Mario Cuomo giving a speech, September 25, 2007.

Did Mario Cuomo pave the way for today's conservative Catholic dissenters? (ANALYSIS)

NEW YORK (RNS) Amid the sweeping tributes for former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo following his death on Thursday (Jan. 1) at 82, some of the loudest praise is coming from liberal Catholics for the brand of moral and political seriousness that Cuomo brought to public life.

Mario Cuomo giving a speech, September 25, 2007. David Berkowitz

Mario Cuomo giving a speech, September 25, 2007. David Berkowitz

The reaction was understandable: Cuomo, whose son Andrew was sworn in for his second term as the state’s governor the same day as his father's death, was the Democratic Party’s most engaging defender of classic liberal policies and an eloquent promoter of Catholic social justice teachings.

The son of Italian immigrants who worked his way up society’s ladder, the elder Cuomo repeatedly invoked his Catholic faith and his church’s doctrines to advance policies ensuring that others would have the same chance, and that if they didn’t, they would not be abandoned.

Cuomo was also just as famous for elaborating a rationale by which Catholic politicians like himself could be personally opposed to abortion but could still support and defend a legal right to abortion. Cuomo’s nuanced position was seen as key to allowing Catholics who support abortion rights -- mainly Democrats -- to run for office without continually running afoul of the Catholic hierarchy, or alienating Catholic voters.

Yet even as these “Cuomo Catholics” grieve for the great orator who was the Democrats' greatest foil to Ronald Reagan, they may want to consider whether Cuomo’s moral calculus has come back to haunt them. Now, a new generation of Catholics conservatives -- mainly Republicans -- invoke the same kind of “personally opposed” ethos to part ways with their church on issues like economic and foreign policy, the death penalty and immigration reform.

Indeed, Catholic GOP leaders and their intellectual allies have repeatedly used the principle of “prudential judgment” -- that is, using one’s best ideas as to what policies would best achieve desired ends -- to argue that while they respect the bishops, prelates should not be telling politicians what to do, or how to do their job.

That was the central takeaway from Cuomo's 1984 address on religion and public life at the University of Notre Dame, a lecture that is a cornerstone of his legacy as a Catholic politician. It was, as Washington Post columnist (and proud liberal Catholic) E.J. Dionne wrote, “the liberal Catholic Speech Heard Round the World.”

1984: A key year for politicians and prelates alike

Cardinal John O'Connor speaks at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on Nov. 11, 1986. Religion News Service file photo

Cardinal John O'Connor speaks at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on Nov. 11, 1986. Religion News Service file photo

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

At the time, Cuomo was in his first term as governor and was engaged in a fierce running battle with Catholic leaders -- mainly the outspoken archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor -- over whether you could be a good Catholic and still support Roe v. Wade.

The issue was emerging with particular force as the Supreme Court's 1973 decision legalizing abortion was becoming settled law, and also a cornerstone of the Democratic agenda.

At the same time, the Catholic hierarchy was taking a decidedly more conservative turn under Pope John Paul II. Abortion was the salient issue for the U.S. bishops, a nonnegotiable point that no Catholic pol could ignore if he wanted to stay in the good graces of the bishops, or, in the view of some, be eligible to take Communion.

Cuomo’s fellow New Yorker and Italian Catholic, Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, had just made history as Walter Mondale’s running mate, and she also supported abortion rights. It was left to Cuomo to provide a Catholic intellectual defense against her many critics.

“(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,” Cuomo said in the landmark Notre Dame speech.

Cuomo even anticipated conservatives' adoption of his stance when he asked if he would have to follow the bishops’ teaching on economic justice “even if I am an unrepentant supply sider?” And he pointedly quoted Michael Novak, known as the Catholic “theologian of capitalism,” who wrote: “Religious judgment and political judgment are both needed. But they are not identical.”

The speech was supposed to defend Cuomo-style Catholics and perhaps find some common ground for a truce in the emerging intra-Catholic culture wars.

But the reactions, both positive and negative, were so “explosive,” as Dionne put it, that it only exacerbated the debate. Liberals saw it as the final word, while conservatives saw it as the creed of “cafeteria Catholicism," a red flag to rally more passionate opposition.

A legacy that will outlive Cuomo

Ironically, Cuomo’s vision may have won out since nearly all Catholic politicians are cafeteria Catholics now -- picking and choosing which Catholic teachings they want to highlight.

Yet at least two critical differences should not be overlooked in the post-mortems:

First, throughout the Notre Dame speech, Cuomo was clear, repeatedly and insistently, that he supported church teachings against abortion and even contraception. It’s hard to envision many Catholic Democrats -- or even many Republicans -- doing either today.

Second, Cuomo was also clear that outside of a legal ban on abortion -- which he argued could actually be counterproductive -- he wanted to find ways to reduce abortions, a position that even Democrats who used to invoke the “safe, legal and rare” mantra now seem disinclined to deploy.

In reality, the so-called “social issues” agenda that features opposition to (or support for) issues like abortion and gay rights are not working for either party. Instead, they are giving way to arguments over economics where the roles are reversed: Conservatives argue for less government control, and liberals argue for greater state intervention.

Yet Cuomo was also a relic, in some respects, in arguing that American society could not ignore the moral aspects and ramifications of either the economy or personal behavior.

In his Notre Dame speech, he specifically cited the “seamless garment” argument of then-Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, arguing that Catholics in public office, both conservative and liberal, are challenged to protect and foster life at all stages.

Bernardin’s legacy would be eclipsed soon after Cuomo's own political career ended -- Bernardin died in 1996, two years after Cuomo left office -- yet it has actually made an unlikely comeback under Pope Francis, who is clear that Catholic teaching on economic justice, immigration and war and peace cannot be separated from Catholic doctrine on abortion, and in fact need to be preached more vigorously.

The difference is that when the pope makes his first U.S. visit in September, he will have no obvious choir to preach to, as John Paul and Benedict XVI did. Instead, his views will face a tough sell with the faithful in both parties.

Mario Cuomo is dead, yes. But “Cuomo Catholicism” will likely long outlast him.



  1. I wonder if a child was 2 months or two years old if it’s still ok for the mom to make the decision to kill the child as long as you are personally opposed to it? Of course not. That isn’t is a matter of prudential political judgment.

  2. “Cuomo was also just as famous for elaborating a rationale by which Catholic politicians like himself could be personally opposed to abortion but could still support and defend a legal right to abortion.”

    Since when has “hypocrisy” become a rationale for anything?

  3. Do you have any non-fraudulent theses you’d like to advance? Cuomo was in the business of providing cover for intrinsically evil measures which were prior to 1967 unsafe, illegal, and rare in the United States. ‘Conservative Catholic’ ‘dissenters’ are taking exception to the position paper manufactory at the U.S. Catholic Conference (which has no teaching authority) on matters that are (as explicitly noted in the Catechism) matters of prudential judgment. Waging war is not an intrinsically evil act. Neither are particular regimes of financing medical care de fide.

  4. What an Idiotic argument. If you can’t tell the difference between a born child and a fetus, you will never make a rational or sane statement on the subject. If it is born, it is not a fetus. Anyone in the world can take custody of said child. If it is not born yet only the mother’s will keeps it alive, at the cost of her health and bodily autonomy.

    You are not making a moral argument by equating a child with a fetus, you are just being dishonest, ignorant and ridiculous.

  5. “Since when has “hypocrisy” become a rationale for anything?”

    Well, it’s a basic tool of Christian evangelists, so it’s pretty old.

  6. Not surprising to see the Catholic infighting still going on. Seems you have a hard time agreeing on what the god that you’ve made wants you to do, but as usual, the world has already left you behind.

  7. Again I have to wonder about Mr. Gibson’s Faith. He almost seems to side with Cuomo’s deceptive position of being personally opposed to abortion, while believing it should still be legal! Elected politicians have an even greater duty to oppose evil, as they lead the people in righteousness: “If anyone causes one of these [children] to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6). It is absolutely absurd to equate abortion with immigration reform and the like. Pope Francis never claimed that!, he has only proposed a rounding out the gospel to address ALL issues. And Tom, the only difference between a 3 month old baby in the womb, and a baby out of the womb is its age. A fetus is still a baby, only younger, the same way a child is still a human, but not yet an adult. As for Mr. Cuomo himself, well, I would not want to be him standing before the Lord in Judgment. That is s frightening thought indeed. Whew! I don’t even want to think about that.

  8. ” the only difference between a 3 month old baby in the womb, and a baby out of the womb is its age. A fetus is still a baby, only younger, the same way a child is still a human, but not yet an adult.”

    Absolutely wrong.

    The differences is one is in the womb and one is not. Whether it is human or not is immaterial to the actual issue. It is merely the anti-choice attempt to reframe the question and ignore the basis of abortion rights.

    Let me be blunt here. I don’t have to care whether a fetus or a baby is a human. I have to care about the nature of its existence and survival.

    Unlike a baby, ONLY THE MOTHER keeps a fetus alive. A fetus cannot have a separate and distinct existence from its mother. Therefore nobody can act on its behalf without attacking the mother in the process. Only the mother’s will keeps it alive, therefore only the mother’s will has to matter in terms of the survival of a fetus. None of that is true with a born child. Any human being can keep a born child alive. At no point is the exercise of a child’s rights a direct attack on its mother’s physical existence.

    If your religion forbids abortion, do not have one. Just don’t dare presume that you have a right to speak on behalf of others on the subject. Your religious fervor does not grant you permission or right to make personal decisions for others.

  9. Mario Cuomo (just like Catholic Geraldine Ferraro) always took the position of “While I am Catholic and opposed to abortion, I cannot impose my personal beliefs upon anyone else.”

    Really? Who was ever asking them to *impose* their Catholic beliefs? They were only required to take a stand for biblical righteousness before Christ by supporting such legislation. But then, –the church always gives you the convenient “out” by saying a Catholic is allowed to make any decision out of an “informed” conscience. So there you have it.

  10. “They were only required to take a stand for biblical righteousness before Christ by supporting such legislation. ”

    To impose their Catholic beliefs on those affected by legislation. As a Catholic you expected your sectarian views to be given force of law.

    Typical Christian doublespeak. They are not expected to impose their religious beliefs on others except to impose their religious beliefs on others because the Church demands so.

    Btw there is no clear Biblical support for the anti-abortion.

  11. Larry,

    Let’s consider a 1 month old baby (out of the womb) living all alone with its mother, and the mother decides not to feed the baby, and it dies. That baby was solely dependent upon its mother, and without her at one month old, the baby dies. The same goes for the baby in the womb, without the mother’s nurturing womb, the baby dies: No difference. One is legal in our country, the other is not. I don’t see your point. If choice is about a mother’s choice, then you should consider how we all depend upon one another for survival. None of us lives without help from our society at large, and when that society begins picking and choosing who lives, then we have become our own god. Abortion should be outlawed in this country; a country without a heart, is a country without a soul. And yes, my religion, as well as Mario Cuomo’s former religion, is clear on this principle. And whether you believe in God, or not, we will all nevertheless stand before Him in judgment, being accountable for what we’ve done. And at this moment, I would not want to be in Mario Cuomo’s shoes.

  12. Can you be more dishonest if you tried?

    A baby can be dependent on ANY human being besides its mother. That is never the case with a fetus. You never heard of adoption at birth? Orphanages? Foster care? Maternity wards? Never heard the story of Moses?

    Once a child is born, it has an autonomous existence away from its mother. That is never the case with a fetus. Your attempt to equate the two is so far outside of reality, it can’t possibly be considered a rational fact based argument.

    “If choice is about a mother’s choice, then you should consider how we all depend upon one another for survival.”

    No, I shouldn’t do anything. It is not my body or my business to make such decisions. Its called a right to privacy. The mother’s choice is always going to be more important when it comes to her own body than any concern you may have for the fetus. There is no greater entitlement to such a right than with one’s own body.

    You think claiming moral high ground gives you the right to make decisions for women on the subject. That your piousness is so great that no woman can possibly make their own choices in comparison to your mightier opinion. The anti-choice attitude is borne of narcissism and dishonesty.

    You can’t actually address the issue on the relevant facts so you try to change the argument and obscure the issue. A baby is not a fetus. Your concerns are not ever going to override the right to control one’s own body and what is inside it.

  13. Larry: There was no reply option for the above comment you made, so I will answer it here. Larry, just because a baby is in its mother’s womb, doesn’t make it any less a baby. A baby at 8 months, and 3 weeks along in its mother’s womb, is no different than the same baby at 9 months old outside of its mother’s womb. Both are babies, both need protection from the State. Both require nurturing. You can state all the partial facts you want, saying that a baby can be taken care of by anyone, but in reality, the baby needs to be cared for, and if the mother chooses not to care for it, the baby dies, unless the State steps in and takes the baby away. So whether a baby is 1 month along in the womb, or 6 month along, or 8 months along, or 1 month old and out of the womb, it is still a baby, a life, a human being, and the State needs to protect that baby. That is why we call this a civilization! We become barbarians when we do not protect human life. The animals have more instinctive love for their young than some humans do.

  14. No, a fetus is not the same as a born person. While its in its mother’s womb, it cannot live without its mother’s will. Its mother is the sole human on the planet which keeps it alive. That is never the case with a born child.

    Ignoring this distinction will always make your position dishonest

    Only a born person can be protected by the state without affecting the bodily autonomy of another born person. That is never the case with a fetus. You can protect a baby without affecting the physical being of its mother.

    All you are doing is stipulating your position and ignoring facts. Saying there is no difference does not make it so.

    “the baby needs to be cared for, and if the mother chooses not to care for it, the baby dies”

    You are a lying sack of crap, ANY HUMAN BEING can care for a baby after its born. The mother’s body is not in any way affected by caring for a born baby. Pretending that abandoning a child is the same as an abortion is not only dishonest but getting far away from the facts of the matter. As soon as most children are born, they are cared for by hospital staff for the first moments of their lives, not the mother. At no point is her body required to keep a baby alive.

    There is no sense in continuing the discussion because you deliberately ignore and distort facts to fit your position.

    You are telling me you can’t tell the obvious difference between this:


    You are full of crap.

  15. Of course its not the same in the womb. That isn’t the argument. The argument is that the child is a human being, and killing it in the womb or outside the womb doesn’t change that. Location does not determine if the child is human. The child doesn’t suddenly become human because it passed 6 inches down the birth canal. Whether someone outside the womb cares for the child or the mother’s body cares for the child, it is still a human being.

    If you were once the unborn child your mother carried, then you have to accept an undeniable truth: killing that child through abortion would have killed you. Not a potential you. Not a possible you. Not a future you. Abortion would have killed you.

    Disqualifying the unborn’s claim to life because of some physical characteristic—such as the fetus’s primitive level of development or a congenital defect—is precisely what ethnic cleansing is about.

    Ethnic cleansing is appalling for one simple reason: Valuable human beings are eradicated merely because of some physical difference or “inadequacy.” The person is condemned for his ethnicity. His features–skin, hair or eye color, shape of face, blood ancestry–are different from the accepted norm.

    Abortion often kills the unborn human for the same kind of reason. The baby does not have the physical characteristics or attributes that qualify her for protection. She’s unwanted and in the way, and so she’s eliminated.

    Now, if it’s wrong in the first case, it’s wrong in the second case, it seems to me. The rationale is identical. The motive is the same. In both cases the result is the death of a valuable human being.

    Let me put the issue plainly. If the unborn is not a human person, no justification for abortion is necessary. However, if the unborn is a human person, no justification for abortion is adequate.

  16. “Of course its not the same in the womb. That isn’t the argument.”

    That was EXACTLY Greg’s argument. Its yours as well. That there is no difference between the two, therefore they need to be treated the same way. The anti-choice arguments deliberately avoid the fundamental differences between the two.

    The point is the question as to whether life begins, or you consider a fetus human is an irrelevance to the issue. It always has been. Nobody really has to care whether you think life begins at conception or a fetus is really human. The biggest waste of time in political arguments by the anti-choice crowd has been those arguments. Neither of them ever addressed why abortion was legal in the first place. The only issue that matters here, the one you handwave and ignore is how one keeps a fetus or a baby alive.

    A fetus only stays alive because its mother wills it so. That is never true with a baby. You cannot protect the interests of a fetus without attacking the mother’s body or ability to control her body. The same is never true of a born child. Your blind refusal to acknowledge this difference renders your arguments dishonest nonsense.

    “If you were once the unborn child your mother carried”

    And my mother CHOSE to keep me alive to term. Not because the government forced her to. Not because she was compelled to by outside pressures. A right to chose whether to be pregnant and carry a child to term all women must have in a sane, rational non-theocratic society.

    Equating abortion with mass murder is even more dishonest claptrap. Mass murder of born people is not even close to the same thing as abortion. At this point you are no longer even trying a rational argument and going far down the rabbit hole of emotional pleas. Abortion is not infanticide. Nobody undergoes a bodily risk having a baby around after its born.

  17. Larry, you seem to have a mental block. Think of it this way, a mother takes her baby home from the hospital after giving birth. She puts the child the closet, closes the door, and goodbye. She never cares for the baby, and the baby dies because it is helpless. That type of killing is illegal. However, two weeks earlier, should the same woman have decided to get an abortion, and a so-called “doctor,” were to snuff baby’s life out while the little one was still in its mother’s womb, then that would be perfectly legal according to abortion laws. But I ask you, what’s the difference? The child is helpless regardless of whether it is in the womb, or out of the womb, and needs the State’s protection. Somehow we’ve be brainwashed in this country to draw a distinction between being on one side of the birth canal versus the other.

  18. I have a mental block in that I can’t abide by fictitious canned nonsense.My BS detector is very limited by how much of a sample is necessary.

    Greg, you are dishonest and do not understand the legal reasons abortion is legal. You can’t equate abandoning a baby/infanticide with abortion. Someone can rescue a baby, nobody can rescue a fetus. There is not one thing which is sensible or rational in your view.

    You and the other anti-choicers pretend there is no fundamental difference between keeping a baby and keeping a fetus alive. You pretend you can protect the interests of a fetus without attacking the one life on the planet which can keep it alive. Anti-choice arguments absolutely depend on treating women as incapable of personal decisions, unworthy of them, or just ignoring their existence. S1ut shaming, attacks and expressions of pious narcissism typify how women are treated by your POV.

    Do yourself a favor, actually read the Roe v. Wade decision. Maybe you will learn that abortion rights NEVER had anything to do with “when life begins”, “is a fetus human” or anything resembling “God’s will”. Anti-choice people spend their time spinning their wheels on irrelevancies. It has been such a scam for conservative religious types. Contributing all that money and resources only to make useless go-nowhere dishonest arguments.

    ” But I ask you, what’s the difference?”

    Born/Unborn. That is the only difference which matters. You keep ignoring the fundamental difference between a fetus and a baby and engage in fictions and hypotheticals.

    I will explain it one last time:

    A fetus only lives because its mother wills it so. NO OTHER HUMAN BEING ON THE PLANET CAN KEEP IT ALIVE. The mother risks her body by keeping a fetus alive. The baby only exists inside her. The mother’s decisions are the only way it can exist. A baby (born infant) can be kept alive by any responsible human being. From the moment a child is born, the mother no longer risks her body to keep it alive. The mother’s will is no longer a requirement for its survival.

    Its the most important distinction possible. One which you can’t rationally claim is irrelevant. You try to pretend this is not the case, but it is ridiculous. Your abandonment/infanticide hypothetical is too stupid for words. You have nothing important to say.

    Your POV is based on dishonesty, making cheap attacks on women and bible thumping hysterics.

  19. I think the difference between a politician supporting laws on economic policy when it might be debatable in the Church, and supporting laws on abortion is that we can see the difference. 55 million children dead. Women wounded. 1/3 of my generation dead. The black community’s numbers and power decimated from what it could have been. Is that really what Cuomo wanted? Cuomo & the Kennedys wanted power and sold out to those who would provided them with it. We will be reaping what has been sown for generations to come.

  20. How does it feel to be exploited Marcy?…/debunking-the-myths-about-race-and-abortion
    “Black women have 30 percent of all abortions, a disproportionately high rate; more than one-third of black women’s pregnancies (but not half) are terminated. However, Planned Parenthood points out that just 6 percent of its clinics are located in zip codes where the majority of residents are black. And according to the census, the African American population is expected to double by 2050.”

  21. How long has America been having a national debate on abortion now — four full decades and more?

    Larry, you must have been living in a cave somewhere, surrounded by similarly clueless people, reinforcing each other like members of some desert cult, not to see the problem with your argument.

    After more than four decades of back-and-forth, every American should have virtually memorized by heart the strong and the iffy positions of both sides.

    Not Larry, though……Nope. He’s stuck in a 1970s time warp.

    A quick refresher course for Rip Van Larry:

    (1) Iffy point of pro-lifers = beginning of pregnancy: Difficulty making argument that an egg, one day after being fertilized, should have the same protection as a newborn baby.

    (2) Iffy point of pro-choicers (that means you, Larry) = end of pregnancy: Difficulty making argument that a fetus a day before birth makes a sudden, magical leap to being human a day later and thereafter.

    Good grief….

  22. So according to “Jack,” every “evangelist” is a hypocrite. He probably means “evangelical,” in which case his stereotyping is even more absurd, since that includes a world population in the hundreds of millions.

  23. I’m not a Catholic, “Jack,” but if you’re against them, maybe it’s time to read some Catholic apologetics texts again.

  24. Well, I hope that Larry’s household keeps sharp objects away from him when the issue of abortion comes up.


    Calm down, Rip.

    I should have read his posts earlier.

  25. A question I have for Catholics:

    Does the Church’s positions on, say, economic issues have the same binding authority on Catholics as its positions on abortion?

    That seems to be the premise of the article, and I wonder if that is correct. (Pardon my ignorance on this.)

    IN other words, is a Catholic supply sider truly at odds with traditional Catholic teaching in the same way a Catholic pro-choicer is?

  26. Well done, Larry. Keep on making the facts and references public.

  27. Been there done that. Your turn. See your post below for what you can learn about.

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