Mario Cuomo’s Gift to Joe Biden

To make inroads with practicing Catholics living in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, Joe Biden has been wearing his Catholicism on his sleeve. He’s been portraying himself as an old-fashioned Catholic who carries rosary beads in his pocket and is fond of nuns.

He’s stated, “I’m a practicing Catholic.  I believe faith is a gift.”  And he has threatened to punch anyone that questions his Catholicism.

But when it comes to abortion and the Church, he equivocates.

When asked about that subject on MSNBC, Biden replied, “My private beliefs, relative to how I would deal with Church doctrine, is different than my imposing that doctrine on every other person in the world.”

This is not new. In his 2007 book, Promises to Keep, Biden wrote, “I am personally opposed to abortion, but I don’t think I have a right to impose my view on the rest of society.”

Joe Biden and other Catholics in public life who have held that misleading position for over thirty-five years owe a huge debt of gratitude to New York’s former governor, Mario Cuomo.

Here’s why: When Cuomo first entered public life, he was publicly pro-life. In his unsuccessful candidacy for lieutenant governor in 1974, he said he would have voted against the New York State’s 1970 pro-abortion law.  But after losing the race for New York City mayor in 1977, he moved further to the left on social issues, particularly abortion, in order to get elected governor in 1982.

After taking office, Cuomo, whom the media portrayed as a public intellectual, was unlike most pro-choice Catholics.  He was not afraid to pick a fight with the Archbishop of New York, John J. O’Connor.

But Cuomo’s issue with the Catholic Church’s hierarchy on abortion did not begin when O’Connor became archbishop in 1984.  It actually began before.

Patrick V. Ahern, an auxiliary bishop of the New York Archdiocese, had earlier broached the subject with Lt. Governor Cuomo in a letter. The bishop began by stressing “how much I admire” and “how grateful I shall always be” for Cuomo’s help in the West Bronx Community clergy coalition “in its attempt to save neighborhoods.”

Ahern then went on to write:

You are opposed to abortion personally.  Presumably that is because you believe it takes a human life.  How then can you believe in and support choice?  How can anyone have the right to choose to take the life of another human being?  It is like saying:  “I am personally opposed to slavery, but I respect your choice to own slaves if you think it is alright.”

What especially distresses me is the rhetoric you have been using in discussing the issue, saying that your personal morality rejects abortion but you will not impose your personal morality on others.  That formulation leaves out the essential element in the problem:  the poor little child whom an abortion kills.  One just doesn’t elude the issue that easily….

It grieves me to find a man I once admired saying such indefensible things.  Surely it is laudable to seek public office, but is it laudable to pay such a price?

The most serious consequence I see in your rhetoric is that it confuses and misleads people who might otherwise think straight on this issue of such enormous consequence to humanity.

I don’t enjoy writing this letter, but if I leave it unwritten I shall do a disservice to two persons.  You are one and I am the other.

In reply, Cuomo stuck to his guns and stated his view that was later fully developed in his infamous 1984 speech at the University of Notre Dame, “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective.”


Cuomo began by describing himself as “an old-fashioned Catholic who sins, regrets, struggles, worries, gets confused, and most of the time feels better after confession. . . .The Catholic Church is my spiritual home.”

“I accept the Church’s teaching on abortion.” But then he asked, “Must I insist you do?”  Cuomo argued that one cannot impose one’s moral views because: “Our public morality. . .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.”

Cuomo appealed to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s “seamless garment” position saying, “Abortion has a unique significance but not a preemptive significance.”  “Abortion,” he contended, “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.”

Instead of taking the Church’s position that the right to life of the unborn child was a universal human right, Cuomo sidestepped the issue, defining his opposition to abortion as “our Catholic morality.” Or “certain articles of belief.”

Garry Wills, a noted left-wing historian pointed out in the New York Review of Books, however, that the Catholic bishops do not view their position on abortion as dogma; “it is not a religious issue when addressing the public at large.  In that forum they rely on natural law, common sense and probabilistic arguments.”

The very liberal bishop of Albany, Howard Hubbard, agreed with Wills’ observations and rejected Cuomo’s distortion of the Church’s position:

The abortion question is not purely an issue of Catholic doctrine.  It is a basic issue of human rights, the right of the unborn child to exist.  This is a burning concern shared by many Protestants and Jewish people and by people who hold no formal religious belief.  In this regard, then, the issue cannot be presented simply as one religious community seeking to impose its doctrinal beliefs on the body politic.

Consequently, I would suggest that we move away from such expressions as “forcing our beliefs on others,” “religious values in public affairs” or behavior that is “sinful” – expressions that punctuated the governor’s talk.

Such phrases muddy the waters, because in discussing abortion the Catholic Church and other citizens do so not only under the heading of religious belief but of human rights.

As for the “consensus” argument, as theologian Msgr. William Smith pointed out, “Human Rights do not rest on consensus, that is why they are called inalienable rights.”  Or as Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict) declared in 1999, “Truth does not create consensus, and consensus does not create truth as much as it does a common ordering.”

Roe v. Wade, in 1973, was not a consensus decision, it was judicial fiat.  The court imposed a constitutional right on states that, by way of consensus, had laws prohibiting abortion.

Governor Cuomo’s Notre Dame address was perhaps the high-water mark of the so-called “seamless garment” strategy. However much theologians might gloss over its moral logic, the appeal of the seamless garment argument lay in its cynical political consequence:  it allowed politicians to say they were “personally opposed” to abortion while continuing to support it.  Mario Cuomo played this theme for all it was worth, while wrapping himself in false humility:  he did not wish to “impose” his morality on non-Catholics.  To do so would encourage social strife among competing moralities, contrary to the civil peace sought by Catholic social teaching.  The intended effect of the governor’s speech was to make the world safer for pro-choice Catholic politicians like himself.  The million unborn children who would lose their lives annually enjoyed no such protection.

Cuomo called Joe Biden a “dumb blonde” during his short-lived 1988 presidential run. But thanks to Cuomo, in 2020 Biden has been able to have his political cake and eat it.  He’s getting away with calling himself an old-fashioned Catholic as he stands on a party platform that calls for “restoring federal funding to Planned Parenthood, opposing state laws that limit abortion rights, repealing the Hyde Amendment which bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortion services, and codifying the Roe v. Wade court case that provides a legal defense of abortion.”

Will practicing Catholics agree?  We’ll learn the answer on November 3.


*Image: The Massacre of the Innocents by Fra Angelico, c.1450-53 [Museo Nazionale di San Marco, Florence, Italy]. This is a detail from Panel One of the Silver Treasury of Santissima Annunziata.

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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.