As the stories about former New York Governor Mario Cuomo pour in following his death earlier today, I’m reminded of a speech the famously Catholic politician gave at the University of Notre Dame in 1984.
In it, he reminded the audience that while he might personally adhere to Catholic doctrine, his role as a politician was to secure religious freedoms for everyone and not legislate his personal morality:
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.
For his stance on abortion, Ken Auletta at the New Yorker writes:
[Cuomo] defied his Catholicism by explaining that while he was personally opposed to abortion he defended a woman’s right to choose. Cardinal John Joseph O’Connor contemplated excommunicating him from the Church.
It was a personal sacrifice Cuomo made because he knew it was the right thing to do. You govern based on the Constitution, not the Bible.
If only more of our Christian politicians could speak and think like him.