Former New York governor Mario Cuomo, has passed away at the age of 82. Cuomo was a standard-issue liberal in the 1980s and early 1990s, and that meant he supported abortion. An Italian Catholic, he claimed to be “personally opposed” to abortion while maintaining the obligation to defend the state’s laws protecting “a woman’s right to choose.” The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has noted that Cuomo invented the “personally opposed but” line, which attempts to carve out a middle ground while permitting abortion on demand — a line used by many politicians too squeamish to defend their pro-abortion position. Cuomo also said he wouldn’t let his religious beliefs guide his actions as a politician (although he opposed the death penalty on his personal religious and moral grounds), demeaning his own faith by saying he “happens to be Catholic.” As David Dooley pointed out in The Interim at the time (1984), no one “happens to be Catholic” if one is serious about their faith; either they act on their beliefs or they do not truly hold those beliefs.
If that was all, he would be a standard-issue liberal Catholic politician, like the late Teddy Kennedy and Canadian prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau (and would be prime minister Justin Trudeau). But he did more damage than merely flout Catholic teaching in an expensive politician’s suit. He directly attacked Catholic moral teaching on abortion and the role of Catholic legislators. Cuomo extrapolated on his views about abortion and his role as a politician in a famous address at Notre Dame in the Fall of 1984, “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective.” To mark the 25th anniversary of that disgraceful talk, Fr. Raymond de Souza wrote:
It is well known that Mario Cuomo went to Notre Dame to argue that faithful Catholics could in good conscience, as legislators and executives, defend abortion rights, pass laws facilitating abortion, and even fund it with tax dollars. Yet his “Religious Belief and Public Morality” speech was as much about Notre Dame as it was about Cuomo. Notre Dame’s leadership put its prestige on the pro-choice side of American politics.
Cuomo did not just happen to use a lecture at Notre Dame to address abortion politics. He was brought to Notre Dame in a flagrantly provocative manner to undermine the Church’s pro-life witness in politics. Recall the timeline. In March 1984, John O’Connor became archbishop of New York. That summer, Walter Mondale nominated New Yorker Geraldine Ferraro for vice president. Ferraro attempted to justify her pro-abortion position as being compatible with her Catholic faith, and Archbishop O’Connor corrected her. It became a high-profile controversy. The Catholic Church, in the person of the archbishop of New York, was at odds with a Catholic candidate for national office on a matter of fundamental importance. The Church’s pro-life public witness was clear — painfully clear for some.
Notre Dame decided to invite Cuomo to address the issue. Cuomo was then among the most prominent Catholic politicians in the nation. His political star was rising rapidly after he gave a celebrated keynote address at the Democratic National Convention that summer in San Francisco. His address at Notre Dame was scheduled for Sept. 13, 1984, hosted by Father Hesburgh and Father Richard McBrien, chairman of the theology department.
So the stage was set. After the archbishop of New York had clarified that a faithful Catholic could not promote abortion rights, the nation’s premier Catholic university, led by two of the most famous Catholic priests in America, invited the leading Catholic politician in the country to explain why the archbishop of New York was wrong, all this two months before a presidential election in which a vice- presidential candidate was a pro-abortion Catholic. It almost did not matter what Cuomo said; the message Notre Dame sent was clear. The archbishop of New York and his brother bishops did not speak authoritatively for the Church in the United States; Notre Dame had an authoritative voice, too, and she would be heard on the pro-choice side.
The late Bishop Austin Vaughan, an auxiliary bishop of the Catholic archdiocese of New York, warned Cuomo that his position on abortion threatened his soul. May God have mercy on Mario Cuomo.