Mario Cuomo’s Trouble with Abortion

Mario Cuomo
Mario Cuomo; drawing by David Levine

Catholics, 25 percent of the population, and Jews, only 3 percent, have had a powerful influence on America’s Protestant majority. Both groups have a highly developed tradition, strongly inculcated, that was brought to America. Each resisted for a long time the dilution of its communities by intermarriage. American Protestantism, individualist and improvisational, diffuses its impact in sectarian rivalries. It lives by revivals, starting over from scratch. The strength of Catholicism and Judaism lies, by contrast, in their continuity.

Of these two, Catholics have the stronger structure of authority, prompting Lenny Bruce to call Catholicism the church. This church influences American politics in two ways, on separate tracks. It addresses outsiders, “men [sic] of good will,” with well formulated arguments from a long natural-law tradition, while delivering doctrinal fiats to its own members, who are expected to act from them in the public arena. Thus arguments are used against contraception in public debate, while those arguments and Church tradition are held to bind Catholics.

This double approach has been taken even when the strict teaching authority of the Church (its magisterium) is not involved. Thus Catholic authorities argued in the public realm, mainly through lay people, for the Hollywood Production Code, as a matter of civil decency; and, at the same time, bishops enlisted Catholics in the Legion of Decency, condemning movies with moral authority.1

In the same way, the Catholic bishops in America say that abortion is not a religious issue when addressing the public at large. In that forum, they rely on natural law, common sense, and probabilist arguments (even if the fetus is only probably human, one should not kill what might qualify as a live human being). But Catholics are told that they must hold to the Church’s position out of loyalty to their ecclesiastical rulers. The two tracks were clearly marked in 1990 when the hierarchy paid millions of dollars to a public-relations firm to make its public case, while bishops in New York state said that the Catholic governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, was endangering his soul and could not speak in diocesan institutions because he did not support a legal ban on abortion.

In earlier presidential campaigns, Edward Kennedy’s in 1980 and Geraldine Ferraro’s as the running mate for Walter Mondale in 1984, Catholics were particularly punitive to their own on the abortion issue. Kennedy’s position, for instance, did not differ from Jimmy Carter’s during the Democratic primaries of 1980; nor, obviously, did Geraldine Ferraro’s differ from Walter Mondale’s in 1984. But Catholics picketed and appealed to their bishops against Kennedy and Ferraro while largely ignoring the stands of Carter and Mondale. Partly, of course, this was just a matter of striking where one could have the most impact. But the situation that made that impact possible was the double standard by which Catholics are reachable—not only by the arguments made to all…

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