How Mario Cuomo Made the World Safe for Pro-Choice Catholics

Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who passed away yesterday at 82, is being remembered as one of the last of the liberal lions before the Democratic Party was overtaken by “Third Way” Clintonism.

But Cuomo also deserves to be remembered as the Catholic politician who was willing to go toe-to-toe with the Catholic hierarchy at a critical moment for pro-choice Catholicism and in doing so help ensure that that designation wasn’t an oxymoron.

In the summer of 1984, during the run-up to the presidential election pitting President Ronald Reagan against former VP Walter Mondale, conservative elements of the Catholic hierarchy, most notably New York Archbishop John O’Connor, started to push back against attempts by Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin to remove abortion as a point of leverage with Catholics for the Republican Party. Bernardin famously asserted that Catholics should consider all “life” issues—abortion, nuclear war, poverty—when considering which candidate to vote for.

But at a news conference in June, O’Connor seemed to throw the momentum back to the Republicans when he asserted that a Catholic “in good conscience cannot vote for a candidate who explicitly supports abortion,” in effect shredding Bernardin’s seamless garment just when Mondale had announced he had picked pro-choice Catholic Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.

O’Connor’s remarks drew him into a widely followed running battle of words with Cuomo, who criticized him for trying to translate Catholic doctrine into public policy, largely foreshadowing today’s debates about the rights of Christians, or any followers of a specific religion, to impose their values on others. “There is a Catholic law on birth control. There is a Catholic law on abortion. I accept the Catholic law. There is no Catholic law on what you have to do about imposing birth control on others,” Cuomo said.

After O’Connor called out Ferraro for being a bad Catholic for asserting that there was a diversity of views among Catholics on abortion, Cuomo gave a landmark speech at Notre Dame on the separation of church and state that laid out his theology on how Catholics policymakers should interact with the larger society and still remain true to their Catholic values and teaching.

Cuomo was the first to admit that the relationship between his Catholicism and politics, and between religion and politics in America, was complex and in many ways a work in progress: “The acceptance of this faith requires a lifelong struggle to understand it more fully and to live it more truly, to translate truth into experience.”

But he was also clear that his responsibility as a public official in a pluralistic society transcended his Catholicism:

…the Catholic who holds political office in a pluralistic democracy—who is elected to serve Jews and Muslims, atheists and Protestants, as well as Catholics—bears special responsibility. He or she undertakes to help create conditions under which all can live with a maximum of dignity and with a reasonable degree of freedom; where everyone who chooses may hold beliefs different from specifically Catholic ones—sometimes contradictory to them; where the laws protect people’s right to divorce, to use birth control and even to choose abortion.

Cuomo asserted the right of himself and other believers to argue for laws against the public funding of contraceptives or against abortion if they believed it to be in the best interests of society, “not because the Pope demands it” or “my Bishops say it is wrong.” But, he asked, the real question was “should I?”:

I believe I have a salvific mission as a Catholic. Does that mean I am in conscience required to do everything I can as Governor to translate all my religious values into the laws and regulations of the State of New York or the United States? Or be branded a hypocrite if I don’t?

In the end, on the issue of abortion, Cuomo concluded that it did not:

[W]hile we always owe our bishops’ words respectful attention and careful consideration, the question whether to engage the political system in a struggle to have it adopt certain articles of our belief as part of public morality, is not a matter of doctrine: it is a matter of prudential political judgment.

My church and my conscience require me to believe certain things about divorce, birth control and abortion. My church does not order me — under pain of sin or expulsion — to pursue my salvific mission according to a precisely defined political plan.

With that, Cuomo defined for a generation of Catholic politicians a way to remain true to the teachings of the church by separating out their application in politics. His counter to O’Connor’s argument was so eloquent, so convincing in its logic, and so infused with his love of the church, that it cast a harsh light on the bishops’ overt political maneuvering over abortion disguised as church teaching without ever explicitly saying so. He created a framework for Catholic politicians to disagree with their leaders and remain good Catholics that still resonates today.