In 1984, then-Governor of New York Mario Cuomo gave a famous address at Notre Dame University that, in essence, defended the notion that a Catholic could in good conscience be a public official who defends the legal destruction of unborn children. His argument rested on the assumption that the defense of human life from conception was a merely sectarian doctrine, unique to Catholics, which should not be enacted into civil law.
Twenty-five years have passed, and the Governor’s position has been thouroughly rejected by Pope John Paul II (see, for example, Evangelium Vitae), the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the United States Bishops (see, for example, Living the Gospel of Life), and every single Catholic bishop who has ever spoken on the subject.
My favorite quote from Cardinal Egan, in response to remarks by the Speaker of the House that were the direct descendent of the Governor’s Notre Dame sophistry, makes it clear:
We are blessed in the 21st century with crystal-clear photographs and action films of the living realities within their pregnant mothers. No one with the slightest measure of integrity or honor could fail to know what these marvelous beings manifestly, clearly, and obviously are, as they smile and wave into the world outside the womb. In simplest terms, they are human beings with an inalienable right to live, a right that the Speaker of the House of Representatives is bound to defend at all costs for the most basic of ethical reasons. They are not parts of their mothers, and what they are depends not at all upon the opinions of theologians of any faith. Anyone who dares to defend that they may be legitimately killed because another human being “chooses” to do so or for any other equally ridiculous reason should not be providing leadership in a civilized democracy worthy of the name.
In these instances, and in many, many others, the Church has unhesitatingly and with one voice defined that the the destruction of innocent unborn human beings is always gravely immoral, and that all persons are obliged to protect them, including by enacting civil laws to prohibit abortion. This is not merely a sectarian doctrine unique to the Catholic Church, but is an elementary tenet of the natural moral law that is common to all persons of every age. Enacting this moral principle into civil law is no different from prohibiting slavery, murder, or rape. It is a fundamental principle of justice.
In the face of such a steadfast and universal proclamation of doctrine, one would think that the normal reaction by a Catholic would be to accept the fraternal correction by his Church and offer a humble submission of faith to the correct doctrine (see Lumen Gentium 25).
But not our former Governor. Instead, he decided to comment on the statement by Bishop Tobin of Rhode Island, directing Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the pro-abortion Congressman, not to present himself for Holy Communion until he repents of his immoral public statements and acts. Displaying the classic modern tendency to hold oneself up as the highest teaching authority in matters of faith and morals, the Governor was quoted in a news report as saying:
Cuomo said there are two positions a politician can take: They can oppose church doctrine outright or, as he did, accept church teachings personally but refuse to carry them into the public arena where they would affect people of every faith. ” Don’t ask me to make everybody live by it because they are not members of the church,” Cuomo said. “If that were the operative rule, how could you get any Catholic politician in office? And would that be better for the Catholic church?”
These comments make no sense, either for a Catholic or for anyone else.
- All laws reflect moral judgments of right and wrong. If a public official rules out the influence of their religious faith in making such judgments, on what basis does he act?
- Why would anyone vote for a politician who was so unprincipled or cowardly that he checked his religious faith at the door of the government office he holds? How could you trust him to do anything according to principle?
- The prohibition against killing the innocent is not an inside Catholic rule, but a principle of the moral law. How is it an improper imposition of a religious teaching to prohibit inherently immoral acts like rape or theft?
- The choice to accept Church teaching privately but to live another way publicly is morally irresponsible and reprehensible. It is a gross violation of the fundamental rule of Christian morality — treat others as you would wish to be treated.
- And, the highest value in life is not to make Catholic politicians more electable, or to make things better for the Church, but to live a life of holiness. Holiness is not a private thing — it must infuse every part of our lives, or we are poor excuses for followers of Christ.
Today is the feast day of Blessed Miguel Pro. This great and holy priest defied the unjust laws of Mexico that outlawed the celebration of the Mass and proscribed priests. He was martyred for his opposition to the immoral laws of his nation. He didn’t hide behind a distinction between private belief and public acts. He understood. If only more of our public officials understood.