Faithful Catholics in Buffalo were discouraged to read in their local paper late last month that their allegedly pro-life Catholic senator Tim Kennedy (D-63rd District) intends to vote in favor of New York’s Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo’s expansion of abortion in the State. Kennedy won his seat in 2010 by running as a pro-life candidate ousting then-Senator Bill Stachowski—a Democrat with a strong pro-life record.
Claiming that his position on abortion has “evolved” after much thought and prayer, Kennedy joins a long list of self-described Catholic politicians like Governor Cuomo himself who claim that they are “personally opposed to abortion,” yet would never stand in the way of those who choose abortion.
Kennedy has already won accolades from New York’s progressives who are already making him a hero much like they made New York State Democratic assemblyman George M. Michaels a hero back in 1970 when he changed his vote to break a legislative tie by voting in favor of legalizing abortion in the State. In that important vote—legalizing abortion in New York long before Roe v Wade—Assemblywoman Constance Cook had forced a bill to repeal New York’s anti-abortion laws. The New York State Senate passed the bill 31 to 26. But, when it moved to the Assembly, the vote resulted in a tie: 74 to 74. That would have been a defeat, but Michaels, a Democrat who represented a district that with a 65 percent Catholic majority—in the days when all Catholics were pro-life—changed his vote from “no” to “yes.”
Michaels became an instant hero for the pro-choice side, but a pariah in his own district. He had been elected on the votes of his Catholic constituency—a group that made up 65 percent of the city of Auburn—and he never again held public office. But, he is remembered today among the Democratic elite as one of the most courageous men of his time. In 2002, the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award was posthumously given to Michaels for striking down abortion laws in New York.
While State Senator Kennedy is now sharing the progressive stage with the memory of Michaels for his “bold” decision to reject the wishes of his pro-life constituents by expanding access to abortion, the stinging response from the Most Reverend Richard J. Malone, the courageous leader of Buffalo’s Catholic diocese has been welcomed by faithful Catholics throughout the country. In what the Buffalo News has called an “unprecedented statement by a Buffalo bishop about a local Catholic officeholder,” Bishop Malone wrote that “For anyone to say that he or she is a faithful Catholic and to be pro-abortion/pro-choice is totally inconsistent with Catholic teaching, which is clearly articulated in the catechism of the Catholic Church.”
In his defense, Kennedy claims that he “remains a practicing Catholic at St. Martin’s Church in South Buffalo and that he is nurturing his children in the faith.” But, Bishop Malone countered such a claim by issuing yet another statement pointing out that “practicing Catholics who claim they are nurturing their children in the faith must teach their children that abortion is intrinsically evil, that human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.”
Bishop Malone personifies the new generation of what Christopher White, my co-author and I call “transformational bishops” in our new book, Renewal: How a New Generation of Bishops and Priests is Revitalizing the Church. For this new generation, sanctity of life issues are foundational—not just because of religious views about abortion, but because the act of dehumanizing and killing the unborn child attacks human dignity in a uniquely grave way.
These transformational bishops have been outspoken on the role that Catholic politicians have played in contributing to the culture of death through their votes to expand women’s access to abortion here and abroad. In fact, this is where the transformational bishop distinguishes himself from the others, for it takes real courage to publicly confront the culture of death that has been promoted at the state and federal level by Catholic politicians who continue to maintain that they can be personally opposed to abortion yet still vote in favor of legislation that expands the rate of abortion.
New York’s Senator Kennedy was likely surprised by the strong response from his bishop. Until 2012, Buffalo was led by Bishop Edward U. Kmiec, a member of a cohort of bishops who remained silent on the pro-abortion activities of Catholic politicians in their dioceses. In fact, back in 2007, when a deacon in the Buffalo diocese was publicly critical of the pro-choice voting record of Catholic Democratic representative, Brian Higgins, Bishop Kmiec publicly apologized to Higgins and chastised the deacon. In response, Higgins scolded the Church saying to reporter for the Buffalo News that “the Church has enough problems and should take greater care before allowing non-priests to use the church as a forum to advance what clearly was a political agenda.”
Whether Albany’s bishop will follow the lead of his Buffalo brother bishop by reminding the self-described Catholic Governor Cuomo of his obligation to respect life remains to be seen. But, faithful Catholics are hoping that the courage of a growing number of transformational bishops like Bishop Malone, can be contagious.