Following is the text of an address by Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York on "Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor's Perspective," delivered September 13, 1984, as a John A. O'Brien Lecture in the University of Notre Dame's Department of Theology.
[A Report on Religion from the University of Notre Dame Department of Public Relations and Information, Richard W. Conklin, Director 219-239-7367, VOL. IV, NO. 1 -- Fall 1984]
Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor's Perspective
I would like to begin by drawing your attention to the title of this lecture: "Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor's Perspective." I was not invited to speak on "Church and State" generally. Certainly not "Mondale vs. Reagan." The subject assigned is difficult enough. I will try not to do more than I've been asked.
It's not easy to stay contained. Certainly, although everybody talks about a wall of separation between church and state, I've seen religious leaders scale that wall with all the dexterity of olympic athletes. In fact, I've seen so many candidates in churches and synagogues that I think we should change election day from Tuesdays to Saturdays and Sundays.
I am honored by this invitation, but the record shows that I am not the first Governor of New York to appear at an event involving Notre Dame. One of my great predecessors, Al Smith, went to the Army - Notre Dame football game each time it was played in New York.
His fellow Catholics expected Smith to sit with Notre Dame; protocol required him to sit with Army because it was the home team. Protocol prevailed. But not without Smith noting the dual demands on his affections. "I'll take my seat with Army," he said, "but I commend my soul to Notre Dame!"
Today I'm happy to have no such problem. Both my seat and my soul are with Notre Dame. And as long as Father McBrien doesn't invite me back to sit with him at the Notre Dame - St. John's basketball game, I'm confident my loyalties will remain undivtded.
In a sense, it's a question of loyalty that Father McBrien has asked me here today to discuss. Specifically, must politics and religion in America divide our loyalties? Does the "separation between church and state" imply separation between religion and politics? Between morality and government? Are these different propositions? Even more specifically, what is the relationship of my Catholicism to my politics? Where does the one end and other begin? Or are the two divided at all? And if they're not, should they be?
No wonder most of us in public life -- at least until recently -- preferred to stay away from them, heeding the biblical advice that if "hounded and pursued in one city," we should flee to another.
Now, however, I think that it is too late to flee. The questions are all around us, and answers are coming from every quarter. Some of them have been simplistic, most of them fragmentary, and a few, spoken with a purely political intent, demagogic.
There has been confusion and compounding of confusion, a blurring of the issue, entangling it in personalities and election strategies, instead of clarifying it for Catholics, as well as others.
Today I would like to try to help correct that.
I can offer you no final truths, complete and unchallengeable. But it's possible this one effort will provoke other efforts -- both in support and contradiction of my position -- that will help all of us understand our differences and perhaps even discover some basic agreement.
In the end, I'm convinced we will all benefit if suspicion is replaced by discussion, innuendo by dialogue; if the emphasis in our debate turns from a search for talismanic criteria and neat but simplistic answers to an honest -- more intelligent -- attempt at describing the role religion has in our public affairs, and the limits placed on that role.
And if we do it right -- if we're not afraid of the truth even when the truth is complex -- this debate, by clarification, can bring relief to untold numbers of confused -- even anguished -- Catholics, as well as to many others who want only to make our already great democracy even stronger than it is.
I believe the recent discussion in my own State has already produced some clearer definition. In early summer, newspaper accounts had created the impression in some quarters that official church spokespeople would ask Catholics to vote for or against specific candidates on the basis of their political position on the abortion issue. I was one of those given that impression. Thanks to the dialogue that ensued over the summer -- only partially reported by the media -- we learned that the impression was not accurate.
Confusion had presented an opportunity for clarification, and we seized it. Now all of us are saying one thing -- in chorus -- reiterating the statement of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops that they will not "take positions for or against political candidates" and that their stand on specific issues should not be perceived "as an expression of political partisanship."
Of course the bishops will teach -- they must -- more and more vigorously and more and more extensively. But they have said they will not use the power of their position, and the great respect it receives from all Catholics, to give an imprimatur to individual politicians or parties.
Not that they couldn't if they wished to -- some religious leaders do; some are doing it at this very moment.
Not that it would be a sin if they did -- God doesn't insist on political neutrality. But because it is the judgment of the bishops, and most of us Catholic lay people, that it is not wise for prelates and politicians to be tied too closely together.
I think that getting this consensus was an extraordinarily useful achievement.
Now, with some trepidation and after much prayer, I take up your gracious invitation to continue the dialogue in the hope that it will lead to still further clarification.
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Let me begin this part of the effort by underscoring the obvious. I do not speak as a theologian; I do not have that competence. I do not speak as a philosopher; to suggest that I could, would be to set a new record for false pride. I don't presume to speak as a "good" person except in the ontological sense of that word. My principal credential is that I serve in a position that forces me to wrestle with the problems you've come here to study and debate.
I am by training a lawyer and by practice a politician. Both professions make me suspect in many quarters, including among some of my own co-religionists. Maybe there's no better illustration of the public perception of how politicians unite their faith and their profession than the story they tell in New York about "Fishhooks" McCarthy, a famous Democratic leader on the lower East Side, and right-hand man to Al Smith.
"Fishhooks" the story goes, was devout. So devout that every morning on his way to Tammany Hall to do his political work, he stopped into St. James Church on Oliver Street in downtown Manhattan, fell on his knees, and whispered the same simple prayer: "Oh, Lord, give me health and strength. We'll steal the rest."
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"Fishhooks," notwithstanding, I speak here as a politician. And also as a Catholic, a lay person baptized and raised in the pre-Vatican II Church, educated in Catholic schools, attached to the Church first by birth, then by choice, now by love. 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. My heart is there, and my hope.
There is, of course, more to being a Catholic than a sense of spiritual and emotional resonance. Catholicism is a religion of the head as well as the heart, and to be a Catholic is to say "I believe" to the essential core of dogmas that distinguishes our faith.
The acceptance of this faith requires a lifelong struggle to understand it more fully and to live it more truly, to translate truth into experience, to practice as well as to believe.
That's not easy: applying religious belief to everyday life often presents difficult challenges.
It's always been that way. It certainly is today. The America of the late twentieth century is a consumer society, filled with endless distractions, where faith is more often dismissed than challenged, where the ethnic and other loyalties that once fastened us to our religion seem to be weakening.
In addition to all the weaknesses, dilemmas and temptations that impede every pilgrim's progress, the Catholic who holds political office in a pluralistic democracy -- who is elected to serve Jews and Muslims, atheists and Protestants, as well as Catholics -- bears special responsibility. He or she undertakes to help create conditions under which all can live with a maximum of dignity and with a reasonable degree of freedom; where everyone who chooses may hold beliefs different from specifically Catholic ones -- sometimes contradictory to them; where the laws protect people's right to divorce, to use birth control and even to choose abortion.
In fact, Catholic public officials take an oath to preserve the Constitution that guarantees this freedom. And they do so gladly. Not because they love what others do with their freedom, but because they realize that in guaranteeing freedom for all, they guarantee our right to be Catholics: our right to pray, to use the sacraments, to refuse birth control devices, to reject abortion, not to divorce and remarry if we believe it to be wrong.
The Catholic public official lives the political truth most Catholics through most of American history have accepted and insisted on: the truth that to assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful.
I protect my right to be a Catholic by preserving your right to believe as a Jew, a Protestant or non-believer, or as anything else you choose.
We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might some day force theirs on us.
This freedom is the fundamental strength of our unique experiment in government. In the complex interplay of forces and considerations that go into the making of our laws and policies, its preservation must be a pervasive and dominant concern.
But insistence on freedom is easier to accept as a general proposition than in its applications to specific situations. There are other valid general principles firmly embedded in our Constitution, which, operating at the same time, create interesting and occasionally troubling problems. Thus, the same amendment of the Constitution that forbids the establishment of a State Church affirms my legal right to argue that my religious belief would serve well as an article of our universal public morality. I may use the prescribed processes of government -- the legislative and executive and judicial processes -- to convince my fellow citizens -- Jews and Protestants and Buddhists and non-believers -- that what I propose is as beneficial for them as I believe it is for me; that it is not just parochial or narrowly sectarian but fulfills a human desire for order, peace, justice, kindness, love, any of the values most of us agree are desirable even apart from their specific religious base or context.
I am free to argue for a governmental policy for a nuclear freeze not just to avoid sin but because I think my democracy should regard it as a desirable goal.
I can, if I wish, argue that the State should not fund the use of contraceptive devices not because the Pope demands it but because I think that the whole community -- for the good of the whole community -- should not sever sex from an openness to the creation of life.
And surely, I can, if so inclined, demand some kind of law against abortion not because my Bishops say it is wrong but because I think that the whole community, regardless of its religious beliefs, should agree on the importance of protecting life -- including life in the womb, which is at the very least potentially human and should not be extinguished casually.
No law prevents us from advocating any of these things: I am free to do so.
So are the Bishops. And so is Reverend Falwell.
In fact, the Constitution guarantees my right to try. And theirs. And his.
But should I? Is it helpful? Is it essential to human dignity? Does it promote harmony and understanding? Or does it divide us so fundamentally that it threatens our ability to function as a pluralistic community?