Of Many Things

I well remember where I was on the evening of July 16, 1984. I had settled into our modest living room in Massachusetts to watch the Democratic National Convention with my Dad. He wasn’t a Democrat, but he had nurtured a lifelong interest in politics, one he bequeathed to his fourth son. By 1984, at the age of 12, I was following the comings and goings of the U.S. Senate the way my brothers followed the box scores for the Red Sox.

That summer night, which became an early morning on the East Coast, Governor Mario M. Cuomo of New York delivered the convention’s keynote address to a packed hall and a watching world. This was the sort of event everybody watched back then, mainly because there was nothing else to watch: every network—all three of them—was broadcasting the speech.

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Mr. Cuomo’s speech was a rhetorical tour de force, a blistering indictment of the Reagan presidency, which had transformed the country, Mr. Cuomo argued, not into the shining city on a hill of which Mr. Reagan so often spoke, but into “a tale of two cities,” where “there is despair, Mr. President, in the faces you don’t see, in the places you don’t visit in your shining city.” It was the moral duty of government, Mr. Cuomo argued, to protect and empower those who were living in the shadows of life. The longtime ABC News commentator David Brinkley said it was one of the greatest convention speeches he had ever heard. It sure felt that way to me. It still does.

When I learned on New Year’s Day that Governor Cuomo had died at the age of 82, my mind flashed back at once to that night. I also thought, however, of another of Mr. Cuomo’s speeches, the one delivered at Notre Dame a mere two months after his triumph in San Francisco. There Mr. Cuomo made the case for the “I’m personally opposed to it but don’t wish to impose my morality on another” argument concerning abortion. “The Catholic public official,” he said, “lives the political truth most Catholics through most of American history have accepted and insisted on: the truth that to assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful.”

That is an inarguably true statement. The history of Catholic political action, as well as our current prudential choices, attests to it. Yet no one was arguing then that every sinful act should be proscribed by law. The argument was and remains that there are some acts that are held by Catholics to be sinful that should be proscribed by law, not simply because the church views them as sinful but because they involve grave matters of life and death. Homicide, assisted suicide and rape are good examples—as is abortion, in the judgment of many people.

The argument Mr. Cuomo needed to make at Notre Dame was why abortion was different from those other morally grave issues. Why should we exempt abortion from the list? Why is it an imposition on another’s freedom to codify a moral judgment with regard to abortion but not with regard to economic policy? To put it another way: Why is government action morally required in his convention speech but not in his Notre Dame speech? What is the decisive difference?

I wish Mario Cuomo had answered those questions. His answers may not have proved satisfactory, but they would have added a lot to the conversation. If any public figure of the last five decades could have done that, it would have been he. He had the smarts and he had the conviction. “We believe in a government strong enough to use words like ‘love’ and ‘compassion’ and smart enough to convert our noblest aspirations into practical realities,” he once said. Amen, Mr. Cuomo. R.I.P.

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Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 10 months ago
"The argument was and remains that there are some acts that are held by Catholics to be sinful that should be proscribed by law, not simply because the church views them as sinful but because they involve grave matters of life and death." I'll believe and accept your argument, Fr. Matt, when Catholics show up en masse to protest state sponsored murder: the death penalty. This rarely makes the list either. I wish you had included it.
William Atkinson
3 years 10 months ago
And then there's Oregon. A very close friend of mine weeps often that his mother chose to submit his father, his closest companion, fishing buddy, and otherwise the man who stood tall and beside him most of his life, when he was sick, not terminally sick, to die from the art of withholding medicine, food and water, while he suffered and agonizing death for days on end and finally in a horrifying lurching move passed from this life, as my friend held his hand in agony and watched his father die. My close companion and friend was 33, his father was 54. We spent the next three weeks at the retreat summer center in Neskowin , Oregon trying to understand how this could happen in our day and times.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 10 months ago
The great tragedy of this speech is that Cuomo failed to recognize that this was a justice issue and not just a sinful act. Many people made the same mistake in the early part of our nation regards slavery. Cuomo had a chance to steer his party away from a culture of death and he became part of the enemy of life. Millions have died since then and this speech played a large part in giving cover to their slaughter. Cuomo's choice was kind of an opposite of St. Thomas More, who was willing to risk everything for the truth. I note that half-a-million of the prolife generation (born since abortion became legal - to prolifers) marched this week for justice for the children. There is a great contrast between this injustice and the death penalty, even if both should be ended: Innocence vs. homicidal conviction; millions vs. hundreds killed; summary execution vs. due process trial, etc. It is sad that some Catholics hold the lives of millions of innocent children hostage to the ending of capital punishment (the 'seamless' argument). But the hypocrisy is revealed when even they would not agree to outlaw abortion in every state that has outlawed the death penalty.
Egberto Bermudez
3 years 10 months ago
New Yes, Fr. Malone, the issue of the personhood and the legal protection of the unborn will simply not go away:"The argument was and remains that there are some acts that are held by Catholics to be sinful that should be proscribed by law, not simply because the church views them as sinful but because they involve grave matters of life and death. Homicide, assisted suicide and rape are good examples—as is abortion, in the judgment of many people."This was also the judgment of the late Gov. Robert P. Casey. https://www.youtube.com/watch?x-yt-cl=84503534&v=YjgYRgxgI2I&x-yt-ts=1421914688
Bruce Snowden
3 years 10 months ago
It was surprising to discover that a little minnow could so aggravate a giant shark that it would come after the minnow aggressively, but so it happened! I’m talking about a “Letter to the Editor” of “The Riverdale Press” in NYC in which I accused the late Governor Mario Cuomo of “political expediency” in his support of the abortion industry in NY, at the time an expedient thing to do if you wanted to be elected or reelected to political office. The angry voice on the phone as I remember the call said, “This is Governor Cuomo, what do you mean by accusing me of political expediency?” My response was, “Come on, you’re not the Governor, who are you kidding?” The quick response said, “I am the Governor and would like to know what you meant!” I replied, “Stop fooling around. Who are you?” Back and forth we went for about a minute, then, the voice in aggravation said, “Goodbye!” Something in the “Goodbye” did it and I suddenly recognized the voice as authentic and said , “Good God, it was the Governor!” I felt like kicking myself in the butt for being so incredulous, losing the opportunity to explain what I meant, maybe helping to alter Governor Cuomo’s politically expedient position on the killing of the not yet born children. I thought of calling the Governor’s office to try to get him back on the phone, but I didn’t want to look like a jerk in case the whole thing was in fact a farce, as a little corner of doubt in my mind still existed. However, all these years later and no longer in NYC, I remain ninety-five percent sure it was the Governor and so relative to the truth that Governor Cuomo was an excellent and convincing speech-giver, noted by Fr. Matt Malone in the article on which I offer this posting, I also point out that the “big shark” could be pretty thin-skinned when publicly challenged even by a “little minnow." I believe the challenge is now fully understood and accepted in the Land of the Living, where “truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” prevails. Yes, Governor, rest in peace.
Chuck Kotlarz
3 years 10 months ago
The “tale of two cities” is evident today in deep red and deep blue states. The abortion rate in deep blue states is twice that of deep red states.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 10 months ago
Two likely contributing reasons for lower abortion rates in the red states: more religious/pro-life voters will have less abortions, and more pro-life laws inhibit the choice to abort. There is also the so-called long-term demographic effect - the so-called "Roe effect" - that argues that pro-lifers have larger families and ultimately more votes against abortion. (http://www.wsj.com/news/articles/SB122695016603334449). I also recall that the son of Cuomo - current Governor of NY - is another important anti-life legacy of Mario Cuomo. Andrew Cuomo, in Jan-2014, said: that "right-to-lifers...have no place in the state of New York, because that’s not who New Yorkers are."
Henry George
3 years 10 months ago
Governor Cuomo was a politician. He could have worked to set up a Government Agency provide Adoptions for Healthy Mother seeking to Abort a Baby but he did not. As such, harsh as it may seem to speak in such a way about the dead, does he deserve to Rest In Peace without any time in Purgatory ?
Bruce Snowden
3 years 10 months ago
Hi Mr. George, Allow me to offer my two cents on Mario Cuomo in Purgatory, the state to which I suggest, most Believers "pass through" or experience. If Mario the sinner did end up there, by this time he must be in the Land of the Living since as I see it, Purgatory is not a matter of "time" days, weeks, months, years, but rather a matter of "intensity" an opportunity offered to finish an undone job, namely, to fully "grow in love" the ultimate purpose of life, which is accomplished in a flash of intense levels of achieved love, according to personal necessity "finishing-up" what's needed to be ready to live totally in love with God, neighbor and self, exactly what heaven is all about. Purgatory within that frame is a wonderful place, a place of great mercy and profound thanksgiving to God an "intense mea culpa"where God is glorified through acknowledgement of one's own sins, all happening in a flash. I hope this opinion has some theological veracity where all repentant sinner find quick disolvement through total involvement in God. There's more I could say, but it would make this post too long.
Dan Hannula
3 years 10 months ago
Father Matt: While you were watching Governor Cuomo on TV deliver the keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, I was in that hall in San Francisco listening to him live. Like you, I was greatly moved. As a Catholic and (obviously) an active Democrat, I was, like you, troubled by Mr. Cuomo’s Notre Dame speech earlier that summer in 1984. The Democratic party, only a few years previously, began to debate and take sides on the issue. It was vigorously debated up to and at that 1984 convention. Like you, I agreed with Mr. Cuomo that Catholics, to assure our freedom, must allow others freedom even if it produces what we conclude to be sinful conduct. I studied Mr. Cuomo’s Notre Dame speech and, like you, I felt Mr. Cuomo should have argued more convincingly that Catholic politicians were not obligated to overturn legalized abortion. Why is government morally obligated to take some actions but, in this case, it is not? What do we owe our fellow citizens (and what do they owe us) when we disagree on moral issues? Where is the illusive distinction between a public morality, that should be enforced by law, and mere private morality? For sure, finding ourselves on the losing side is sometimes the price we must pay to live in a free society. But, how do we know when we are paying that price or acquiescing in a wrong to our society? I wished, like you, that Mr. Cuomo had better answered this perplexing problem. However, some Catholics have glibly concluded that Catholics who hold political office have an easy choice. So clear is the position that Catholic politicians may be denied communion for disagreeing. This, in spite of multiple complex and overlapping moral obligations. The obligation, for example, imposed by an oath of office to uphold and defend the Constitution, or the moral obligation to respect the process by which law is created, or the moral obligation to respect (and obey) the results of that legal process, or, any prudential conclusion that our moral obligations are partly dependent on what we judge we can accomplish. Moreover, in the abstract, good and evil are unmixed. Political action, on the other hand, is a mixture. It is a mixture of competing rights, obligations and consequences; both good and bad. Governor Cuomo, weighing these factors, and took a side. Like you, I wish Governor Cuomo had done a better job of answering these questions. But, did those on the other side do any better?
Frank Bergen
3 years 10 months ago
Abortion is an issue which should be profoundly troubling for every Christian, for every person of good will. No one among us should simply opt for a politics of 'choice' or of 'life' and never have a doubt as to the correctness of that decision. With that said, may I remind us all of my Jesuit brother Francis' judgment that facts trump theories, that our decisions are made, not in a vacuum, but in real life contexts. And the real life context in which women, girls, couples, families decide whether to accept and nurture a pregnancy matters immensely. Is the pregnant woman or girl physically, mentally, psychologically able to support her pregnancy and to rear or assign to others the child she bears? Is the society which forms the broader context in which pregnancy and child-bearing and rearing is to take place supportive of the parent(s) in their particular circumstances? I see few signs that our society, in its political and economic structures and even in its spirituality, is ready, willing and able to support the decision to accept a pregnancy and be part of the 'village' that raises the resulting child. As long as we are not a supportive and nourishing society, how can we in justice say to the pregnant woman or girl that she cannot terminate an unsupported and insupportable pregnancy? Accepting that each of us is -- within limits -- responsible for her or his decisions, I puzzle somewhat that as a political or religious entity, either state or church can attempt to deny a woman the right to make decisions, even painful and perhaps sinful (but who am I to judge?) ones that affect her more immediately and personally than they do the righteous church or state. Create a society in which every person is provided complete, timely and positive education regarding human sexuality, and in which all medically approved means of preventing conception are made available to and understood by all members of that society from the time of puberty forward and the instances of abortion will surely decrease, even exponentially. Will they not? Finally, blessed though he may be, Paul VI was wrong in the most memorable statement he made in Humanae Vitae.
Patrick Robinson
3 years 10 months ago
Patrick Robinson Basking Ridge NJ | 1/31/2015 - 8:57am Fr.Malone rightly critiques the Cuomo dichotomy of demanding government action on the moral issue of helping the poor while rejecting the same government action on the moral issue of protecting the unborn. However, Fr.Malone's expression of his own opinions presents a similar dichotomy. After noting the reference by a TV commentator to the Cuome convention speech calling for government action to "empower those who were living in the shadows" as "one of the greatest" the commentator had ever heard, Fr.Malone writes, "{i]t sure felt that way to me.It still does." But when discussing protection of the unborn, Fr.Malone provides his own disappointing dichotomy, failing to explicitly call for government action to protect the unborn. Instead, he writes, "[t]he argument was and remains that there are some acts that are held by Catholics to be sinful that should be proscribed by law..Homicide, assisted suicide and rape are good examples-- as is abortion, in the judgment of many people." Does Fr.Malone agree with those "many people?" I hope so, but his article hardly makes that clear.

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