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Friday, September 24, 2004

The Cuomo Argument, Revisited and Refuted.

Lost in the disastrous Democratic Presidential campaign of 1984 (a/k/a "Mondale's Charge") was a significant political moment, especially for those of us who profess to be mackerel-snappers. At the 1984 Democratic Convention, the then-Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, gave a speech attempting to reconcile the pro-choice actions of Catholic politicians with their professed faith convictions. Not least of those politicians was Mondale's running mate, Rep. Geraldine Ferraro. Nevertheless, the speech had reverberations beyond 1984, and remains the standard article for the equally pro-choice politicos of our day.

Kenneth Woodward, Newsweek's former religion editor and a current contributing editor, eviscerates the logic in this month's Commonweal:

A whole new generation-including Senator Kerry-has come of political age since 1984, when Cuomo’s speech was seen as a defense not only of his own prochoice politics but also those of Geraldine Ferraro, a Catholic congresswoman from New York who was that year’s Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States. Since then, Cuomo’s apologia has been enshrined in books by and about him, highlighted in recent histories of American Catholicism by John T. McGreevy and Peter Steinfels, and echoed by the forty-eight members of Congress who recently asserted that “As Catholics we do not believe it is our role to legislate the teachings of the Catholic Church.” It is, then, a kind of benchmark statement that is worth revisiting to see what his arguments were and whether they hold up.

Woodward convincingly demonstrates that Cuomo was not really opposed to abortion, despite the obligatory disclaimer. Not even close:

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.

In his book, A People Adrift, Peter Steinfels has cautioned against twisting Cuomo’s argument “into the crude formula, ‘I am personally opposed to abortion but I don’t want to impose my view on others.’” In fact, Cuomo’s argument strikes me as even cruder than that. It says that his reasons for thinking abortion “sinful” are not only “private” but sectarian as well. Thus, while formally rejecting the notion that Catholic opposition to abortion on demand (another phrase he avoids) violates separation of church and state, Cuomo advances a rationale (the church has told him so) that bolsters the case for advancing just such a charge. It was, withal, a carefully crafted speech. Cuomo sought to defend both his docility toward church teachings and his right-indeed, his duty-to act against them.


* * *

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.

In 1988, the Democrats dropped from their platform a mild statement recognizing “the religious and ethical concerns which many Americans have about abortion.” Cuomo said not a word of objection. At the 1992 convention in New York City, where the Clinton forces proclaimed the Democrats the party of “the big tent,” Cuomo again stood by as the Clintonites silenced the prolife Catholic governor of Pennsylvania, Robert P. Casey. Casey, who was at least as liberal as Cuomo and far more effective as a governor, had asked to read a minority report challenging the platform’s endorsement of abortion as “a fundamental right” deserving of government funding. Instead, in introducing Clinton to the convention, Cuomo twice denounced Republican opposition to abortion. I was standing just behind Governor Casey’s empty seat when Cuomo brought the delegates to their feet in extended applause with this line: “We need a leader who will stop the Republican attempt, through laws and through the courts, to tell us what god to believe in and how to apply that god’s judgment to our schoolrooms, our bedrooms, and our bodies.” Stripped of the overheated partisan rhetoric, is this god he so derides not the same god who privately instructs Cuomo the Catholic that abortion is “sinful”? Here we see the whole intent of Cuomo’s Notre Dame speech-the spurious justification of a Catholic politician who wants it both ways.


RTWT--and Cuomo's response. Note that the Governor doesn't even attempt to rebut this part of the argument, and doesn't effectively answer the rest of it.

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