By Christopher White
The Tablet National Correspondent
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan headlined the 72nd annual Al Smith dinner on Thursday evening, one of the Catholic Church’s most storied fundraising events in the United States.
Ryan shared the stage with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who presided over the event, and Hollywood actress Patricia Heaton, who served as the dinner’s first-ever female emcee.
Heaton is perhaps best known for her role on the television sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, but in recent years has become an outspoken pro-life activist. She kicked off the event by noting that it was long overdue for a woman to command the dais since “it’s Catholic women that are birthing and raising all the future Catholic disciples for the kingdom.”
The white tie event dates back to 1945, honoring the legacy of the nation’s first Roman Catholic presidential candidate. Beginning in 1960, with Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, it’s become an occasion for presidential contenders to put politics aside for an evening and roast one another and themselves while raising millions for children in need through the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation.
Last year’s dinner received particular national attention as it marked the last time Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would meet in person before the end of an intensely contentious presidential campaign.
On the off years in between presidential elections, the event tends to receive less widespread interest. Previous speakers have included Stephen Colbert, Tony Blair, Colin Powell, Bob Hope, and Beverly Sills.
Ryan began his remarks with self-deprecating humor, chronicling his childhood as an altar boy in Wisconsin up through his fast-tracked career as a Washington politician.
“I am a proud member of this Church,” said Ryan. “The Catholic Church actually has a whole lot in common with Washington, D.C. In either place, it takes about seven years for someone to get confirmed.”
While President Donald Trump was not in attendance, he was the subject of many of the evening’s jokes.
Ryan, referencing the president’s penchant for commenting on each day’s headlines, said that regardless of how Breitbart or the New York Times reported on the evening, the president would read the reports and “tweet 300,000 at Al Smith Dinner cheer at mention of my name.”
Despite the light-hearted nature of the evening, Ryan concluded his brief remarks on a somber note, recounting the recent hurricanes, the Las Vegas massacre, and California wildfires.
“Much has been taken, but not our spirit,” said Ryan. “Not our nation’s resilience. Not our faith.”
Ryan also invoked the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, hailing these key tenets of Catholic social teaching as critical to the nation’s present difficulties.
“A lot of people are hurting tonight. May they in the fullness of time find comfort and renewal,” he said.
Ryan praised the work of the Alfred E. Smith Foundation as a “righteous mission” and said he had spent some of the day with Cardinal Dolan touring the New York Foundling Hospital, a pediatric hospital for orphaned individuals and vulnerable families that receives support from the Foundation.
One area of concern that went unmentioned was immigration – a topic that has been of particular interest to U.S. Catholic leaders and the cause of some backlash over the decision to invite Ryan.
While Ryan, who represents the First Congressional District of Wisconsin, has historically enjoyed a warm relationship with Cardinal Dolan – a friendship the prelate mentioned several times throughout the evening – his current position on several key policy initiatives have put him at odds with the United States bishops.
Cardinal Dolan and Ryan have appeared together in public together on numerous occasions dating back to the Cardinal’s tenure as Archbishop of Milwaukee, a post he held from 2002 until his appointment as Archbishop of New York in 2009.
In recent months, however, Cardinal Dolan has voiced strong opposition to the Trump administration’s decision to end the DACA program, which protects certain undocumented immigrants from deportation – a decision that Ryan has defended.
The Al Smith Dinner is widely heralded in ecclesial, political, and social circles for its ability to bring together some of the country’s most powerful individuals from diverse backgrounds. In recent years, however, it has come under fire by certain Catholics who see it as damaging the Church’s public witness.
Following last year’s dinner, conservative Catholic commentator George Weigel labeled it the “Al Smith Embarrassment.”
“There’s the problem, every four years, of how to square the dinner’s proud, tribal Catholicism with the fact that one (or in 2016, both) of the principal guests advocate public policies that starkly contradict the Church’s settled moral teaching,” Weigel lamented.
Yet while previous controversies have surrounded politicians who oppose Church teaching on abortion or marriage, this year’s dinner brought other areas into focus, namely Ryan’s positions on immigration, healthcare, and the federal budget.
“Ryan is supporting an important cause that helps those on the margins,” wrote John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, in the New York Daily News on Thursday.
“But given his legislative record and preference for policies that hurt the poor, he might recall the words of St. Augustine: Charity is no substitute for justice withheld,” he wrote.
The 2017 dinner was held for the first time at the Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan, a change in venue from its usual home at the Waldorf-Astoria, which is currently closed for renovation.
This year’s event broke records for a non-presidential year, with proceeds totaling almost $3.5 million.