ALBANY, N.Y. — In 1984, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo traveled to the University of Notre Dame to reset public expectations for Catholic politicians on the contentious matter of abortion in a pluralistic society.
“Approval or rejection of legal restrictions on abortion should not be the exclusive litmus test of Catholic loyalty,” Cuomo stated in his controversial address, which questioned whether Catholics should impose their moral beliefs on others and thus disrupt the social consensus on a complicated moral matter.
“We should understand that whether abortion is outlawed or not, our work has barely begun: the work of creating a society where the right to life doesn’t end at the moment of birth; where an infant isn’t helped into a world that doesn’t care if it’s fed properly, housed decently, educated adequately,” Cuomo continued, lending his support to an emerging policy framework that presented legal abortion as just one of a number of weighty policy matters of concern to U.S. Catholics.
Three decades later, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo built upon his father’s words, and then some. During a Jan. 17 radio interview, he described those who embrace the “right to life” as “extreme conservatives” who “have no place in New York state.”
Commenting on the internal tensions roiling the state Republican Party, Cuomo said, “Who are they? Are they these extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro-assault weapon, anti-gay? Is that who they are? Because if that’s who they are, and if they are the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York; because that’s not who New Yorkers are.”
The governor’s remarks provoked an immediate backlash, with some critics suggesting that this self-identified Catholic politician had dismissed the moral teaching of his Church as out of bounds and exiled co-religionists from the state. Quickly, Cuomo’s aides sought to contain the damage, presenting his comments as a statement about GOP candidates, not ordinary New Yorkers.
For those with long memories, the governor’s broadside provided a new benchmark for the Cuomo family’s evolving approach to the moral challenge posed by legal abortion in the United States. And some critics of the elder Cuomo’s stance contend that his son’s policies are the inevitable outcome of a morally incoherent argument and raise questions about the true intentions of self-identified Catholic politicians who describe their support for legal abortion as an accommodation of mainstream values, not an endorsement.
At Notre Dame, Mario Cuomo presented himself as a loyal son of the Church, and he argued that the U.S. bishops should dispense with “litmus tests” when vetting politicians’ views on abortion. Andrew Cuomo, for his part, did not mention the word “Catholic” in his initial statement about “extreme conservatives.” However, he has moved well beyond his father’s arguments, which favored a “big tent” Catholicism that downplayed the singular moral challenge posed by legal abortion yet didn’t imply abortion was morally good or that pro-life sentiments were politically unacceptable.
Last year, even as opinion polls confirmed growing opposition to abortion among the general public, the New York governor lobbied state lawmakers to pass the Women’s Equality Act, which sought to expand abortion rights and also included less controversial measures that would strengthen laws against domestic violence and human trafficking, among other issues.
But the New York Senate balked at approving the comprehensive legislative package because one element “strengthened abortion-rights language in state law,” reported The New York Times.
“Mr. Cuomo, as well as women’s-rights advocates and other Democratic elected officials, insisted that they would accept nothing less than the entire 10-point package, even if dropping the abortion language might allow them to win nine of the proposed provisions,” reported the Times.
After the legislation stalled, a spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference told the Times that the governor’s 10-point agenda was “a smoke screen for abortion expansion, and the only reason they were bundled together was for political reasons, which we found unconscionable.”
Yet the younger Cuomo still does not seem to view his campaign to expand abortion rights as a direct challenge to unchanging doctrinal precepts that have anchored Catholic moral teaching for two millennia — just as he also did not allow Catholic doctrine on marriage to deter his efforts to secure “marriage equality” in the state.
The “governor’s faith is very important to him,” stated an open letter to the New York Post released by his office after the furor erupted last week. But even that statement, which was issued to defuse the controversy, repeated the governor’s earlier caricature of pro-life beliefs as “extreme.”
From Inclusive to Prohibited
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York did not release a formal response to Cuomo’s disparaging remarks about “right to life” and “anti-gay” political candidates. But on Jan. 21, a post on his personal blog, The Gospel in the Digital Age, offered a pointed if indirect rebuke.
Cardinal Dolan noted his upcoming participation in the March for Life, the pro-life ministry of the Sisters of Life, who aid women in crisis pregnancies, and his baptism of a child with Down syndrome. He closed with the following comment: “A good Sunday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral ... does any of this seem ‘extremist’ to you?”
So how did Mario Cuomo’s son become the standard-bearer of abortion rights in New York? Rusty Reno, the editor in chief of the New York-based journal First Things, offered one partial explanation that linked the son’s abortion activism to the father’s earlier defense of “personally opposed” Catholic politicians who accommodate legal abortion.
“My predecessor Richard John Neuhaus has the answer: When orthodoxy is optional, it will eventually be prohibited. Put differently, when moral truths are made optional so as to be ‘inclusive,’ they will eventually be prohibited,” Reno told the Register.
Papal biographer George Weigel agreed with that answer — up to a point.
“Father Neuhaus’s observation about optional orthodoxy becoming banned orthodoxy helps a bit in explaining the slippery slope from Mario Cuomo to Andrew Cuomo. But so does a lot of obviously ineffective catechesis and preaching,” Weigel told the Register.
“Andrew Cuomo has often talked about the portrait of Thomas More in his office. He doesn’t seem to understand that he’s playing Henry VIII (or at the very least, Thomas Cromwell), not More, in the drama of Albany.”
The shift in tone between father and son, some commentators suggested, also marks a generational change in political discourse, fostered by cultural developments, including speech codes that often stigmatize opposition to abortion and same-sex “marriage” as intolerant.
“Andrew Cuomo’s remarks are telling,” said First Things’ Reno. “Yes, they were off-the-cuff and shouldn’t be taken as thought out or programmatic. But they reflect a sometimes unconscious liberal intolerance. Everybody is welcome — as long as they’re liberals. I see it as a political expression of the ‘dictatorship of relativism.’”
Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson found it significant that Cuomo did not attempt to engage the moral arguments of his opponents.
“Cuomo does not deign to argue with New Yorkers who oppose abortion, support a maximalist interpretation of the Second Amendment or defend the position on gay marriage held by Barack Obama when he was first elected president,” said Gerson in a Jan. 20 column. “Such positions are not to be engaged with and refuted; they are to be marginalized.”
That said, the furor provoked by Andrew Cuomo’s remarks suggested that many New Yorkers do not share his commitment to abortion rights or agree with language that stigmatizes religious believers.
Cardinal Dolan, in a Jan. 21 interview, noted that the governor was expected to revive his campaign to expand abortion rights in the state and said it was time to “reclaim the narrative” on the issue and counter efforts to frame abortion as a matter of “women’s health.”
“Anything that would take the life of the baby in the womb, anything that would risk harming the mother — which this radical expansion would — is hardly for women’s health. It’s certainly not healthy for the female babies in the womb who are aborted,” said Cardinal Dolan.
Father Robert Barron, rector of Mundelein Seminary/University of St. Mary of the Lake in the Archdiocese of Chicago, described the governor’s strong language as “chilling,” especially in the context of emerging threats to the free exercise of Catholic institutions and individuals across the nation.
“That a governor of a major state — one of the chief executives in our country — could call for the exclusion of pro-lifers and those opposed to gay marriage suggests that the law could be used to harass, restrict and … attack Catholics,” said Father Barron, in a Jan. 21 commentary for National Review. and in related remarks on Word on Fire video.
Concluded Father Barron: “There is a short path indeed from the privatization of Catholic moral convictions to the active attempt to eliminate those convictions from the public arena.”
During his 1984 address at Notre Dame, Mario Cuomo questioned both the moral value and the practicality of advancing pro-life legislation in a pluralistic nation. “When should I argue to make my religious value your morality, my rule of conduct your limitation?”
Thirty years later, Andrew Cuomo has offered a kind of response to his father’s rhetorical questions. To paraphrase the remarks of Cuomo the elder, his son now asserts that he “will make his political value our morality, his rule of conduct our law.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.