In his Washington Post column today, E.J. Dionne pays tribute to the late Mario Cuomo. It is right and fitting that he should do so, since what Cuomo was to politics, Dionne is to journalism: a man constantly reminding us he is Catholic while he counsels and supports the violation of central tenets of the faith, at least where one of those central tenetsthe sanctity of lifeis concerned.
E.J. Dionne made the transition from reporter to columnist at the Washington Post more than two decades ago. He frequently identifies himself as a Catholic in his columns, indeed he often champions the cause of the “liberal Catholic” both in politics and in the life of the Church. And so it is . . . interesting . . . that Dionne has never once, to my knowledge, in any of his columns, condemned abortion as a grave moral wrong, an intolerable snuffing out of innocent lives. When he writes about the subject it is invariably to defend the abortion license that the Supreme Court invented as a “constitutional right” in Roe v. Wade. Yes, that is some kind of Catholic he is.
From the vantage point that Dionne occupies, then, his admiration for Cuomo is justified. He recalls not only the late governor’s 1984 keynote address to the Democratic national convention, but his speech later that year at the University of Notre Dame, which (in Dionne’s words) “defended Catholic politicians who opposed making abortion illegal.”
Cuomo’s Notre Dame lecture, titled “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective,” was truly a watershed event, and Dionne’s remembrance of it prompted me to go back and have another look at it. I had quite forgotten what a bloated jumble of demagogy it was. Cuomo speaks mostly about the abortion issue, but the “argument”if the word can be used justly in this caserambles here and traipses over there, all the while prompting any intelligent reader to wonder how the man acquired a reputation for eloquence.
The substance of what Cuomo had to say revealed him to be constitutionally incompetent, politically ham-handed, morally confused, and theologically ignorant. The sum of his lecture was that since there was no national consensus on whether abortion is wrong at all, and since Cuomo was a Catholic who “accept[ed] the Church’s teaching on abortion” but could cite no other reason than “dogma” for agreeing with his Church, and since the Supreme Court had determined that the Constitution to which he as governor took an oath protected the abortion license, he therefore concluded that he must, in his public capacity, work to preserve that license. In fact, he must even support the use of New York’s Medicaid funds to pay for abortions!
Cuomo at Notre Dame strongly suggestedand his only claim to cleverness appears in the fact that he never quite says thisthat his conclusion was a matter of obligation, not of a choosing sides on his part. If abortion is a sin, as he said the Church had taught him to think, why, in a free society the state should not trammel the freedom of its people to sin. Thus he equated the destruction of hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings each year to the telling of hundreds of thousands of fibs by schoolchildren to their parents and teachersjust another sin that the state should take no interest in combatting.
If Cuomo was as smart as he is generally believed to have been, then this deeply stupid speech was in fact a horror of deception, a deliberately scandalous rhetorical performance, calculated for purely partisan purposes, to immunize defiant Catholic politicians of his party from the condemnation of their pastors and bishops. It certainly worked its magic on E.J. Dionne, who thinks to this day that it was just nifty.
But in many respects, what made Cuomo’s Notre Dame lecture a watershed event was its utter failure to persuade, beyond the precincts of his pro-abortion fellows in the elite political and chattering classes. From that day to this, the official position of the Democratic Party has been at war with the sanctity of human life and the core principles of human dignity. Cuomo cast his lot with his party and against his Church. In doing so, he clarified the issues within the Catholic Church in a way quite other than he intended: Were you with Governor Cuomo, or with the Church?
The waves set in motion by Cuomo’s great misshapen boulder of a speech rippled outward as well, beyond the Catholic Church, helping to escalate the culture war in the United States generally. People of strong religious faith from many different quarters, from evangelicals to pentecostals to Mormons to Jews, gravitated more strongly to the Republican Party, attracted by its persistence in opposing abortion (at least in its platform). More and more “Reagan Democrats” became Republicans, and Cuomo helped them on their way.
And the crashing ineptitude of Cuomo’s Notre Dame speech, which a bright high school junior could rebut with ease, helped awaken many pro-life Americans to the truth that both their faith and their reason spoke powerfully to the issue of abortion. If this was the best that a “progressive” Catholic could do in the excuse-making department, then how much more confidently and comfortably can the pro-life Catholic or Baptist or Latter-day Saint speak to his neighbors about this issue, without fearing any accusation that he is trying to “impose his religion” on anyone?
Maybe Governor Cuomo did good service to the American conversation after all.
Matthew J. Franck is Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute.