Mario Cuomo, R.I.P.

[NOTE: This post has been UPDATED]

Mario Cuomo has died, perhaps the last American politician capable of giving a deeply thoughtful speech on a controversial topic. I am referring to his September 13, 1984, speech at Notre Dame on “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective.”

I have been critical of that speech — and, indeed, am about to criticize it again below — but even though I do not think it succeeded on its own terms (much less mine) I think it was a serious attempt to grapple intellectually, not just politically, with a serious issue and hence deserves the respect of my reposting my April 2004 criticism.

That cannot be said of the lesser Democratic lights — Califano, Kerry, Biden — who have often parroted its lines. Nevertheless, I flatter myself (well, someone has to) by thinking that my criticisms of their efforts (most of which include additional comments about Cuomo) are still worth reading for those interested in the issue Cuomo tried but failed to resolve:

Califano Would Confess … But He’s Innocent

Life Begins … Life Ends

Article Of Faith And National Interest: One And The Same?

The Old (Young) Biden vs. The New (Old) Biden

Joseph Califano Solves The Church-State Problem … Again

Now, without further delay, here are my April 2004 comments about Gov. Cuomo’s Notre Dame speech:

Cuomo Praises Lincoln But Sounds Like Douglas

Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York and, according to his publisher, “a gifted political philosopher,” has a new book out, Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever. According to the publisher’s synopsis and accompanying blurbs, the book sounds like it is simply an occasion for some additional Bush-bashing. (“Cuomo draws a devastating comparison between Lincoln’s vision of the American democracy and that of the George W. Bush administration,” opined noted Lincoln scholar Walter Cronkite in a typical blurb.)

I haven’t read the book and, life being short, may well not. I have, however, read, and just now re-read, Cuomo’s most widely known and highly regarded work, his September 13, 1984, speech at Notre Dame on “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective.” This speech was widely regarded as the profound last word on how Catholic politicians should treat the issue of abortion, and by implication on how the public should regard Catholic politicians as they grappled with this issue.

I thought at the time, and still think, that that speech did not deserve the lavish praise it received (although re-reading it just now one line in the beginning did strike me as just and true: “I do not speak as a philosopher; to suggest that I would, would be to set a new record for false pride.” Harcourt, take note.) I write now, however, not to give you my evaluation of the speech, and certainly not to give my opinion (if I have one) as to how Catholic politicians, or anyone else, should deal with the abortion issue. My point here is that, for better or worse, the whole tone and thrust and substance of Cuomo’s speech can be read — in fact, should be read — as a restatement of the stance Lincoln’s great opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, took on the issue of slavery. Nothing in the publisher’s blurb on Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever suggests awareness of this irony, and I would be surprised to see it noted in the book.

Essentially, Cuomo argued at Notre Dame that he agreed with and accepted his Church’s teaching that abortion is wrong, but that in a pluralistic democracy he did not believe he had the right to force his belief on others. He said this, of course, at much greater length, but that’s the essence of what he said.

Some representative excerpts:

Must I, having heard the Pope renew the Church’s ban on birth control devices, veto the funding of contraceptive programs for non-Catholics or dissenting Catholics in my State? I accept the Church’s teaching on abortion. Must I insist you do?….

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….

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 position, in short, is eerily similar to Stephen A. Douglas’s notion of “popular sovereignty.” As historian Robert W. Johannsen has written,

Slavery, [Douglas] believed, must be treated impartially as a question of public policy, although he privately thought it was wrong and hoped it would be eliminated some day.

At one point Cuomo made specific reference to the issue of slavery, and in terms very similar to Douglas’s.

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 1940, had condemned the slave trade. [This is a typo, or something. Pope Gregory XVI condemned slavery on Dec. 3, 1839 — jsr] 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 believe 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.

That last sentence, alas, misses the mark. If in fact Lincoln’s approach had been similar to Douglas’s and Cuomo’s, Kansas, Nebraska, and the rest of the territories would have been free to introduce slavery if they so chose, and it is safe to assume slavery would have spread. The Civil War would have been avoided, delayed, or at least have been far different from what actually happened.

Perhaps Cuomo should write a sequel: Stephen A. Douglas: Today More Than Ever.

UPDATE 4 January 2015

Jeff Shesol in the New Yorker also identifies Cuomo’s Notre Dame Speech as “Mario Cuomo’s Finest Moment,” but even his conventional drooling over its “intellectual acuity” trips over obstacles in ideological blind spots. For example, Shesol writes that at Notre Dame Cuomo “identified ‘a latitude of judgment’ in Catholic teaching and rejected the notion, in the face of rising religious fundamentalism, that ‘our morality should be everybody else’s,’ particularly when it concerned public-policy matters such as abortion and capital punishment.”

Is Shesol aware that he’s saying — or that he’s saying Cuomo was saying — that opponents of capital punishment are all “religious fundamentalists”?


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