As the 2016 US presidential campaign gears up, certain Catholic Democrats are emerging as potential candidates, including Vice President Joe Biden, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. And with those election-season rumblings comes increased scrutiny to where they stand on the issue of abortion.
The most commonly used formulation is that the candidate is personally opposed to abortion, but in favor of laws that provide for access to abortion. In many ways, this is a legacy of the liberal lion Mario Cuomo, and the problems these candidates have in explaining their position often mirrors the flawed nature of Cuomo’s argument, which he famously articulated in a speech at Notre Dame in 1984.
Mario Cuomo, who died a month ago, was a sincere, devout Catholic. His pro-choice position on abortion does not change that fact. Catholics exist across the political spectrum, often holding positions on public policy that run directly counter to Catholic social teaching. And it would be wrong to overlook Cuomo’s commitment the poor and marginalized. His faith shaped his understanding of social justice. He is just as Catholic as those who practice the faith while pushing for regressive taxation, a nationalistic foreign policy, or the legalization of euthanasia.
The Church is not, and has never been, a collection of the politically and morally pure, nor should it be. Those who fully embrace Church teaching should instead work to convert others to the truths of the faith. And before we call others apostates, we would be wise to focus on our own imperfect commitments to the radical demands of the Christian faith.
However, the “personally opposed but” pro-choice stance of Cuomo and other Democrats cannot be reconciled with the Catholic understanding of human rights, genuine freedom, or the role of government in promoting the common good. It was a disastrous formulation that was presented in an exceptionally eloquent speech that failed to coherently and persuasively address the objections it acknowledged.
To accept the Church’s position on abortion is to affirm the dignity and worth of each human being, regardless of their age and dependence on others. It is to recognize their personhood and the human rights that belong to each and every single person.
The Church opposes abortion not simply because it is a sin (which is the language that Cuomo repeatedly used), like lying to a loved one or having lustful thoughts about a neighbor’s spouse, but because it violates the human rights of vulnerable human beings. The Church opposes it for the very same reasons it opposes abject poverty and genocide.
The Church’s position may be radical and break from the norms present in a particular society, but if so, the gravity of these threats to human dignity demand a countercultural approach.
To accept Church teaching and to be personally opposed to abortion means to recognize that abortion constitutes the intentional and direct taking of a human life, something that is always and everywhere unjust. If one rejects Church teaching that all human beings are human persons, abortion could be formulated as something other than murder. One might even see it as a tragedy that should be avoided, but something that should nevertheless be legally available.
But to personally accept Church teaching means to recognize that it constitutes murder. And what type of political philosophy can justify the legalization of any form of murder? It sounds patently absurd when framed in these terms. Surely a belief in pluralism does not demand that we accept the legitimacy of that which we consider murder.
To argue that freedom demands simply personally abjuring from violating the most basic rights of others is not reconcilable with the Church’s commitment to the common good and the government’s preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. There is no moral right to abortion, just as there is no right to own other human beings or to rape another person. Laws against abortion, slavery, and rape restrict the legal actions of others, but in no way constitute a restriction on the freedom of others.
Freedom is not license. Freedom does not include the liberty to physically harm those one personally deems unworthy of life. Securing legal protection for unborn lives is not about the “right to be a Catholic,” as Cuomo reasoned, just as having access to legal abortion is in no way related to a person’s “right to believe as a Jew, a Protestant or non-believer.” One can find common ground in a commitment to human rights regardless of one’s religious background. And disagreements over what constitutes human rights should not convince Catholics to privatize their belief in the dignity and worth of all, which Cuomo seemed to recognize in his support for government action to alleviate poverty (a product of his personal religious beliefs).
Cuomo defended his support for legal abortion by embracing an overly broad understanding of prudential reasoning and embracing a form of political “realism” that led him to defend the Church’s failure to adequately confront the evil of chattel slavery. This was not a paradigmatic display of prudence and complex thinking, but moral failure, plain and simple. The Church can accept compromise and a pragmatic approach to expanding rights, but it should never abandon its fundamental commitment to the dignity and worth of all.
Central to his support for legal abortion seemed to be his argument that prohibiting abortion would be an inadequate response to the challenge presented by widespread abortion. Prohibition alone would be inadequate, but that does not mean that securing legal rights for unborn children should be excluded from a comprehensive response, just as the widespread occurrence of rape should not lead one to advocate the repeal of laws against rape.
Cuomo and other politicians supported efforts to reduce the number of abortions by offering greater support to pregnant women and other policies that flow from a consistent life ethic and are necessarily integral to a comprehensive approach to abortion. But they fail to see that securing legal rights for unborn children is as essential as retaining laws against rape, even as we should seek a more comprehensive approach to battling rape culture. Catholics do not look at the law through a purely consequentialist prism; law should also serve to instruct the public on what is gravely immoral.
Some Catholic politicians’ position on abortion is not based on thoughtful nuance, but a failure to follow their belief in human dignity to its logical ends. Mario Cuomo may have been a brilliant and skilled wordsmith, but on the issue of abortion, those gifts were used to abandon the vulnerable, rather than to protect the human rights of all.