Remembering Mario Cuomo

by Michael Sean Winters

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The late Governor Mario Cuomo will be buried this morning from St. Ignatius Church in New York City. This weekend, when I learned of his death, I re-read his famous 1984 address at Notre Dame entitled, “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective.”

What is most striking about the speech was its intellectual heft. I suspect that today there is only one governor in the nation, California’s Governor Jerry Brown, who would be capable of delivering such a speech, yet in the past few years he has not done so. We no longer look to politicians to also serve as public intellectuals. Hell, we no longer expect university presidents to serve as public intellectuals. Cuomo, like Bart Giamatti, was the last of a breed. We miss them both and a republic that requires informed decision-making is deeply imperiled when there are no public intellectuals.

The speech had some splendid moments. For example, Governor Cuomo pointed to something that many Catholics still have a hard time admitting, namely, the fact that the rise of a consumer society is a direct threat to religious belief. He said:

The America of the late twentieth century is a consumer society, filled with endless distractions, where faith is more often dismissed than challenged, where the ethnic and other loyalties that once fastened us to our religion seem to be weakening.

Our friends at the Acton Institute and the Ethics & Public Policy Center, who have rarely met a commercial transaction of which they really disapprove still do not admit what the governor plainly saw and what has only become all the more obvious in the intervening years.

Governor Cuomo was also correct in warning about religion being used for divisive purposes by political actors. He said:

To most of us, the manipulative invoking of religion to advance a politician or a party is frightening and divisive. The American people will tolerate religious leaders taking positions for or against candidates, although I think the Catholic bishops are right in avoiding that position. But the American people are leery about large religious organizations, powerful churches or synagogue groups engaging in such activities -- again, not as a matter of law or doctrine, but because our innate wisdom and democratic instinct teaches us these things are dangerous.

The operative word there is “manipulative.” Obviously, the role of the black churches, and churches that were not exclusively black, in fighting segregation should not easily be dismissed as problematic per se. But, the weight of religious judgment should be a heavier weight than politics need bear, especially in a system such as ours that is premised on competition among interests. Garbed in the cloak of religion, political differences can too easily become apocalyptic, an opponent is more easily demonized, and the necessary compromises a free people’s representatives are called upon to make on behalf of the common good become more difficult.  

Still, the main focus of the speech was abortion. And here we find the real difficulty of the Cuomo legacy. He was undoubtedly correct to call for increased assistance to poor mothers so that they might be able to afford childbirth and the subsequent costs associated with raising a child. But, that line of argument never really took off. It is true that the Affordable Care Act included many of the provisions previously put forth in the Pregnant Women Support Act, but few Democrats, least of all the President, have spent much time touting that achievement. Their reticence has a cause: They do not want to anger pro-choice political organizations by pointing out that carrying a child to term is preferable to abortion.

That is not the only part of Cuomo’s speech that failed to gain traction. He said:

As Catholics, my wife and I were enjoined never to use abortion to destroy the life we created, and we never have. We thought Church doctrine was clear on this, and -- more than that -- both of us felt it in full agreement with what our hearts and our consciences told us. For me life or fetal life in the womb should be protected, even if five of nine Justices of the Supreme Court and my neighbor disagree with me. A fetus is different from an appendix or a set of tonsils. At the very least, even if the argument is made by some scientists or some theologians that in the early stages of fetal development we can't discern human life, the full potential of human life is indisputably there. That -- to my less subtle mind -- by itself should demand respect, caution, indeed . . . reverence.

But not everyone in our society agrees with me and Matilda.

And those who don't -- those who endorse legalized abortions -- aren't a ruthless, callous alliance of anti-Christians determined to overthrow our moral standards. In many cases, the proponents of legal abortion are the very people who have worked with Catholics to realize the goals of social justice set out in papal encyclicals: the American Lutheran Church, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Presbyterian Church in the United States, B'nai B'rith Women, the Women of the Episcopal Church. These are just a few of the religious organizations that don't share the Church's position on abortion.

Too often, the abortion debate has been driven, on both sides, by those whose opinions are the most extreme and the defenders of abortion have been too often painted as “ruthless, callous…anti-Christian” just as the defenders of unborn life have been painted as misogynists or reactionaries. This demonization has not served the country well and, I hasten to add, it has not served the unborn very well either. Cuomo expressed the hope that his speech would begin a national conversation about abortion and, more broadly, what this difficult issue tells us about the relationship of personal morality to public morality, between religious values and political consensus. He did this before calls for a conversation became a way for politicians to dodge difficult issues. No one really took him up on that invitation. It is a shame.

The strangest part of Cuomo’s speech was his choice of an analogy in discussing the relationship of religion, religious values and religious leaders to civic concerns. He chose to analogize the debate about abortion to the debate about slavery. He stated:

This latitude of judgment is not something new in the Church, not a development that has arisen only with the abortion issue. Take, for example, the question of slavery. It has been argued that the failure to endorse a legal ban on abortions is equivalent to refusing to support the cause of abolition before the Civil War. This analogy has been advanced by the bishops of my own state.

But the truth of the matter is, few if any Catholic bishops spoke for abolition in the years before the Civil War. It wasn't, I believe that the bishops endorsed the idea of some humans owning and exploiting other humans; Pope Gregory XVI, in 1840, had condemned the slave trade. Instead it was a practical political judgment that the bishops made. They weren't hypocrites; they were realists. At the time, Catholics were a small minority, mostly immigrants, despised by much of the population, often vilified and the object of sporadic violence. In the face of a public controversy that aroused tremendous passions and threatened to break the country apart, the bishops made a pragmatic decision. They believed their opinion would not change people's minds. Moreover they knew that there were southern Catholics, even some priests, who owned slaves. They concluded that under the circumstances arguing for a constitutional amendment against slavery would do more harm than good, so they were silent. As they have been, generally, in recent years, on the question of birth control. And as the Church has been on even more controversial issues in the past, even ones that dealt with life and death.

What is relevant to this discussion is that the bishops were making judgments about translating Catholic teachings into public policy, not about the moral validity of the teachings. In so doing they grappled with the unique political complexities of their time. The decision they made to remain silent on a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery or on the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law wasn't a mark of their moral indifference: it was a measured attempt to balance moral truths against political realities. Their decision reflected their sense of complexity, not their diffidence. As history reveals, Lincoln behaved with similar discretion.

I agree with Cuomo’s assertion that there is something to be said for the nineteenth-century bishops’ refusal to split the Church over the issue of slavery. But, in his analogy, he was casting his own sense of complexity with that of the bishops, not with Lincoln who, as he asserted, acted with discretion but also with determination to end the moral outrage of slavery. We did fight a great and terrible Civil War over the issue. Did Governor Cuomo really mean to suggest that that war was a mistake, a violation of “consensus” about public morality?

My biggest problem with Cuomo’s Notre Dame address, however, lies elsewhere. I agree that any political actor should work to generate a public moral consensus. When a political body fails to do so, they risk stalemate or, in the case of slavery, civil war. I agree, too, with what Cuomo said about the need to persuade our fellow citizens on the issue of abortion, not simply seek a legislative fiat with which many Americans would disagree. He concluded his speech with these words:

We can be fully Catholic; proudly, totally at ease with ourselves, a people in the world, transforming it, a light to this nation. Appealing to the best in our people not the worst. Persuading not coercing. Leading people to truth by love. And still, all the while, respecting and enjoying our unique pluralistic democracy. And we can do it even as politicians.

The problem here is obvious. In his public career, Governor Cuomo certainly shunned any hint of coercing anybody on the issue of abortion but he did not do very much to persuade anybody either. The oath he took to uphold the Constitution undoubtedly made a claim upon his veto pen, just as it makes claims upon the votes of legislators. But, nothing in the Constitution made any claim on the governor’s voice, and he did not raise that voice within the Democratic Party to challenge its increasingly strident advocacy of abortion. In 1984, Connecticut Governor and pro-life Democrat Ella Grasso had only been dead three years. In 1984, Cuomo was speaking but two years before the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would elect a pro-life Governor in Robert Casey. It was not impossible for him to have found his voice on the issue, but he didn’t.

A final thought. Cuomo was a brilliant man and a serious man. His Notre Dame speech breathes intellectual and moral gravity. But less brilliant politicians, with fewer scruples, used his speech, stripped of its complexity, to avoid the conversation he wished to begin. Something similar happened in the long career of Fr. Robert Drinan, S.J. and on the same issue. Those of us who write about serious issues, and the politicians who address them, must exercise a caution: We should not do the devil’s work by giving cover to those who do not want to engage the hard, moral work of resolving difficult issues. And, when our efforts do have this effect, we cannot be silent, but must call out those who seek to put our work to bad purposes. The concern about causing scandal has been abused in recent years, for example, by those groups seeking to hinder or even eliminate the good work done by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. But, their excesses do not mean the concern about causing scandal is ridiculous.

I admired Governor Cuomo greatly. His 1984 Democratic Convention Keynote, “A Tale of Two Cities,” was a prescient diagnosis of the growing divide between an educated and wealthy elite and the hard challenges faced by the working poor and those trapped in abject poverty, a divide that has only grown in the years since. But, his Notre Dame speech, fine though it was, opened opportunities he did not himself take, nor did anyone else. Those opportunities remain for all of us on the left who refuse to swallow the Democratic Party’s orthodoxy on abortion. I scan the political horizon and see no one even capable of articulating what Cuomo articulated, let alone acting on it in ways he did not. I did not know the man, so his loss is in no sense personal. My sense of loss is deeply, profoundly, public and political. Whatever his flaws, he tried to engage in a serious way the issues that confronted him. We don’t see that very often any more, at least not with such intellectual rigor. 

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