disgust.
Born in 1873, Smith grew up in poverty and eventually became New York's four-time governor — despite living in an era of widespread anti-Catholic discrimination in America. In 1928, he was the first Catholic nominated to become a major party's presidential candidate.
This Al Smith Dinner was different than in the past (not only because it was online but because the candidates did not perform the customary humorous chiding of their opponents). Instead, both Biden and Trump took a more serious tone.
Biden began his video message illustrating his priorities as a candidate.
"These are difficult times for our country: A pandemic, a recession, a reckoning on race, a changing climate," he said. "With each crisis, our faith is tested — faith in our institutions, in one another, in truth, in science, in reason."
Using generalities, the former vice president spoke on what his Catholic faith has meant to him:
I know, for me, my Catholic faith has helped me through the darkness, as I've had to bury pieces of my soul deep in the earth and eventually found purpose to live life worthy of those I lost. Throughout my life in public service, I've been guided by the tenets of Catholic social doctrine that cuts across all confessional faiths.
Biden then quoted Scripture and said something that reasonable people would find curious for a staunch supporter of legal abortion.
"What you do to the least among us, you do unto me," he read. "We cannot serve ourselves at the expense of others. We have a responsibility to future generations."
Biden continued, mentioning the meeting he had with the pope, whom he appears to believe is a kindred spirit:
That ... reminds me of the first time I met Pope Francis in 2013 when I had the privilege of attending his inauguration at the Vatican. When I greeted him, he said, "Mr. Vice President, you're always welcome here." He was really sending a message to the world to put out a welcome sign at the front door of our Church.
He concluded his recollection of meeting the pope by expressing life's possibilities while pandering to a crucial battleground state: "I live in an amazing country; we all live in an amazing country, where an Irish-Catholic kid like me from Scranton, Pennsylvania would one day befriend a Jesuit pope."
President Trump began his video message by blaming China for the Wuhan virus and comparing himself to Al Smith — a "happy warrior." After his introductory remarks, he delved into the indispensable role of Catholics in making America great.
"From the very beginning of our republic, Catholics have uplifted and enriched our nation beyond measure," Trump asserted. "Catholics like Charles Carroll helped secure American independence. Women like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton founded a movement that created thousands of schools and lifted children out of poverty."
Trump mentioned that Al Smith battled anti-Catholic prejudice, which, Trump claims, still exists in the Democrat party today. He promised one of his top priorities is to defend religious liberty and faith-based organizations.
After praising his Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, Trump warned that he will not stand for attacks against her Faith.
"Anti-Catholic bigotry has absolutely no place in the United States of America," he proclaimed. "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."
Voicing his support for school choice, Little Sisters of the Poor and Catholic adoption agencies, the president then touched upon the central moral doctrine that separates him from the anti-Catholic, anti-human stance of his opponent.
"And we are defending the sacred right to life. Remember that when you vote," he insisted. "That's so important and so important to the Supreme Court. Every child, born and unborn, is made in the holy image of God."
The president concluded by expounding on his attitude toward the Catholic Church and continued plans of support as president. "We love the Catholic people, we love the Catholic religion, and, above all, we respect it greatly," he proclaimed. "I will protect the Catholic Church."
Dolan concluded the virtual event with what objective observers can reasonably interpret as a subliminal message of support for Biden's candidacy. Turning to Erdoes, the cardinal said laughingly, "Mary, am I mistaken, or did we just see a rather peaceful transition — a transition of the microphone. It wasn't so bad, was it Mr. President?"
Referring to Trump comparing himself to Smith as "a happy warrior," Dolan inexplicably responded, "I want to remind [Trump], Al Smith was 'a happy warrior,' but he was never a sore loser."
Finally, Dolan concluded with the Scripture passage Biden recited to emphasize the social-service aspect of the gospel. It seemed to be lost, at least on Biden, that the passage also bespeaks the abhorrent evil of abortion: "Whatever you do to the least of us you do to me."