1984 Lives On in Democratic Party Abortion Policy

Walter Mondale’s death refocuses attention on the repeated clashes, during his 1984 presidential campaign, between his Catholic running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, and Archbishop John O’Connor of New York.

U.S. presidential candidate Walter Mondale and vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro campaign at a political rally in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, April 27, 1984.
U.S. presidential candidate Walter Mondale and vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro campaign at a political rally in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, April 27, 1984. (photo: Warren K. Leffler, U.S. Library of Congress / Public domain)

The death of former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale this week, and the 10th anniversary of the death last month of Geraldine Ferraro, vice-presidential candidate in his presidential bid against incumbent Ronald Reagan, brings to mind how the 1984 election was a signal moment for Catholics in national politics. 

Facing an uphill climb against the popular Reagan, Mondale sought fresh élan for his campaign by nominating the first woman national candidate for a major party. Congresswoman Ferraro was from Queens, an Italian-American, and was also intended to win over some of the ethnic, blue-collar “Reagan Democrats” who had voted for the president in 1980.

Ferraro’s Catholicism — the first Catholic on a national ticket since Sargent Shriver in 1972 — also attracted significant attention. The first Catholic nominated for national office since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision created a constitutional right to abortion, Ferraro clashed repeatedly during the campaign with Catholic pro-life voices led by the newly appointed archbishop of New York, John O’Connor. 

Before the 1984 campaign, Ferraro had written that “the Catholic position on abortion is not monolithic and there can be a range of personal and political responses to the issue.”

When she repeated that position in the campaign, Archbishop O’Connor took public issue with it, as did his successor in the Diocese of Scranton, Bishop James Timlin. In September 1984, Archbishop O’Connor and Ferraro clashed more prominently, with the archbishop stating flatly that Ferraro was misrepresenting Catholic teaching. The conflict between the two gained national prominence.

Ferraro eventually conceded that there was a not range of views on the morality of abortion in Catholic teaching, but added that “there are a lot of Catholics who do not share the view of the Catholic Church.”

One of those was the prominent governor of New York, Mario Cuomo. He had delivered a rousing keynote address at the Democratic National Convention that summer, and his star was on the rise.

As the O’Connor-Ferraro controversy raged, certain sectors of Catholic opinion were embarrassed by the pro-life witness of Archbishop O’Connor. Thus, Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame, and Father Richard McBrien, head of Notre Dame’s theology department, decided to engage the controversy on the side of the “pro-choice” Catholics in the Democratic Party.

In September 1984, Notre Dame, the most famous Catholic university in the nation, invited Cuomo to make the case for pro-choice Catholic politicians. He did so with great vigor, advancing the position that he was “personally opposed” to abortion but favored its protection in law and promotion in public policy. The Cuomo position has been adopted by multiple generations of so-called pro-choice Catholic politicians, from Ferraro to President Joe Biden.

Cuomo’s son, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, does not share his father’s view. He is not “personally opposed,” but an abortion enthusiast, once recommending that pro-life New Yorkers should leave the state. He ordered One World Trade Center to be lit up in pink in 2019 to celebrate the passage of New York’s extreme abortion law.

Mondale and Ferraro would soon fade from national prominence. He would end up as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Japan, and she would run twice for the Senate, both times losing her own party’s primary.

Yet the legacy of the 1984 campaign remains. Mondale’s entire political career was lived as the heir to Hubert Humphrey, his fellow Minnesota liberal senator and a presidential candidate in 1968. By 1984, though, the Democratic Party was firmly pro-abortion, with no room for the unborn in Humphrey’s favored dictum: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

By 1992, the Democratic Party would ban the governor of Pennsylvania, Bob Casey, from even speaking at the national convention because he was pro-life.

The 1984 campaign was a battle within the Catholic Church. It not only pitched Notre Dame against Archbishop O’Connor, but, in October, “Catholics for a Free Choice” placed a full-page advertisement in The New York Times taking the Ferraro-Cuomo-Notre Dame view. It argued that “a diversity of opinions regarding abortion exists among committed Catholics.” Nearly 100 prominent Catholic theologians, nuns, priests and laypeople signed the statement.

The Vatican required priests and religious who signed to retract their signatures. Most did, more or less, though two sisters eventually left their religious orders. “Catholics for a Free Choice” would gain prominence from the 1984 campaign that would last for more than 20 years.

In 1984, Archbishop O’Connor won the battle over clarity in Catholic teaching. Ferraro and Cuomo won the political war. As the Democratic Party has become more radical on abortion, Catholic Democrat politicians have moved with it and have paid no political price for it. Indeed, Ferraro was the last prominent Catholic pro-choice politician who had to expend significant energy explaining the “personally-opposed-but-publicly-in-favor” position.

The conflict between O’Connor and the Mondale-Ferraro campaign was public and heated, but did not take the shape that it does today, when disciplinary and sacramental issues are actively discussed. Twenty years later, when the next Catholic to be on a national ticket, John Kerry, was also pro-choice, the issue returned in a different form. Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis advanced the position that Kerry should be refused Holy Communion. Seventeen years later, that position has not been resolved and has only ever gained the support of a very small minority of Catholic bishops and a minority of Catholic opinion. 

There is now a Catholic in the White House who holds positions more extreme on abortion than Ferraro did. That, too, is part of the legacy of the 1984 campaign. 


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