The Corner

Politics & Policy

On the Separation of Church and State

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks at the National Action Network Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Public Policy Forum in New York City, January 15, 2018. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

In an interview yesterday, New York governor Andrew Cuomo responded to critics of the Reproductive Health Act (RHA), a radically pro-abortion bill that he signed into law last week. The legislation permits abortions up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, with loosely defined exceptions that allow for abortion up to birth. On the evening he signed the bill, Cuomo announced that the spire of Freedom Tower would be lit up in pink to celebrate.

The New York governor has faced predictable backlash from the pro-life movement, but especially from Catholics, as he is, like his father before him, a self-professed Catholic — and, with his longtime support for unlimited abortion rights, directly at odds with the Church’s explicit, total condemnation of abortion.

But when asked on WAMC radio about his Catholic faith in relation to the expansive abortion bill, Cuomo shrugged it off. “The Catholic Church doesn’t believe in a woman’s right to choose,” he said. “I understand their religious view. I’m not here to represent a religion. I’m here to represent all the people and the constitutional rights and limitations for all the people — not as a Catholic.”

With this line, Cuomo parrots his father Mario, former governor of New York himself, who in 1984 delivered a speech at the University of Notre Dame, attempting to draw some kind of line between the personal, private beliefs of a religious politician and his application of those beliefs in a leadership role. Here’s a key portion of his remarks:

As a Catholic, I have accepted certain answers as the right ones for myself and my family, and because I have, they have influenced me in special ways, as Matilda’s husband, as a father of five children, as a son who stood next to his own father’s death bed trying to decide if the tubes and needles no longer served a purpose.

As a Governor, however, I am involved in defining policies that determine other people’s rights in these same areas of life and death. Abortion is one of these issues, and while it is one issue among many, it is one of the most controversial and affects me in a special way as a Catholic public official.

Later in the speech Mario Cuomo chided Catholics who would “[urge] the political system to legislate on others a morality we no longer practice ourselves” or “[try] to make laws for others to live by” rather than simply “clinging to our personal faith.”

These lines should sound eerily familiar. For one thing, since the elder Cuomo’s time in office, variations of these statements have been recited ad nauseam by Catholic politicians who wished to retain their standing both in the Church and in the Democratic party in the wake of Roe v. Wade. His rhetorical effort to carve out a middle route on abortion and faith enabled politicians such as Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden, Dick Durbin, and many other nominal Catholics keep their influence on the left without being forced to renounce the cultural inheritance of their faith.

Their equivocation had consequences; under the leadership of these Catholic Democrats, the party lurched leftward on abortion in a truly horrific fashion. When the federal ban on partial-birth abortion passed Congress in 2003, for instance, several Catholic Democratic senators voted against it, including Kennedy, Durbin, and John Kerry — who the very next year would be selected as his party’s presidential nominee. Sometimes apostasy pays. Just ask Andrew Cuomo.

But the excerpts from Mario Cuomo’s speech should sound familiar for another, perhaps even more concerning reason: These are the most common lines wielded by abortion-rights activists against pro-life politicians, routinely dismissing their efforts to protect the unborn as “legislating morality” or using religion to control women.

Of course, politicians who oppose abortion are not uniformly Catholic, and those that are Catholic favor protecting the unborn on the grounds of biological science and a belief in the fundamental dignity and value of every human life — not because they wish to impose Catholic doctrine on the United States.

Pro-choice Democrats, including Catholic Democrats who oppose protections for unborn life, are well aware of this. But it is much simpler to accuse pro-life politicians of forcing their morality on others than it is to defend the unlimited right to kill unborn human beings. Grounded in Mario Cuomo’s effort to justify his weakness as a Catholic politician, the pro-abortion movement today uses religious bigotry and anti-Catholic prejudice to stoke public fear of the pro-life agenda.

And in New York State, Mario’s son is ensuring that his legacy lives on.

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