1984 Revisited: Archbishop O’Connor vs. Governor Cuomo

Shortly after John J. O’Connor became Archbishop of New York in March 1984, he found himself in a battle with the state’s governor, Mario M. Cuomo, which not only made national headlines but also had a profound impact on the abortion debate in America.

It began when the archbishop said during a press conference: I do not see how a Catholic, in good conscience, can vote for an individual expressing himself or herself as favoring abortion.” That didn’t sit well with Cuomo. 

The governor, who in the early 1970s had been publicly pro-life, changed his position after losing a primary for lieutenant governor in 1973 and then a race for mayor in 1977.  To advance his career, Cuomo adopted the now familiar line that, as a Catholic, he was personally opposed to abortion. But as an elected official it would be wrong for him to impose his religious beliefs on the general public. He went on the offensive about O’Connor’s comment, telling the New York Times:

The Church has never been this aggressively involved [in politics].  Now you have the Archbishop of New York saying that no Catholic can vote for Ed Koch [the N.Y.C. mayor], no Catholic can vote for [City Comptroller] Jay Goldin, for [City Council President] Carol Bellamy, for [U.S. Senator] Pat Moynihan or Mario Cuomo – anybody who disagrees with him on abortion. . . .The Archbishop says, “You Mario, are a Catholic who agrees with me that abortion is an evil”. . . .The Archbishop says, “OK, now I want you to insist that everybody believe what we believe.”

Cuomo did not stop there; he described to Newsday what he believed were the potential implications of O’Connor’s remark:

So I’m a Catholic governor. I’m going to make you all Catholics – no birth control, you have to go to church on Sunday, no abortion. . . .What happens when an atheist wins? Then what do I do? Then they’re going to start drawing and quartering me.

At first, O’Connor appeared to back off. He told the Brooklyn Tablet that he had never said, “anywhere, at any time, that ‘no Catholic can vote for Ed Koch.’. . .My sole responsibility is to present. . .the formal official teaching of the Catholic Church.  I leave to those interested in such teachings [to judge how] the public statements of officeholders and candidates” match up.

In a New York magazine interview he further explained:

I think there’s a deep disquiet in the national consciousness about this issue. People know it’s wrong. They know we’re killing. It’s not a matter of arguing the precise moment when a fetus becomes a baby – people know that thousands of real life human babies are being killed every day. . .and they don’t know what to do. They’re confused, upset about it. To me, that anguish is the only reasonable explanation of why I can utter a simple statement, a simple answer to a simple question – I  don’t see how a Catholic in good conscience can vote for a politician who explicitly favors abortion – and immediately it becomes enormous news.
So O’Connor wasn’t backing off at all, and for him the debate was far from over.

After the Democratic National Convention nominated the first woman vice-presidential candidate, Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro of Queens – a so-called pro-choice Catholic – O’Connor publicly criticized her for saying “things about abortion relevant to Catholic teaching which are not true”:

The only thing I know about her is that she has given the world to understand that Catholic teaching is divided on the subject of abortion. . . .As an officially approved teacher of the Catholic Church, all I can judge is that what has been said about Catholic teaching is wrong. . . .I have absolutely nothing against Geraldine Ferraro; I will not tell anybody in the United States you should vote for or against [her] or anybody else. . . .She has given the world to understand that Catholic teaching is divided on the subject of abortion [when there is] no variance, no flexibility, no leeway.

When the Congresswoman denied she had ever misinterpreted Church teaching, O’Connor released a copy of a letter Ferraro had signed and sent two years earlier to fifty Catholic members of Congress concerning a group called “Catholics For a Free Choice.”  In it, she wrote that Catholics for a Free Choice “shows us that the Catholic position on abortion is not monolithic and that there can be a range of personal and political responses to the issue.”

This led to a 25-minute phone conversation between Ferraro and O’Connor during which the archbishop reemphasized that there is “simply no room for a ‘free choice’ on the matter of abortion . . . [T]he Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and the bishops of the United States [have] made that abundantly clear.” 

Mrs. Ferraro termed the conversation “cordial, direct and helpful,” but then she added, aping Cuomo, that: 

when bishops speak out they are doing their duty as Church officials. . . .[W]hen I speak out I am doing my duty as a public official and my foremost duty as a public official is to uphold the United States Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion. I cannot fulfill that duty if I seek to impose my own religion on other American citizens.  And I am determined to do my duty as a public official.

The liberal establishment was appalled by what it viewed as O’Connor’s meddling.  The New York Times pontificated:

It might as well be said bluntly. . .[the] effort to impose a religious test on the performance of Catholic politicians threatens the hard-won understanding that finally brought America to elect a Catholic President a generation ago.

Senator Ted Kennedy accused O’Connor of “blatant sectarian appeals” and argued that not “every moral command could become law.”

Mario Cuomo refused to sit on the sidelines. On September 13, 1984, he flew to America’s best known Catholic university, Notre Dame, to answer O’Connor in a talk titled “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective.” Cuomo described himself to his audience, as “an old-fashioned Catholic who sins, regrets, struggles, worries, gets confused, and most of the time feels better after confession.”

“The Catholic Church,” Cuomo said, “is my spiritual home.” He added, “I accept the Church’s teaching on abortion,” but then asked, “Must I insist you do?”: 

Our public morality then – the moral standards we maintain for everyone, not just the ones we insist on in our private lives – depends  on a consensus view of right and wrong.  The values derived from religious belief will not and should not be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large by consensus.

He evoked Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s “seamless garment” argument, saying that abortion “has a unique significance but not a preemptive significance. . .[and] will always be a central concern of Catholics.  But so will nuclear weapons.  And hunger and homelessness and joblessness, all the forces diminishing human life and threatening to destroy it.”

And arguing that a consensus to ban abortion simply did not exist, Cuomo concluded:

I believe that legal interdicting of all abortions 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 disrespect for law in general.

As historian Richard Brookhiser has written, “Cuomo had found, in consensus and prudence, a way of having religion when he wanted it to not having it when he didn’t.” The consensus argument was even too much for the very liberal Bishop of Albany, Howard Hubbard:

While I support wholeheartedly the governor’s position on capital punishment, there is no consensus in our state or nation on this matter.  Quite the contrary.  The polls show that 60 percent to 70 percent of the population favors the death penalty.
Also polls indicate that the vast majority of the citizens in New York are opposed to recent legislation about the mandatory usage of seat belts.  Yet contrary to citizen consensus, the governor supports such legislation because it would save several hundred lives a year.  Why not a similar concern about saving the thousands of human lives which are terminated annually through abortion on demand?
And the renowned theologian, Msgr. William B. Smith, dean of St. Joseph’s Seminary, agreed:
The governor’s style was smooth and slick, but the content was specious and misleading.  He is obviously a competent man, but a couple of points were horrendous, one being the complete ignoring of the human rights issue.  Human rights do not rest on consensus.  Respect for the human rights of blacks, Jewish people – any  minority – does not rest on consensus.  This is why we call them inalienable rights. He relied on the 15-year old rhetoric of Planned Parenthood [that] we’re trying to impose our morality on others. The Supreme Court didn’t establish a consensus; it destroyed one. The laws in the 50 states weren’t there because the Catholic Church put them there.

A month later Archbishop O’Connor gave a speech before a Catholic Medical Group – with Mother Teresa sitting on the stage – in which he challenged the Cuomo thesis: “You have to uphold the law, the Constitution says.  It does not say that you must agree with the law, or that you cannot work to change the law.”

There are those who argue that we cannot legislate morality. The reality is that we do legislate behavior every day. . . .It is obvious that law is not the entire answer to abortion.  Nor is it the entire answer to theft, arson, child abuse, or shooting police officers. Everybody knows that.  But who would suggest that we repeal the laws against such crimes because the law is so often broken.

He ended by reasserting his original public stance. 
I have the responsibility of spelling out. . .with accuracy and clarity what the Church officially teaches. . . .I have simultaneously the obligation to try to dispel confusion about such teaching wherever it exists, however it has been generated, regardless of who may have generated it. . . .I recognize the dilemma confronted by some Catholics in political life.  I cannot resolve that dilemma for them.  As I see it, their disagreement, if they do disagree, is not simply with me [but] with the teaching of the Catholic Church.

For many Catholics, John O’Connor became a national hero.  After years of bishops sitting on the sidelines, finally here was someone standing up and challenging whether Catholic politicians could separate their personal convictions from their public stance on abortion and still remain Catholic.

“I think,” said Patrick Ahern, an auxiliary bishop of New York, “John O’Connor upped the ante on abortion all by himself.  He started the ball rolling, and the other bishops have been forced to follow along.  I think, too, that it is an act of great courage, because they’re going to flay him over this before he’s finished.”

Flay him they did. The media consensus was that he was shilling for Ronald Reagan’s re-election. O’Connor remained unruffled. He told New York magazine reporter Joe Klein that he was “surprised by all the fuss,”  and pointed out that was only saying what he’d always said:

In fact, when I was consecrated a bishop in Rome. . . .I vowed publicly that from that day on there would be some reference to the dignity of the human person and, in particular, to the defense of the most vulnerable – the unborn – in every public address I made.  I have done that scrupulously since the day I became a bishop.  I am not saying anything new.  If that’s the case, why all the fuss?

O’Connor told Klein that other social issues also concerned him.  For instance, during a September 1984 hospital strike, he said something that received very little press coverage, namely that no “Catholic Hospital could hire substitutes for the striking workers or threaten them in anyway,”

Nonetheless, he rejected the so-called seamless-garment approach.  “I simply don’t see the rationale in saying that a politician is for better housing, a lower rate of unemployment, a more rational foreign policy – and the only thing wrong is that he supports abortion, so it’s okay to vote for him.  You have to go back to the basic question:  What is abortion?  Do you think it’s the taking of innocent human life or don’t you?  If you do, then translate it:  How can we talk about a rational foreign policy or the horrors of nuclear war if we hold the position that you can take innocent human life?”

This clash between O’Connor and Cuomo was only the first round of a protracted slugfest – one that was to go on for years.  Yet in 2000, when O’Connor lay dying, his old adversary (and now ex-governor) conceded in a New York Times op-ed that the archbishop was “an extraordinary prince of the Church who has always been a priest first.”

American could do with such another today.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.