Mario Cuomo’s lesson on challenging the political authority of the Church

Mario Cuomo’s lesson on challenging the political authority of the Church
New York Gov. Mario Cuomo speaks at the University of Notre Dame in 1984.
New York Gov. Mario Cuomo speaks at the University of Notre Dame in 1984.

The first thing I thought of when I heard that former New York governor Mario Cuomo had died was his extraordinary speech at the University of Notre Dame in 1984. I was not alone. The New York Daily News reported that Cuomo’s speech, “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective,” ranks “among the top speeches of the 20th century.”

It was a speech from which Americans who disagree with teachings of their religious tradition on such matters as LGBTQ rights, contraception, abortion, the role of women, and more, may take heart. Mario Cuomo modeled what it means to be a dissident in an ambitiously authoritarian church. He showed how a Catholic politician in America, or arguably any constitutional democracy founded on religious equality and pluralism, can and must model political leadership.

He directly and persuasively challenged the political authority of the bishops of his own Roman Catholic Church, while simultaneously respecting and graciously accepting their teaching authority.

He also he took on the wider Christian Right in a way that politicians are often loathe to do. He challenged the idea that there is always a “simple answer,” a distinctly Christian answer to the difficult questions of public policy. “[W]hose Christianity would be law,” he asked, “yours or mine?”

“This ‘Christian nation’ argument should concern — even frighten — two groups: non-Christians and thinking Christians,” he warned.

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Cuomo’s historic speech came at an extraordinary moment when Catholic prelates, led by Archbishop John O’Connor of New York, were pressing Catholic politicians to conform to Church doctrine. The chairman of the Theology Department at the University of Notre Dame invited Cuomo to the preeminent Catholic university in the nation to explain: How can Catholic politicians square church teachings with their governmental role?

Cuomo’s answer was that Catholic politicians, like any other politician, owe their first allegiance to their constituents and the U.S. Constitution. He argued for the principles of separation of church and state, and the rights of individual conscience. And he did it over the hottest issue of the time and the trickiest one for a Catholic politician to this day.

Cuomo was personally opposed to abortion, but pro-choice in public policy. (So was fellow New York Catholic and then-Democratic vice presidential candidate Rep. Geraldine Ferraro.) He explained why it was necessary to respect the reproductive rights of others:

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Bishops and Cardinals attend a morning session of a two-week synod on family issues at the Vatican, Monday, Oct. 13, 2014.
Bishops and Cardinals attend a morning session of a two-week synod on family issues at the Vatican, Monday, Oct. 13, 2014. Gregorio Borgia, AP

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“Catholic public officials take an oath to preserve the Constitution that guarantees this freedom,” he declared. “And they do so gladly. Not because they love what others do with their freedom, but because they realize that in guaranteeing freedom for all, they guarantee our right to be Catholics: our right to pray, to use the sacraments, to refuse birth control devices, to reject abortion, not to divorce and remarry if we believe it to be wrong.”

He underscored the fact that Catholic elected leaders “serve Jews and Muslims, atheists and Protestants, as well as Catholics.” This, he said, requires them to bear a “special responsibility” as they work to “create conditions under which all can live with a maximum of dignity and with a reasonable degree of freedom; where everyone who chooses may hold beliefs different from specifically Catholic ones — sometimes contradictory to them.”

“The Catholic public official lives the political truth” he continued, “…that to assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful.”

“I protect my right to be a Catholic by preserving your right to believe as a Jew, a Protestant or non-believer, or as anything else you choose. We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might some day force theirs on us.”

“As a Catholic,” he said “I respect the teaching authority of the bishops.” But, he rhetorically asked: “Must I insist you do? By law?”

Even as we remember Cuomo’s words, some things have not changed. Many Catholic Bishops and their fellow Christian Right culture warriors are still demanding a right to mandate their religious beliefs through the law—and some are still grumping about that speech.

Mario Cuomo came down on the side of equal rights for all, on the side of true religious freedom, with as much courage, grace, and eloquence as any politician of any age. And we will remember him for it, fondly, thankfully, and well.


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