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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