I had the same reaction to Maureen Dowd’s latest criticism of the Catholic church, noted in the Corner by Mike Potemra, as I usually do: a parochial regret that she couldn’t have been born into a nice Protestant family. Dowd writes:
Speaking to the [Georgetown] graduates, Sebelius evoked J.F.K.’s speech asserting that religious bodies should not seek to impose their will through politics. She said that contentious debate is a strength of this country, adding that in some other places, “a leader delivers an edict and it goes into effect. There’s no debate, no criticism, no second-guessing.”
Just like the Vatican.
I suspect that there is at least as much debate, criticism, and second-guessing at the Vatican as there is at, say, the editorial offices of the New York Times – although in both places there are certain shared, and thus uncontested, assumptions.
Twenty-eight years ago, weighing a run for president, Mario Cuomo gave a speech at Notre Dame in which he deftly tried to explain how officials could remain good Catholics while going against church dictums in shaping public policy.
“The American people need no course in philosophy or political science or church history to know that God should not be made into a celestial party chairman,” he said.
I’m always amazed that people hold up Cuomo as some kind of philosopher-statesman, and especially that they praise that intellectually and morally embarrassing speech of his. (It’s the speech in which Cuomo said it was fine for Catholics to show “discretion” instead of speaking out against abortion, just as it was okay not to speak out against slavery before the Civil War. Seriously, that’s the parallel he drew and the purpose for which he drew it.)
Naturally, Dowd calls Cuomo to see how he would apply his wisdom to contemporary questions.
“If they make the mistake of saying that a politician has to put the church before the Constitution on abortion or other issues, there will be no senators or presidents or any other Catholics in government.”
The “they” seems to refer to the bishops — but then it’s hard to tell since the thought is so otherworldly. Nobody is talking about putting “the church before the Constitution on abortion.” Some people are saying that the Constitution, rightly understood, does not mandate legal abortion — a position that Cuomo himself seemed to flirt with during his over-celebrated speech. (“For me life or fetal life in the womb should be protected, even if five of nine Justices of the Supreme Court and my neighbor disagree with me.”) If the Constitution really did include a provision barring any government from restricting abortion, however, there would be nothing wrong with seeking to amend it: That wouldn’t be putting “the church before the Constitution” in any troubling sense, either.
John Hart Ely, himself a supporter of legal abortion, famously remarked that Roe v. Wade “is bad because it is bad constitutional law, or rather because it is not constitutional law and gives almost no sense of an obligation to try to be.” Something very similar could be said about Dowd’s relationship to thinking, and for that matter Cuomo’s.