Quid Pro Cuomo

I see by the papers that Mario Cuomo has been invited to Notre Dame to speak on religion and politics and I for one am delighted. He seems as knowledgeable as most other professional theologians I know and he shows the tendency of the tribe to lash out at any bishop who tries to tie him down with dogma, the ordinary Magisterium or the simpler laws of logic. He ought to be a smash.

Some may wonder at the propriety of the premier Catholic university of the land giving a platform to an apostle of pluralism who will fight for your right to have an abortion though personally, etc. but this is mere nitpicking.

Just after Hans Kueng was declared to be no longer a Roman Catholic theologian he was welcomed onto the stage of Washington Hall here as “my fellow Catholic theologian” by the present chairperson of the theology department. Some found that odd. There were even those who saw it as a thumbing of the institutional nose at the Vatican. But the truth is that Kueng, like Cuomo, is not all that different from your average Catholic theologian nowadays.

Karl Rahner said that he found he could understand Kueng better by thinking of him as a Protestant theologian. I have found that this helps in other cases as well. I mean, when I was young, people who vilified the pope, enjoyed dwelling on the seamier side of church history and suggested that there was a lot of hanky-panky going on in all those convents and rectories, were acknowledged anti-Catholics, Protestants.

They were also very big on the separation of church and state. Like Mario. But with a difference of course. They considered this a Protestant country and they resented all these foreigners coming in and outbreeding the natives and threatening to take over. Well, they’ve taken over and look at them. Can you imagine Paul Blanshard trembling at the sight of Mario Cuomo, Geraldine Ferraro, Ted Kennedy, Senator Moynihan, on and on? Talk about assimilation.

Governor Cuomo is concerned that bishops will tell Catholics how to vote. Not to worry. They already tried that in the letter on nuclear weapons. There was even an effort to take the heat off people like the Governor of New York by suggesting that concern for life is a seamless garment and opposition to nuclear weapons, capital punishment and abortion are somehow all on the same moral plane. There are a lot of wrinkles in the seamless garment but Governor Cuomo chose not to try it on.

His argument, if I understand him, is that while he is personally convinced that abortion is wrong, presumably because it is the taking of innocent human life, as a public official in a pluralist society he must not attempt to force his views on others who presumably think abortion is all right because it is not the taking of a human life at all or, if it is, that there are other overriding considerations that justify it. Let’s try to understand the form of this argument first. There is some practice X that is wrong and I know this but there are others in the society who disagree and I go on living with them without trying to force them to act as if they like me know that X is wrong.

At first blush there seem to be loads of values of the variable where the argument works perfectly well. Take contraception. Theologians like Mario Cuomo may or may not accept the teaching of the Church on this matter, but Roman Catholics do. If forcing my views on others means I should invade people’s homes and confiscate whatever it is they use, this is obviously not entailed by my moral convictions. And, if it were simply a matter of what is happening in the privacy of other people’s bedrooms, it need not concern me because I would by definition have no knowledge of it.

But of course that isn’t the way it is at all. Contraception is morally wrong, yet we live in a society where it is not only legal but promoted by public and private agencies, is a routine element in courses in sex education given to high school students and generally regarded as a moral obligation indicative of responsibility by a majority of Americans. And by a lot of theologians who are as Catholic as Hans Kueng and have misled a lot of Catholics into thinking that in this matter they can “follow their own consciences” with impunity.

Now no one who knows contraception to be immoral can look upon this with aplomb. It is scarcely a private matter when contraceptives are made available to teenagers without their parents’ knowledge or consent. It is scarcely a matter of indifference when opposition to birth control is ascribed to an outmoded point of view. Nor is it a neutral matter when government, local and national, actively promotes a practice that is immoral.

All this sounds quaint, of course. When was the last time you heard contraception condemned in a pulpit, let alone anywhere else? The widespread public and official implementation of a practice in conflict with Catholic morality should be actively opposed. It is not, because the Catholic position has been confused by moral theologians and that means there is a lot of work to be done within the walls before anything can be expected on a wider front.

I deliberately chose contraception as a first example of X because, first, it illustrates how what is passed off as a private matter is actually a very public thing, where it is my support and not my acquiescence alone that is being forced on me and, second, because it is a case where putative spokesmen for the Church not only deny the Church’s teaching but adopt its contradictory.

I said that initially there seem to be loads of values for X which make the argument work. If someone wants to blaspheme, should I care? Or seduce his housekeeper? Or drink? Or smoke pot? Or read pornography, if that is the right verb. It is indeed easy to imagine your neighbor going down into his basement, staring at a wall and cursing to a farethewell. Or sitting on the edge of his bed with a bottle of scotch he intends to chugalug. Or anything of the other acts I mentioned, and not only would I not wish to force my views of such activities on him, I shouldn’t know he is up to them.

It is the public dimension of these actions that makes them matters of political concern. And there are laws regulating each and every one of them. Marijuana is illegal, there are legal constraints on pornography, the sale and consumption of alcohol is legally controlled. Such laws were framed by men and they incorporate views as to how people ought to act in society, that is, moral views. Those who do not like such laws will of course work to have them changed and have enacted other laws which incorporate their own moral views. And of course to lift restraints on a given sort of action is to give public support to that action. If the courts strike down all restrictions on tobacco smoking in public places they in effect will have given judicial support to my right to blow Pall Mall smoke in your face.

Well, you can see why I have difficulty seeing how Mario Cuomo or Geraldine Ferraro or any other Catholic politician can put abortion into that argument form. Particularly when they are not confessing to great moral anguish at the ongoing slaughter and lamenting that the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade managed to undermine the historic legal constraints on abortion in this country. I do not hear them saying that they are doing everything they can to remove legal sanctions of abortion but that, in the meantime, they do not intend to use any extralegal ways to prevent the killing of infants.

Quite the contrary. When Geraldine Ferraro was questioned on this matter by George Will on the David Brinkley program on August 19, she not only disavowed any intention of trying to change the legal situation but spoke rather feelingly of the government’s responsibility to provide funds to poor women to obtain the abortion she and other wealthy women can afford. It seemed clear that she is pro-abortion. She referred to it with finality as being the law. What can it possibly mean for her to say that she is personally against it? That she would not herself have an abortion? But then what can it mean for Mario Cuomo to make the same claim?

Archbishop O’Connor is right. This way of being against abortion is indistinguishable from being for it.

But in a time when some Catholics are indistinguishable from anti-Catholics this may not be surprising.

So welcome to Notre Dame, Governor Cuomo. Your views on religion and politics should be an intellectual treat. Personally, I think you are a disgrace, but of course I wouldn’t dream of imposing my views on others.

  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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