Conor Lamb Toes the ‘Cuomo Line’ in Pennsylvania

COMMENTARY: The newly elected congressman is in the company with Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, and puts him at odds with Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik.

Conor Lamb, Democratic congressional candidate for Pennsylvania's 18th district, greets supporters at an election night rally March 14 in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.
Conor Lamb, Democratic congressional candidate for Pennsylvania's 18th district, greets supporters at an election night rally March 14 in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. (photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Democrat Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old military veteran and attorney, defeated Republican Rick Saccone March 13 for a crucial U.S. congressional seat in a district Donald Trump had won by 20 points.

The district was long held by Republican Tim Murphy, who ran as a pro-life Catholic but resigned in disgrace amid scandalous reports he encouraged his mistress to have an abortion.

The reasons for Lamb edging out Saccone by a few hundred votes (Saccone conceded March 21) are complicated. Some have to do with Murphy, some with Saccone, some with Trump and, also, of course, some with Lamb.

Democrats are thrilled with Lamb’s victory as a possible bellwether of what might happen in November 2018. If they can flip the U.S. House of Representatives, as Republicans did in November 2010 during President Obama’s first midterm election, then a Trump impeachment — they hope — could be in the cards, as could their ability to keep the Supreme Court from tilting against Roe v. Wade and preserve legal abortion.

And that brings us back to Conor Lamb.

Lamb ran as a moderate in this conservative district outside Pittsburgh (and close to my home). It’s a pro-life area, with lots of Catholics. Lamb himself is Catholic.

He attended the historic Central Catholic High School in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, famous not only for great Catholics generally, but especially for great NFL quarterbacks like Dan Marino and Marc Bulger.

Lamb is not, however, pro-life.

During his campaign, Lamb did his best to elude questions on abortion, seeking to maintain the appearance of a moderate. But when pushed on the issue, he made clear that he’s “pro-choice,” albeit “personally opposed” to abortion. He invoked the “Mario Cuomo standard” — the insidious position crafted by Cuomo in a prideful, interminable and extremely damaging speech at the University of Notre Dame in 1984. The “Cuomo line” has become the party line for Democrats from Ted Kennedy to Joe Biden to Nancy Pelosi.

In an especially troubling assessment, Lamb even dismissed the label “pro-life” : “I just want to say, I don’t use the term ‘pro-life’ to describe what I personally believe, because that’s a political term. It’s not one that you learn in Catholic school or anywhere else in the Church.” Really, nowhere else in the Church? What was Lamb learning in Catholic school? John Paul II, who was pope while Lamb was at Central Catholic, even used terms like “culture of life” and “culture of death.”

Several reporters have called out Lamb on this issue. But missed by most reporters writing on the Lamb campaign — missed because they’re not from Pittsburgh and not as familiar with the politics and Church here — is how Lamb’s position will cause conflict between him and his bishop, David Zubik. The seat of Bishop Zubik’s Diocese of Pittsburgh is the beautiful St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is practically across the street from Central Catholic.

At issue isn’t merely Lamb being “pro-choice,” but being supportive of partial-birth abortion. Lamb let slip during the campaign that he as a legislator would have voted against the recent bill seeking to ban partial-birth abortion. Asked directly if he would have supported the bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks, the point at which medical science affirms that fetuses can feel pain, Lamb replied: “I’d have voted against it.”

Though Lamb said he believes “life begins at conception,” he invokes the Cuomo escape hatch: “As a matter of separation of church and state, I think a woman has the right to choose under the law, so I would vote against” a ban on abortion after 20 weeks.

Well, it was that recent position taken by “pro-choice” Catholic Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that led Durbin’s bishop, Thomas Paprocki, to reassert that Durbin should not present himself for Communion. Bishop Paprocki says Durbin is “cooperating in evil” and persisting in “manifest grave sin” because of his abortion stridency and must therefore “not be admitted to Holy Communion until he repents of his sin.”

This no doubt applies to Conor Lamb. I would expect Bishop Zubik to follow Bishop Paprocki. David Zubik is one of America’s best and most faithful pro-life bishops. He is a national leader in the Church’s battle against the unprecedented religious violation that was the Obama HHS mandate, an executive decree that required groups as disparate as Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor to fund abortion drugs against their conscience.

That affront was so egregious that the Pittsburgh Diocese was among the first of 42 Catholic plaintiffs (including my Erie Diocese and colleges like Notre Dame) in filing 12 federal lawsuits against the Obama administration. As Bishop Zubik memorably framed the HHS mandate, the Obama administration effectively told Catholics “to hell with you.” In fact, that was the actual title of Bishop Zubik’s extraordinary column in the Pittsburgh Catholic: “To hell With You.”

Bishop Zubik wrote at the time: “At no other time in memory or history has there been such a governmental intrusion on freedom. … It undermines the whole concept and hope for health care reform by inextricably linking it to the zealotry of pro-abortion bureaucrats. The mandate would require the Catholic Church as an employer to violate its fundamental beliefs concerning human life and human dignity. … It is really hard to believe that it happened.”

Yes, it is.

The case that ultimately went all the way to the Supreme Court would carry Bishop Zubik’s name. It’s now known as “the Zubik case,” or, more formally, Zubik v. Burwell.

And thus, this sets up a potential showdown — Zubik v. Lamb — between the Pittsburgh bishop and this newest “pro-choice” Catholic congressman who happens to be from Bishop Zubik’s district and who’s a product of Pittsburgh’s best-known Catholic school.

If Conor Lamb proceeds as a member of Congress to vote for abortion, to uphold partial-birth abortion and to directly contravene or undermine the position of his Church on the sanctity and dignity of human life, then I imagine he will be hearing from his bishop. Lamb is obviously willing to give up the sacred teachings of his faith when it comes to protecting the body and blood of unborn children, but is he also willing to possibly give up receiving the Body and Blood of Christ as a result?

Conor Lamb and Bishop David Zubik could be set for a showdown. Lamb may leave his faithful bishop no other choice.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His latest book is A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century.