It is strange to hear pundits like E.J. Dionne hail the departed Mario Cuomo as a monument to conscience, since his most lasting legacy is the popularizing of political expediency. Cuomo explicitly argued against adherence to conscience. He counseled the religious to lighten up and accept our morally relativistic times.
His famous Notre Dame speech was an argument for the suspension of conscience in the name of “pluralism.” If a moral evil is politically popular, don’t challenge it, he in effect said.
“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 said. “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.”
He never bothered to establish that opposition to killing unborn children is a “specifically” Catholic belief or explain why respect for pluralism should trump efforts to end an injustice. He favored not a conscience-based politics but a morally defeated, self-protective realism. In that spirit, he offered a remarkable rationalization in the Notre Dame speech for Catholic public figures who had once accepted slavery:
It has been argued that the failure to endorse a legal ban on abortions is equivalent to refusing to support the cause of abolition before the Civil War. This analogy has been advanced by the bishops of my own state.… But the truth of the matter is, few if any Catholic bishops spoke for abolition in the years before the Civil War. It wasn’t, I believe that the bishops endorsed the idea of some humans owning and exploiting other humans; Pope Gregory XVI, in 1840, had condemned the slave trade. Instead it was a practical political judgment that the bishops made. They weren’t hypocrites; they were realists. At the time, Catholics were a small minority, mostly immigrants, despised by much of the population, often vilified and the object of sporadic violence. In the face of a public controversy that aroused tremendous passions and threatened to break the country apart, the bishops made a pragmatic decision. They believed their opinion would not change people’s minds. Moreover they knew that there were southern Catholics, even some priests, who owned slaves. They concluded that under the circumstances arguing for a constitutional amendment against slavery would do more harm than good, so they were silent.
The acceptance of a popular evil, he argued unconvincingly, does more good than harm and is somehow the best guarantor of religious freedom. He assured his listeners at Notre Dame that a capitulation in the culture war would safeguard their liberties: “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.”
In reality, Cuomo’s capitulation sealed the diminution of religious liberties. By stepping back and letting secularists order society without challenge, the religious have put themselves at their direction. While Cuomo was telling the religious to refrain from acting on their convictions, secularists gained more and more power with which to marginalize them and coerce them into paying for the evils they wouldn’t fight.
The upshot of the separation-of-church-and-state sophistries Cuomo espoused is that God and those who follow him are separated from public life, reduced to a marginalized and privatized existence. Cuomo seduced the religious into a respect for “pluralism” that secularists didn’t share. They had no intention of respecting a truce in the culture war. They were determined to win it and largely have.
Cuomo’s counsel was one of fatal complacency, which has made life for the religiously conscientious increasingly difficult. He didn’t want them to “impose their beliefs” on society, even as secularists planned to impose theirs on them. You could, he told the religious, be “personally” opposed to popular evils but that’s it.
At his Catholic funeral on Tuesday, his son Andrew, who is both personally and publicly supportive of abortion and gay marriage, praised his father as “anything but a typical politician.” Unfortunately, he was, and never more so in his typically political deference to secularism’s growing power.