Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo died Thursday at age 82, hours after his son Andrew Cuomo was sworn in for a second term in the office his father commanded from 1983 to 1994.
For a generation of New Yorkers, Mario Matthew Cuomo was the popular Democratic governor making headlines as a potential presidential candidate — he never ran, despite the rumors — and fighting legislators who wanted to reinstate the death penalty in New York. He vetoed their efforts in each of his 12 years in office.
Nationally, Cuomo was the rare liberal icon to emerge from the Reagan years. He was former President Bill Clinton's first choice to fill a U.S. Supreme Court seat in 1993, but eventually passed on the offer. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a fellow New Yorker, got the nomination and the job.
Cuomo's legacy as a powerful and eloquent speaker — especially when making a rigorous case for, at the time, mostly out-of-favor liberal ideals — is unquestioned. Two speeches, delivered in an 8-week span during the summer of 1984, sealed his place in the progressive political canon.
The first came on July 16 at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. President Ronald Reagan, running for a second term that year, had long called the U.S. a "shining city upon a hill." On this date, Cuomo flipped the script, giving voice to those the 1980s had left behind. The country was, he said, really more a "tale of two cities."
"Ten days ago, President Reagan admitted that although some people in this country seemed to be doing well nowadays, others were unhappy, even worried, about themselves, their families, and their futures. The President said that he didn't understand that fear. He said, 'Why, this country is a shining city on a hill.' And the President is right. In many ways we are a shining city on a hill.
But the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city's splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the president sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there's another city; there's another part to the shining the city; the part where some people can't pay their mortgages, and most young people can't afford one; where students can't afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate."
Watch Cuomo's keynote speech here:
The speech made Cuomo a national political star. He was also the country's most respected living Catholic politician. This posed what at the time seemed like an irreconcilable internal conflict: How could Cuomo, who said he personally opposed abortion, be a real advocate for a woman's right to choose?
On Sept. 13, 1984, Cuomo visited the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, to address the school's Department of Theology. His speech, "Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor's Perspective" would reset the terms of the debate.
Some highlights from Cuomo's remarkable lecture are below. You can watch the whole speech here.
"The acceptance of this faith requires a lifelong struggle to understand it more fully and to live it more truly, to translate truth into experience, to practice as well as to believe.
That's not easy: applying religious belief to everyday life often presents difficult challenges.
It's always been that way. It certainly is today. The America of the late twentieth century is a consumer society, filled with endless distractions, where faith is more often dismissed than challenged, where the ethnic and other loyalties that once fastened us to our religion seem to be weakening.
In addition to all the weaknesses, dilemmas and temptations that impede every pilgrim's progress, the Catholic who holds political office in a pluralistic democracy — who is elected to serve Jews and Muslims, atheists and Protestants, as well as Catholics — bears special responsibility. He or she undertakes to help create conditions under which all can live with a maximum of dignity and with a reasonable degree of freedom; where everyone who chooses may hold beliefs different from specifically Catholic ones — sometimes contradictory to them; where the laws protect people's right to divorce, to use birth control and even to choose abortion."
Cuomo also discussed the Church's willingness to "[abide] the civil law as it now stands," effectively accepting divorce and birth control. Not so for abortion. "Abortion," he said, "is treated differently."
"Of course there are differences both in degree and quality between abortion and some of the other religious positions the Church takes: abortion is a 'matter of life and death,' and degree counts. But the differences in approach reveal a truth, I think, that is not well enough perceived by Catholics and therefore still further complicates the process for us. That is, while we always owe our bishops' words respectful attention and careful consideration, the question whether to engage the political system in a struggle to have it adopt certain articles of our belief as part of public morality, is not a matter of doctrine: It is a matter of prudential political judgment.
Recently, Michael Novak put it succinctly: 'Religious judgment and political judgment are both needed,' he wrote. 'But they are not identical.'
My church and my conscience require me to believe certain things about divorce, birth control and abortion.
My church does not order me — under pain of sin or expulsion — to pursue my salvific mission according to a precisely defined political plan.
As a Catholic I accept the church's teaching authority. While in the past some Catholic theologians may appear to have disagreed on the morality of some abortions (it wasn't, I think, until 1869 that excommunication was attached to all abortions without distinction), and while some theologians still do, I accept the bishops' position that abortion is to be avoided.
As Catholics, my wife and I were enjoined never to use abortion to destroy the life we created, and we never have. We thought Church doctrine was clear on this, and — more than that — both of us felt it in full agreement with what our hearts and our consciences told us. For me life or fetal life in the womb should be protected, even if five of nine Justices of the Supreme Court and my neighbor disagree with me. A fetus is different from an appendix or a set of tonsils. At the very least, even if the argument is made by some scientists or some theologians that in the early stages of fetal development we can't discern human life, the full potential of human life is indisputably there. That — to my less subtle mind — by itself should demand respect, caution, indeed ... reverence.
But not everyone in our society agrees with me and Matilda.
And those who don't — those who endorse legalized abortions — aren't a ruthless, callous alliance of anti-Christians determined to overthrow our moral standards. In many cases, the proponents of legal abortion are the very people who have worked with Catholics to realize the goals of social justice set out in papal encyclicals: the American Lutheran Church, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Presbyterian Church in the United States, B'nai B'rith Women, the Women of the Episcopal Church. These are just a few of the religious organizations that don't share the Church's position on abortion.
Certainly, we should not be forced to mold Catholic morality to conform to disagreement by non-Catholics however sincere or severe their disagreement. Our bishops should be teachers not pollsters. They should not change what we Catholics believe in order to ease our consciences or please our friends or protect the Church from criticism.
But if the breadth, intensity and sincerity of opposition to church teaching shouldn't be allowed to shape our Catholic morality, it can't help but determine our ability — our realistic, political ability — to translate our Catholic morality into civil law, a law not for the believers who don't need it but for the disbelievers who reject it.
And it is here, in our attempt to find a political answer to abortion — an answer beyond our private observance of Catholic morality — that we encounter controversy within and without the Church over how and in what degree to press the case that our morality should be everybody else's, and to what effect.
I repeat, there is no Church teaching that mandates the best political course for making our belief everyone's rule, for spreading this part of our Catholicism. There is neither an encyclical nor a catechism that spells out a political strategy for achieving legislative goals.
And so the Catholic trying to make moral and prudent judgments in the political realm must discern which, if any, of the actions one could take would be best."
Finally, Cuomo makes the pragmatic argument, one that applies as much today as it did 30 years ago.
"Respectfully, and after careful consideration of the position and arguments of the bishops, I have concluded that the approach of a constitutional amendment is not the best way for us to seek to deal with abortion.
I believe that legal interdicting of abortion by either the federal government or the individual states is not a plausible possibility and even if it could be obtained, it wouldn't work. Given present attitudes, it would be 'Prohibition' revisited, legislating what couldn't be enforced and in the process creating a disrepect for law in general. And as much as I admire the bishops' hope that a constitutional amendment against abortion would be the basis for a full, new bill of rights for mothers and children, I disagree that this would be the result.
I believe that, more likely, a constitutional prohibition would allow people to ignore the causes of many abortions instead of addressing them, much the way the death penalty is used to escape dealing more fundamentally and more rationally with the problem of violent crime.
Other legal options that have been proposed are, in my view, equally ineffective. The Hatch Amendment, by returning the question of abortion to the states, would have given us a checkerboard of permissive and restrictive jurisdictions. In some cases people might have been forced to go elsewhere to have abortions and that might have eased a few consciences but it wouldn't have done what the Church wants to do — it wouldn't have created a deep-seated respect for life. Abortions would have gone on, millions of them.
Nor would a denial of medicaid funding for abortion achieve our objectives. Given Roe v. Wade, it would be nothing more than an attempt to do indirectly what the law says cannot be done directly; worse, it would do it in a way that would burden only the already disadvantaged. Removing funding from the medicaid program would not prevent the rich and middle classes from having abortions. It would not even assure that the disadvantaged wouldn't have them; it would only impose financial burdens on poor women who want abortions.
Apart from that unevenness, there is a more basic question. Medicaid is designed to deal with health and medical needs. But the arguments for the cutoff of medicaid abortion funds are not related to those needs. They are moral arguments. If we assume health and medical needs exist, our personal view of morality ought not to be considered a relevant basis for discrimination.
We must keep in mind always that we are a nation of laws — when we like those laws, and when we don't."
Mario Cuomo was a religious man and an intellectual, a hardscrabble politician and a gifted statesman. He was New York's governor for more than a decade. His legacy will carry on much longer than that.