People across the nation are mourning the death of Mario Cuomo, the passionate Italian-American Catholic who served as the governor of New York from 1983-1994.
Cuomo’s political career was deeply formed by his Catholic faith. During his famous 1984 speech at the University of Notre Dame, he said as much: “The Catholic Church is my spiritual home. My heart is there, and my hope.”
But Cuomo’s relationship with the Church in the United States, particularly its bishops, was at times strained, especially over the issue of legalized abortion. At Notre Dame and elsewhere, Cuomo maintained that while he was personally opposed to abortion, he didn’t want to make it illegal in the United States.
I disagree with him on this. As I said during last year’s March for Life, because “progressives believe that society must continually extend its embrace to all persons, no matter who they are…protecting the lives of unborn children should be at the heart of the progressive agenda.”
And despite Pope Francis’s call last year to extend the conversation beyond abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception, we should make no mistake: the Bishop of Rome opposes legalized abortion. As recently as Christmas Day, he said abortion kills children “before they ever see the light of day, deprived of the generous love of their parents and buried in the selfishness of a culture that does not love life.”
But Governor Cuomo’s pro-choice stance can’t be a single litmus test to measure his effectiveness as a Catholic politician. Clearly, his public service addressed many issues at the heart of the faith’s social justice tradition. In particular, he tried hard to transform the Democratic Party from a bourqeosis group concerned with the interests of social elites to a party genuinely concerned about the state of society, the struggles of working men and women, and the lives of the poor.
During the 1984 Democratic National Convention, Cuomo said that President Reagan’s trickle-down economics was reducing his “city shining on a hill” to a “Tale of Two Cities.”
“A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there’s another city; there’s another part to the shining the city; the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one; where students can’t afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.”
Nearly 30 years later, Pope Francis offered the same critique:
“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
While Cuomo had a difficult relationship with New York Cardinal John O’Connor, Cuomo’s son and New York’s current governor Andrew Cuomo maintains a cordial relationship with New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan. But more remarkable is the relationship between Dolan and current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
In 2014, Cardinal Dolan worked hand-in-hand with the pro-choice de Blasio–who is often described as a lapsed-Catholic–on several shared issues of concerns. During last month’s controversy in the wake of the assassination of two New York City police officers, Cardinal Dolan gave an impassioned appeal for peace from the pulpit on the Sunday before Christmas. The politically savvy prelate has so far been able to broker a narrow path of peace between Mayor de Blasio, the police force, and the African-American community.
This relationship shows the way that the Church and pro-choice politicians can work together for social change. Mario Cuomo, while disagreeing with the Church on abortion, enacted policies that helped reversed decades-long economic stagnation in New York and pursued policies that, while lifting up the entire state’s economy, particularly addressing the flight of those most excluded. Today many pro-choice politicians are doing the same. While the Church can never endorse their position on abortion, we must never tire of working with them to create a society where pregnant women are supported, poor mothers are protected, and the scourge of abortion disappears.
Christopher Hale is a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and the co-founder of Millennial. He helped lead national Catholic outreach for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.