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Mario Cuomo and the Past, Present, and Future of Public Catholicism in the U.S.

On New Year’s Day, Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, died at the age of 82. Reflections on his death have inevitably focused not only on his accomplishments as governor and on the expectation, never met, that he would run for president as the Democratic nominee in 1988 or 1992, but also on the way he shaped the discussion of the role of Catholicism in U.S. politics. His own contribution to that discussion was best reflected in his 1984 speech at the University of Notre Dame, “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective.” Recent commentators have referred to the speech both appreciatively and critically, but I think none has really captured the fundamental insight of Cuomo’s speech: the irreducible plurality of American public life and its implications for the Catholic Church’s social mission.

Cuomo gave his speech in the midst of the 1984 presidential election campaign. Only days before the speech, on September 8, Archbishop of John O’Connor of New York had openly criticized the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee, Geraldine Ferraro, a Catholic and U.S. representative from New York, for her pro-choice views on abortion. Earlier in the summer, O’Connor criticized Cuomo himself for supporting Medicaid coverage of abortions in the state of New York. These events formed the background for Cuomo’s speech at Notre Dame, which focused on the role of religion in politics, in particular concerning the issue of abortion.

One of the central tasks of Cuomo’s speech was to make a case for why he, as a Catholic, could be personally opposed to abortion, but nevertheless as a politician support the right of others to an abortion. Cuomo’s distinction between the public and private has led many to conclude that he is arguing for the privatization of religious beliefs in politics. For example, Matthew Schmitz, writing for the conservative First Things, criticizes Cuomo for separating his faith from his political convictions, in essence claiming that since his opposition to abortion sprung from his Catholic faith, he could not in good conscience impose it on others. Indeed, a central passage of the speech does suggest something like this conclusion:

The Catholic public official lives the political truth most Catholics through most of American history have accepted and insisted on: the truth that to assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful.


I protect my right to be a Catholic by preserving your right to believe as a Jew, a Protestant or non-believer, or as anything else you choose.


We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might some day force theirs on us.

Nevertheless, it is not at all the case that Cuomo claims that religious belief must remain private. He immediately goes on to claim:

 . . . [T]he same amendment of the Constitution that forbids the establishment of a State Church affirms my legal right to argue that my religious belief would serve well as an article of our universal public morality. I may use the prescribed processes of government — the legislative and executive and judicial processes — to convince my fellow citizens — Jews and Protestants and Buddhists and non-believers — that what I propose is as beneficial for them as I believe it is for me; that it is not just parochial or narrowly sectarian but fulfills a human desire for order, peace, justice, kindness, love, any of the values most of us agree are desirable even apart from their specific religious base or context.

Religious believers have every right, he is saying, to bring their convictions into the public sphere, and in fact in many cases those convictions serve the public good. Cuomo’s point is that it is a matter of political judgment, and not abstract principle, when those convictions serve the public good and when they harm it.

Perhaps the key term from the speech is “consensus.” Cuomo states:

 Our public morality, then — the moral standards we maintain for everyone, not just the ones we insist on in our private lives — depends on a consensus view of right and wrong. The values derived from religious belief will not — and should not — be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large, by consensus.

Cuomo’s argument concerning abortion is that, absent a public consensus in favor of the dignity of fetal life and against abortion, laws limiting access to abortion would, even though based in moral principle, undermine the public good. First of all, Cuomo argues, these laws would not prevent women from obtaining abortions, but only make those abortions more risky for the woman. Second, absent a strong social consensus behind them, such laws would further divide society by creating the appearance of one group unfairly imposing its views on the other.

For those familiar with U.S. Catholic intellectual history, Cuomo’s appeal to consensus must be distinguished from that of the towering figure of American public Catholicism, John Courtney Murray. In We Hold These Truths, Murray explains that the public consensus is an “intellectual heritage,” the beliefs and intuitions about the human person and public order that makes civil debate possible. For Murray, consensus is closely linked to the ancient idea of the natural law.

For Cuomo, it seems, consensus functions quite differently. It is not the precondition for civil debate, but rather something that emerges out of the rough and tumble interplay of diverse interests, constituencies, and worldviews. Neither is it an “ensemble of substantial truths,” as Murray proposed, but rather a conceptually thin, ephemeral agreement effective for achieving shared goals, but rarely amounting to much more. It is here, I think, that Cuomo’s insight into pluralism is evident.

Drawing on centuries-old tradition, but also reflecting the Second Vatican Council’s “opening” to the modern world and, as William Portier has contended, the association of that opening in the American Catholic mind with U.S. Catholics’ move from ethnic immigrant enclaves to the cultural and economic mainstream, American Catholics after the council have tended to act on the public implications of their faith by translating that faith into a set of principles allegedly accessible to a wide public audience. Whether the appeal is to the “consistent ethic of life,” the natural law, a set of “themes of Catholic social teaching,” or a set of “non-negotiable” “intrinsic evils,” the background assumption is that there is a natural correlation between Catholic belief and the potentially governing consensus.

What I find noteworthy about Cuomo’s Notre Dame speech is that, except for a brief mention of the “seamless garment,” Cuomo completely eschews these typical formulations of Catholicism’s public implications. I believe that the reason for this is that Cuomo, more than most, recognized that, for the foreseeable future, Catholicism would simply be one voice among many in American society, lacking not only a privileged status but even a seat at the table as a voice for a shared public philosophy. Neither, however, would Catholicism be a minority faced with a hostile social consensus, necessitating a consistent counter-cultural witness. The irreducible pluralism of American life demands Catholic political engagement, working towards effective coalitions and a shifting social consensus, but it also demands humility in the face of those who are different, who disagree profoundly. Cuomo’s comment on the rights of Jews, Protestants, and non-believers, cited earlier, is not an appeal to relativism but rather the practical recognition that my own political judgments must take into account the fact that my neighbor most likely lives and believes quite differently from me, and that he or she has a political voice, just as I do.

In a generally appreciative remembrance, Peter Steinfels faults Cuomo for his “pre-conciliar” attitude toward abortion, by which he means that Cuomo seemed to consider abortion sinful as a “dogma,” out of obedience to the bishops, rather than as a personal, intellectual conviction. Although certainly agreeing that morality cannot be reduced to obedience to rules, I believe that there are also virtues to Cuomo’s “pre-conciliar” perspective. For one, I believe Cuomo retained a sense that morality must be nurtured within the shared convictions of a community, which for many pre-Vatican II U.S. Catholics was the immigrant enclave, and cannot simply be a matter of intellectual principle. As I already noted, post-conciliar Catholicism in the U.S. has attempted to intellectualize its public witness, but rather than fostering a broad social consensus, instead has encountered blinking incomprehension at what to many still appears to be a sectarian ethic on the one hand, and widespread noncompliance by Catholics themselves on a long list of issues such as abortion, homosexuality and same-sex marriage, immigration, and war, on the other hand. Faced with these failures, publicly-engaged Catholics look to the bishops for ever-more forceful statements of Catholic teaching and to politicians for effective leadership, but lack any way to encourage the Catholic population to engage with public issues in a way consistent with their faith. Although it would be undesirable, indeed impossible, to try to recreate the immigrant enclaves of the past, Catholics must develop creative ways to recapture their ability to communally nurture the affective and imaginative aspects of morality in a culture of choice.

Cuomo to some degree recognized this problem in his speech. Addressing the issue of abortion, he noted:

 The hard truth is that abortion isn’t a failure of government. No agency or department of government forces women to have abortions, but abortion goes on. Catholics, the statistics show, support the right to abortion in equal proportion to the rest of the population. Despite the teaching in our homes and schools and pulpits, despite the sermons and pleadings of parents and priests and prelates, despite all the effort at defining our opposition to the sin of abortion, collectively we Catholics apparently believe — and perhaps act — little differently from those who don’t share our commitment.


Are we asking government to make criminal what we believe to be sinful because we ourselves can’t stop committing the sin?


The failure here is not Caesar’s. This failure is our failure, the failure of the entire people of God.

Probably the most cutting criticism of Cuomo (for example, made by Michael Sean Winters) is that, while extolling the importance of consensus, he downplayed his potential as a Catholic political leader in shaping the consensus on abortion in a direction better reflecting Catholic teaching’s insistence on the dignity of every human being. As subsequent history has shown, there is much that political leaders at the state and national levels can do to limit the number of abortions while meeting the needs of pregnant women, and as my friend Charlie Camosy notes in an upcoming book, the actual social consensus on abortion is much more pro-life than the Roe v. Wade status quo, and there is much that Catholic politicians could do to implement that consensus in policy. However, even if Cuomo was wrong on abortion, he was right to warn us about exaggerating the potential of politicians to transform the public consensus. If the consensus today is more pro-life, that is largely the result of grassroots efforts, not politicians. Many of the criticisms of Cuomo amount to a series of “if onlys,” and in particular, “If only Cuomo had stood up as an articulate voice for the pro-life cause within the Democratic Party, perhaps today things would be different.” Perhaps, but I think Cuomo would rightly remind us that without better moral formation in the diverse communities politicians are elected to lead, this is just wishful thinking.

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