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Mario Cuomo, Pope Francis, and Not Preaching to the Choir

With the passing of Mario Cuomo, a number of stories highlight his 1984 speech at Notre Dame entitled “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective.” [CSPAN video here] In his address, he took on the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, who were less than pleased with him for his lack of doctrinal purity in his political actions, particularly around abortion. Cuomo’s speech is a masterpiece of nuanced theological political thinking, especially as he separates a number of issues that are all too often conflated. He was careful to cast his disagreements with the bishops not as a difference in what is and is not moral, but in how the beliefs of the church get translated into political action. In his obit of Cuomo, David Gibson of Religion News Service described it like this:

The son of Italian immigrants who worked his way up society’s ladder, the elder Cuomo repeatedly invoked his Catholic faith and his Church’s doctrines to advance policies ensuring that others would have the same chance, and that if they didn’t, they would not be abandoned.

Cuomo was also just as famous for elaborating a rationale by which Catholic politicians like himself could be personally opposed to abortion, but still support and defend a legal right to abortion. Cuomo’s nuanced position was seen as key to allowing Catholics who support abortion rights — mainly Democrats — to run for office without continually running afoul of the Catholic hierarchy or alienating Catholic voters.

Yet even as these “Cuomo Catholics” grieve for the great orator who was the Democrats’ greatest foil to Ronald Reagan, they may want to consider whether Cuomo’s moral calculus has come back to haunt them. Now, a new generation of Catholic conservatives — mainly Republicans — invoke the same kind of “personally opposed” ethos to part ways with their Church on issues like economic and foreign policy, the death penalty, and immigration reform.

Indeed, Catholic GOP leaders and their intellectual allies have repeatedly used the principle of “prudential judgment” — that is, using one’s best ideas as to what policies would best achieve desired ends — to argue that while they respect the bishops, prelates should not be telling politicians what to do, or how to do their job.

Gibson and others who tout the “conservatives are using Cuomo’s thinking against Democrats” logic miss two critical things. First, what Cuomo was advocating was not “cafeteria catholicism,” but a recognition that while the hierarchy has certain God-given gifts, so too do the laypeople — and one of the gifts that good catholic politicians have is that of translating in-house beliefs into political action in the wider world. Bishops may speak authoritatively within the church, but to speak to the wider world requires speaking persuasively — something far too many bishops do not do well. Cuomo’s plea to the church was so say “This is something we do better than you, so let us do our jobs while you do yours.”

Among bishops like Raymond Burke, this did not go over well, as it went against their pre-Vatican II vision of the relationship of bishops and laypeople: “We speak, and you pray, pay, and obey.” That cliche may be a caricature, but it captures the simplistic approach to the world that Burke and his friends embrace, while Cuomo and others see things as far more complex, both outside and inside the church.

The second thing that Gibson et al. miss is that Cuomo’s approach is also the approach of Pope Francis.

When Francis called on the bishops to dial back on the culture wars, he was saying “what you’ve been doing hasn’t worked, and isn’t terribly helpful, so give it a rest.”  When Francis spoke forcefully about the “joy of the gospel” in contrast to putting trust in things like The Market, he was calling the church hierarchy to let go of an idolatrous acceptance of free market economics, as well as telling Catholic politicians to quit equating The Market and God’s will. (Where John Paul II more openly embraced capitalism in his fights against communism, both in the Soviet Union as well as in central America, Francis is much more open to agreeing with the political critique offered by Liberation Theology.) Francis’ comments about wanting shepherds — bishops — who have the smell of the sheep and his harsh words about clericalism and careerism in the Vatican also fit well with Cuomo’s words. Preach good news, says Francis. Give the world a taste of the joy of the gospel, and perhaps the world will be more open to hearing what the church has to say.

This, too, is not going down well.

Gibson, to give him his due, notes this at the end of his piece:

In his Notre Dame speech, he specifically cited the “seamless garment” argument of then-Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, arguing that Catholics in public office, both conservative and liberal, are challenged to protect and foster life at all stages.

Bernardin’s legacy would be eclipsed soon after Cuomo’s own political career ended — Bernardin died in 1996, two years after Cuomo left office — yet it has actually made an unlikely comeback under Pope Francis, who is clear that Catholic teaching on economic justice, immigration, and war and peace cannot be separated from Catholic doctrine on abortion, and, in fact, need to be preached more vigorously.

The difference is that when the pope makes his first US visit in September, he will have no obvious choir to preach to, as John Paul and Benedict XVI did. Instead, his views will face a tough sell with the faithful in both parties.

Oh, so close . . .

Here, finally, the misunderstanding of Cuomo and Francis becomes crystal clear. From his perch atop the Vatican hierarchy, Francis isn’t looking to preach to the choir but to the world, and you don’t preach the same way to these two groups. That’s what Cuomo tried to tell the US bishops in 1984, and it’s what Francis is telling the church today. The bishops could shrug off Cuomo’s criticism (“What does a liberal layperson know about preaching?”), but their own view of the church won’t let them do the same with Francis’ words.

Given the world’s general reaction to Francis thus far, I’d say he’s doing a better job of reaching the world than the conservatives are. Indeed, the fact that conservatives are using Cuomo’s approach indicates that Cuomo’s thinking has penetrated even the conservative reaches of the church, and that Francis may have a warmer reception than Gibson thinks.


photo h/t to David Berkowitz and used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

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