This month’s issue of Commonweal features a good article by former Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward (“Catholics, Politics & Abortion: My Argument with Mario Cuomo” Sept. 24, 2004), taking issue with former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. Mario Cuomo was famous for his 1984 speech at the University of Notre Dame (“Religious Belief and Public Morality”, in which he laid the groundwork for future liberal Catholic politicians (such as Senator John Kerry) to proclaim themselves “personally opposed” to abortion and yet endorse a “pro-choice” stance in opposition to any legal restrictions.
Robert P. George recalls the event in the article (The Failure of Catholic Political Leadership” Crisis 18, no. 4. 2000):
Noting that the Church does not insist that every immoral action be prohibited by law, Cuomo depicted the question of abortion’s legal treatment as a matter of prudence akin to the range of questions with which the seamless garment was concerned. It was a question on which, he suggested, reasonable people, including reasonable Catholics, could disagree. According to Cuomo, what made a politician truly pro-life and truly someone prepared to act in the spirit of the Catholic teaching was not his opposition to legal abortion or its public funding. Though Cuomo acknowledged the bishops’ clear teaching on those issues, it was, rather, the politician’s stance on the whole range of sanctity and quality of life issues. And here, he implied, liberal Democrats, such as himself, who shared the bishops’ stated positions on capital punishment, welfare, housing, taxation, defense spending, and international human rights policy had records far superior to those of pro-life conservatives whose only specific areas of policy agreement with the bishops had to do with abortion and related issues. . . .
Cuomo’s Notre Dame speech provided a virtual playbook for pro-abortion Catholic politicians who wished to claim that their public support for “the right to choose” abortion was not inconsistent with their personal moral opposition to deliberate feticide. It taught liberal politicians of every religious persuasion how to explain to Catholic constituents that their differences with the bishops over the particular issue of abortion are overshadowed by their broad agreement with the bishops across the wide range of “quality of life” issues. It relieved much of the internal and external tension experienced by public men and women, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who wanted to be pro-life and pro-choice at the same time.
Mr. Woodward points out a glaring omission in Cuomo’s speech:
. . . At this point it is worth noting what Cuomo did not say, as well as what he did. Never once did he say that abortion was evil, intrinsically or otherwise. Never once did he say — as the bishops had, as he himself could have — that opposition to abortion as a matter of public morality is a defense of the human rights of the unborn. Never once did he say the abortion dispute is a disagreement over the scope of social justice. He did not say these things, and never has, I believe, because doing so would make his position difficult if not impossible to defend. He did not say these things, and never has, because, as I think his record makes clear, he does not believe them to be true.
As I have argued in an earlier article, it is because John Courtney Murray would have recognized the humanity of the unborn that he would have rejected its defense as an issue of “private morality”; to recognize the humanity of the unborn is to implicitly acknowledge that it is not just the autonomous choice of the mother that is at stake, but the very life of another. Senator Kerry illustrated Woodward’s point this past July when he opened up a pandora’s box of philosophical issues, and scandalized many of his supporters, by acknowledging in his distinctive convoluted ramble, that the life of the fetus may very well be human.
Cuomo revisits his argument (and tangles with Princeton Professor of Jurisprudence Robert P. George) in a report on religion and American politics published by the Brookings Institute (One Electorate under God?), in which Cuomo appeals to a lack of “public consensus” on abortion — a statement which Woodward challenges:
I take it he meant-and still means-that there is no political majority to support any restrictions on public access to abortion, not to mention recriminalization. Politically, he may be right. But how would Cuomo know since he has never mustered the political courage to test his own assumptions?
Woodward points out that the moral consensus seems to be tilting towards the pro-life position, supported by numerous polls (as far back as 1987) showing that many Americans, contrary to the illusions of Planned Parenthood, are morally uncomfortable with “abortion on demand,” preferring that it “should be restricted to the rare and so-called hard cases of rape, incest, and immediate physical harm to the mother.”
It is on this point that Woodward challenges Cuomo:
Given his celebrated intellect and powers of persuasion, Cuomo might have nurtured this emerging moral consensus into political expression. In his Notre Dame speech he conceded as much: “And surely, I can, if so inclined, demand some kind of law against abortion not because my bishops say it is wrong but because I think that the whole community, regardless of its religious beliefs, should agree on the importance of protecting life-including life in the womb, which is at the very least potentially human and should not be extinguished casually.”
This teasing way of letting his listeners know that he was aware that this argument and option were open to him was, in fact, Cuomo’s way of telling them the option was merely private-a “prudential” judgment that no one could make for him. But his words led not a few in his audience to assume that he would use his influence to modify his party’s embrace of abortion on demand, should the opportunity arise. God knows, he had his chances.
Much as critics of Senator Kerry point to his persistent and militant defense of abortion-rights, Woodward proceeds to illustrate with several examples Cuomo’s increasing support of “abortion on demand” (and concurrently, opposition to any religious criticism of the issue) over the course of the Clinton years, and challenges Cuomo on his hypocrisy:
Then I spoke by phone with Cuomo in June, I asked him why he did not deploy the same passion on behalf of abortion that he used in fighting the consensus-even in New York State-supporting capital punishment. “The argument I made against capital punishment,” he said in quick reply, “was not a moral argument” (emphasis his). But the truth is that Cuomo never gave a speech that did not glisten with the sweat of moral conviction, and his campaign against capital punishment was no exception. In One Electorate under God?, he explains his opposition to state-sanctioned capital punishment: “I am against the death penalty because I think it is bad and unfair. It is debasing. It is degenerate. It kills innocent people.” That is exactly the kind of moral argument prolife people make against abortion and its funding by government.
Neither logic nor consistency has been the hallmark of our foremost “philosopher-politician.” He has convinced himself, it seems to me, that “moral” arguments can proceed only from what he calls religious “dogmas,” and thus cannot be used in making arguments in the public square. And this is precisely the kind of reasoning that sustains the pro-choice position of this year’s most prominent Catholic politician, John Kerry.
It is a tired refrain of Catholics for Kerry that their cherished Senator really doesn’t support abortion, that as a Catholic he is truly “personally opposed.” And yet, just as Woodward challenges Cuomo’s zealous support of abortion-on-demand and omission of criticism when the opportunity presents itself, many Catholics are challenging the moral inconsistency in the rhetoric of Senator Kerry’s adoption of the “Cuomo Defense.”
If anything, it is most reassuring to see Mr. Woodward join us in taking a stand. Perhaps he will convince other Commonweal readers to follow suite.
Special thanks to Amy Welborn.