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WASHINGTON – For decades, Mario Cuomo’s career embodied the beau idea of an ethnic Catholic Democrat in mid-20th century America.
Cuomo’s parents, Andrea and Immaculata, were hard-scrabble Italian immigrants; they opened a grocery store in Queens. The third of four children, Cuomo grew up in a white-ethnic neighborhood with some blacks in it. He graduated first in his class at St. John’s University law school. After the top New York law firms did not hire him, he built up a political career. He lost a run-off for mayor of New York in 1977 because of his politically unpopular opposition to capital punishment, a position in line with Church teaching.
By all accounts, Cuomo was a practicing Catholic throughout his life. He loved Teilhard de Chardin, a controversial Jesuit thinker. He told jokes that betrayed a Catholic worldview. According to The New York Times, Cuomo did not mind poking fun at reporters who were not baptized and free from mortal sin. “When an engine failed in a puff of smoke on a state-owned Gulfstream G-1 jet one morning with the governor aboard,” the paper noted, “he barely noticed, and kept talking about national politics until he noticed that a reporter across the way had stopped taking notes and had turned ashen. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked. ‘Aren’t you in a state of grace?’”
Cuomo’s support for the poor and marginalized derived from Catholic social teaching. At the Democratic National Convention in 1984, Cuomo, then governor of New York, delivered a keynote address that criticized President Ronald Reagan for ignoring “another party to the shining city” in America. Reagan’s “trickle-down economic theories,” Cuomo said, have impoverished millions.
In this part of the city there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can’t find it. Even worse: There are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn’t show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or an education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day. There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don’t see, in the places that you don’t visit in your shining city.
Cuomo’s speech at the convention in San Francisco may be the most famous of his life; President Obama’s former speechwriter, Jon Favreau, praised it as a model while Democratic strategists haggle over its import for an age more economically stratified than three decades ago. Cuomo made the speech in July 1984. But two months later, Cuomo gave another more controversial speech.
At the University of Notre Dame, Cuomo spoke about his position on abortion. "I oppose abortion as a Catholic," he told the audience in September 1984, "but Church teaching does not compel me to adopt any position to restrict abortion."
The parallel I want to draw here is not between or among what we Catholics believe to be moral wrongs. It is in the Catholic response to those wrongs. Church teaching on slavery and abortion is clear. But in the application of those teachings — the exact way we translate them into action, the specific laws we propose, the exact legal sanctions we seek — there was and is no one, clear, absolute route that the Church says, as a matter of doctrine, we must follow.
In effect, Cuomo announced, he was a pro-choice Catholic. Cuomo’s words were accurate technically but misleading or misinformed. Polls of American public opinion have been consistent roughly for generations. They show that the vast majority of Americans oppose the vast majority
of the one-million plus abortions performed annually.
Cuomo’s speech has a few defenders among progressive Catholics. But for orthodox Catholics, Cuomo forfeited his moral credibility after he spoke at Notre Dame. They noted Cuomo failed to explain why he did not pursue a similar rationale to his position on the death penalty or support for the poor.
Cuomo died Thursday at the age of 82. In the end, the man who once served as a shining example of a white-ethnic Catholic politician is known for a speech which even some progressive supporters feel smacked of political ambition andnot Catholic social thought.
Mark Stricherzcovers Washington for Aleteia. He is author of Why the Democrats are Blue.