Mario Cuomo, 1932-2015: His Controversial Legacy

NEWS ANALYSIS: The three-time governor of New York and father of current Gov. Andrew Cuomo died Jan. 1.

Mario Cuomo delivers his speech about Catholic politicians and abortion at the University of Notre Dame on Sept. 13, 1984.
Mario Cuomo delivers his speech about Catholic politicians and abortion at the University of Notre Dame on Sept. 13, 1984. (photo:

NEW YORK — Mario Cuomo, the three-time governor of New York who sought to justify Catholic lawmakers’ tolerance of abortion rights, died on Jan. 1; he was 82.

A self-identified Catholic who quoted Thomas Aquinas, challenged Ronald Reagan’s optimistic vision of economic opportunity in America and cited Church moral doctrine as he vetoed legislation enacting the death penalty, Cuomo’s policy positions and rhetoric often resonated with his fellow believers.

Cuomo served as the governor of New York from 1983 to 1995 and emerged as the standard-bearer of his party’s liberal wing. But he resisted efforts to make him a candidate for president and also turned down President Bill Clinton’s proposal that he be nominated for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Yet, even as the New York governor inspired intense loyalty from the Democratic Party base, he also drew criticism from Catholic and pro-life leaders for his stance on abortion, articulated in a landmark 1984 speech at the University of Notre Dame.

“Approval or rejection of legal restrictions on abortion should not be the exclusive litmus test of Catholic loyalty,” Cuomo stated in his address at Notre Dame.

“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.”

Marking the news of Cuomo’s death, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York set aside his controversial record on abortion and offered heartfelt condolences to his family.

“Although he was governor of New York long before I arrived here as archbishop, I had the pleasure of meeting and corresponding with Mario Cuomo on numerous occasions and always found him to be a keen observer of the issues facing our city, state and country,” said Cardinal Dolan in the statement released after Cuomo’s death was announced.

“My prayerful condolences go out to his loving wife, Matilda, and the family. We thank them for sharing their husband and father with the city, state and nation, and we praise God for the 82 years we had him.” 


1984 Abortion Comments

But Cuomo’s death did not discourage criticism of his fateful decision to justify support for abortion rights.

Cuomo’s 1984 Notre Dame speech was “the single most influential statement about abortion by any Catholic figure since Roe v. Wade,” R.R. “Rusty” Reno, editor of First Things, told the Register.

“With a reputation as a serious Catholic, Cuomo’s justification for abortion rights effectively ended the debate about abortion in the Democratic Party. His speech implied that no thinking Catholic concerned about the common good would object to unrestricted legal access to abortion.”

Reno also suggested that Cuomo’s argument “empowered abortion-rights advocates to silence what remained of Catholic dissent in the Democratic Party. Bob Casey could be prohibited from speaking to the 1992 Democratic convention in large part because Cuomo had provided the ‘official’ Catholic Democratic pro-abortion position.”

Cuomo defended his tolerance for legal abortion, in part, by arguing that Roe v. Wade secured a new consensus and, consequently, felt he could not impose his religious beliefs on nonbelievers in clear violation of the constitutional principles he had sworn to uphold.

This moral reformulation was articulated by a compelling public speaker who sought to lead his party on matters of economic justice.

“He was a tenacious debater and a spellbinding speaker at a time when political oratory seemed to be shrinking to the size of the television set,” noted Cuomo’s obituary in The New York Times, which cited Cuomo’s riposte to President Reagan’s “description of America as ‘a shining city on a hill.’”

“Mr. President,” said Cuomo during his keynote address at the 1984 Democratic Party Convention, “you ought to know that this nation is more a ‘tale of two cities’ than it is just a ‘shining city on a hill.’”



Catholic Criticism

But Cuomo’s detractors argued that the governor had adopted a selective, morally inconsistent, approach to hot-button social issues. He opposed capital punishment, despite strong support for the practice among his constituents in New York state; yet he still insisted that respect for public consensus had led him to accommodate legal abortion.

Msgr. William Smith, the late moral theologian who taught at St. Joseph’s Seminary in the New York Archdiocese, identified the logical deficiency at the heart of Cuomo’s reasoning.

“Human rights do not rest on consensus. Respect for the human rights of blacks, Jewish people — any minority — does not rest on consensus,” stated Msgr. Smith.

“This is why we call them inalienable rights. He relied on the 15-year-old rhetoric of Planned Parenthood [that] we’re trying to impose our morality on others. The Supreme Court didn’t establish a consensus; it destroyed one.”

In 1984, then-Archbishop John O’Connor of New York challenged Cuomo’s stance.

“You have to uphold the law, the Constitution says,” said Archbishop O’Connor. “It does not say that you must agree with the law or that you cannot work to change the law.”

Msgr. Smith and Archbishop O’Connor’s critiques are cited in an article by George Marlin, “John Cardinal O’Connor, Mario Cuomo, Religion v. Politics,” published in the fall 2014 issue of The Human Life Review, a leading pro-life journal.

Maria Maffucci, the editor of The Human Life Review, expressed a measure of unease that the journal’s print issue, with Marlin’s article, was released at the time of Cuomo’s death, though the article was posted online in September 2014.

“I don’t wish him ill at all,” Maffucci told the Register.

“But his legacy in this area has been a dangerous one” for the unborn.


Different Strategy Today

Marlin’s article concludes with the observation that the head-turning exchange between Cuomo and Archbishop O’Connor was less likely to be repeated today, with Church officials often choosing a different strategy for responding to statements by self-identified Catholic politicians who back abortion rights.

Last year, for example, when Mario Cuomo’s son, Andrew Cuomo, the present New York governor, attacked pro-lifers during a radio interview as “extreme conservatives” who “have no place in New York state,” Cardinal Dolan chose to respond indirectly.

The passionate, but respectful, debate between Mario Cuomo and Cardinal O’Connor is “almost quaint,” compared with the contemporary low standard of discourse in the public square, said The Human Life Review’s Maffucci, who observed that Andrew Cuomo chose to demonize the pro-life community rather than engage its arguments.

In truth, Mario Cuomo’s brand of public Catholicism marked the growing chasm between Church doctrine and cultural values in American society. And perhaps for that reason Catholic leaders see his 1984 address at Notre Dame as a critical moment in the history of Catholicism in the United States.

If Cuomo, as the liberal standard-bearer of his party, had made the defense of the unborn intrinsic to his vision of social justice, the partisan divide on abortion might well be different.

But Catholic thinkers also acknowledge that the logic of Cuomo’s “personally opposed, but” argument was anchored in the legacy of the nation’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, who vowed in a campaign speech that he would not allow his faith to dictate his policy positions.

“The Kennedy compromise seemed to work pretty well, as long as the ‘religious pressures’ faced by Catholic elected officials involved issues like divorce, federal aid to Catholic schools or diplomatic relations with the Holy See,” observed then-Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver in a 2004 column. “Each of these issues was important, surely, but none involved life and death. None was jugular.”

Roe v. Wade introduced a new reality that forced Catholic lawmakers to navigate American politics more cautiously, with repercussions for the politicians and their parties.

Summarizing the message of the “Kennedy-Cuomo legacy,” Archbishop Chaput explained it this way: “It’s okay to be Catholic in public service as long as you’re willing to jettison what’s inconveniently ‘Catholic.’”



Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.