October 19, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) – President Obama and Mitt Romney traded barbs and shared a meal with Cardinal Timothy Dolan last night at the lavish Al Smith Dinner – an annual Catholic charities fundraiser that this year was dogged by controversy over the question of whether the president should have been invited.

Many pro-life activists opposed Obama’s presence, citing fears that the light-hearted tone of the evening as well as the inevitable photo-op of the president yucking it up with the cardinal risked leaving the impression that all is amicable between the Catholic Church and the Democratic candidate. Dolan stated about the two candidates, “I’m privileged to be in the company of two honorable men, both called to the noble vocation of public service, whose love for God and country is surpassed only by their love for their own wives and children…”

The photo-op occurred as predicated, with various news media posting photos of the three laughing participants, similar to photos in the New York Times, the NY Daily News and the Associated Press, its syndicated photo being posted on the prominent Politico website.

At the center of the controversy is the president’s HHS birth control mandate which many, including the country’s Catholic bishops, have slammed as an unprecedented attack on religious freedom, as well as his extreme pro-abortion views and support for gay ‘marriage.’

Priests for Life’s Fr. Frank Pavone, Judie Brown of American Life League, and Monica Migliorino Miller, the Director of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, were among those who publicly criticized the decision to invite Obama.

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But at the dinner itself any controversy took a back seat, the event mostly staying true to its traditional character – with Obama roasting his opponent in a light-hearted and self-deprecating speech, and vice versa.

Romney, however, took a notably more aggressive approach, at one point reminding attendees of the president’s strained relationship with the Catholic Church, joking, “the President has found out a way to take out the sting of the Obamacare mandates for the Church. From now on they’re going to be in Latin.”

Shortly before this the Republican candidate had mentioned “differences” between Obama and Dolan, suggesting that attendees would know if there were “no hard feelings” if Obama’s water turned into wine.

In his concluding remarks, Romney again hinted at the HHS birth control mandate controversy, thanking the Al Smith foundation for its work “in defense of the rights of conscience and in solidarity with the innocent child waiting to be born.” This last line earned Romney a sustained applause.

For his part, Obama steered clear of any reference to his difficulties with the Church. At one point, however, after acknowledging the “extraordinary work that is done by the Catholic Church,” the president went on to quote Scripture, saying, “tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” - a scriptural choice that left one of the country’s top Catholic media personalities scratching his head.

EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo, host of The World Over, noted the remark, tweeting, “In light of HHS mandate, seems an odd citation.”

In the days before the dinner, the New York Post had quoted an anonymous source “close to Dolan” suggesting that the Cardinal wasn’t entirely comfortable with his decision to invite Obama. “He knows the president wants this for one reason, and that’s the photo,” the source claimed.

But if the cardinal had any qualms, he didn’t show it last night. In his concluding remarks, the cardinal, who has been in the thick of the charge against the HHS mandate, defended the event, saying, “might I suggest that this annual dinner actually shows America and the Church at their best?

“Here we are: in an atmosphere of civility and humor, hosted by a Church which claims that ‘joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence;’ men and women; young and old; of every ethnic and racial background.”

Dolan went on to mention Al Smith’s conviction that government should be on the side of the “uns” – the unemployed, the unhoused, the unfed, and the “un-wed mother, and her innocent, fragile un-born baby in her womb.”

Reactions to the dinner among pro-life leaders have been largely muted. Deal Hudson, the founder of Catholic Advocate who served previously as the director of Catholic outreach for George W. Bush’s campaign, told LifeSiteNews that he thinks the dinner “will either have zero impact on the election, or it will be to [Obama’s] detriment.”

“The media attention to this event did nothing but underscore the contrast of Obama’s pro-abortion position with the teaching of the Catholic Church and, particularly, with Cardinal Dolan,” he said.

Hudson pointed to the “loud applause and cheering” that erupted when Cardinal Dolan mentioned the unborn, which, he said, “tells you the audience was waiting for the pro-life message to be delivered in Obama’s presence.”

Jill Stanek, a popular pro-life blogger and activist, said that after watching the speeches she was undecided about the event. “I understand the view that Obama should not have been invited to speak, that to give him the podium could be viewed as giving him tacit approval,” she said. “I held that view before watching the speeches on t.v. and catching the vibe. I may still hold that view; I’m persuadable.”

Fr. Frank Pavone, however, said he believes the dinner was ultimately harmful. “No doubt, the Obama campaign will use his presence at the dinner to say, ‘Look, I’m not attacking the works of the Catholic Church. On the contrary, I’ve helped raise money for them,’” Pavone told LifeSiteNews. “Meanwhile, the actions of his Administration continue to threaten the very survival of Catholic institutions.”

Pavone said he believes in “respectful dialogue” with those with whom Priests for Life disagrees, pointing to some of his friendships with pro-abortion activists. But, he said, “We just seek to do it in ways that minimize the chances that it will be exploited for the political gain of those on the other side of the disagreement.”

“Engage Obama respectfully, yes, but don’t use him for fundraising or let him use us by claiming credit for the fundraising.”