When former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo spoke at Notre Dame almost exactly 20 years he was one of the first national politicians to articulate the principle of the separation of personal belief and public policymaking, particularly as it relates to abortion.
Cuomo is the godfather of the Kerry position that produced his most inarticulate moments in last Friday’s debate. In a nutshell, the formulation is threefold: First, express respect for the church and underscore your own deep personal faith. Second, reiterate how troubling it is that women, certainly poor women, feel they must resort to abortion. Third, broaden the discussion. Explain your unwillingness to reflect the teaching of the church against abortion by citing other teachings of the church that you can support.
The sophistry of the Kerry response is so rich, it must be printed here:
DEGENHART: Senator Kerry, suppose you are speaking with a voter who believed abortion is murder and the voter asked for reassurance that his or her tax dollars would not go to support abortion, what would you say to that person?
KERRY: I would say to that person exactly what I will say to you right now. First of all, I cannot tell you how deeply I respect the belief about life and when it begins. I’m a Catholic, raised a Catholic. I was an altar boy. Religion has been a huge part of my life. It helped lead me through a war, leads me today. But I can’t take what is an article of faith for me and legislate it for someone who doesn’t share that article of faith, whether they be agnostic, atheist, Jew, Protestant, whatever. I can’t do that.
But I can counsel people. I can talk reasonably about life and about responsibility. I can talk to people, as my wife Teresa does, about making other choices, and about abstinence, and about all these other things that we ought to do as a responsible society. But as a president, I have to represent all the people in the nation. And I have to make that judgment.
Now, I believe that you can take that position and not be pro- abortion, but you have to afford people their constitutional rights. And that means being smart about allowing people to be fully educated, to know what their options are in life, and making certain that you don’t deny a poor person the right to be able to have whatever the constitution affords them if they can’t afford it otherwise.
That’s why I think it’s important. That’s why I think it’s important for the United States, for instance, not to have this rigid ideological restriction on helping families around the world to be able to make a smart decision about family planning.
You’ll help prevent AIDS.
You’ll help prevent unwanted children, unwanted pregnancies.
You’ll actually do a better job, I think, of passing on the moral responsibility that is expressed in your question. And I truly respect it.
Of course, the only response by someone with Kerry’s position to a citizen who believes abortion is murder is that he does not believe abortion is murder. But that would require giving an actual answer to a tough question, which neither candidate is pressed to do. From a political standpoint, Kerry simply cemented pro-life voters in the Bush column, where they certainly started the evening anyway.
The Cuomo formulation is once again evident in an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times by Mark W. Roche, dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame. Roche writes:
When values come into conflict, it is useful to develop principles that help place those values in a hierarchy. One reasonable principle is that issues of life and death are more important than other issues. This seems to be the strategy of some Catholic and church leaders, who directly or indirectly support the Republican Party because of its unambiguous critique of abortion. Indeed, many Catholics seem to think that if they are truly religious, they must cast their ballots for Republicans.
This position has two problems. First, abortion is not the only life-and-death issue in this election. While the Republicans line up with the Catholic stance on abortion and stem-cell research, the Democrats are closer to the Catholic position on the death penalty, universal health care and environmental protection.
More important, given the most distinctive issue of the current election, Catholics who support President Bush must reckon with the Catholic doctrine of “just war.” This doctrine stipulates that a war is just only if all possible alternative strategies have been pursued to their ultimate conclusion; the war is conducted in accordance with moral principles (for example, the avoidance of unnecessary civilian casualties and the treatment of prisoners with dignity); and the war leads to a more moral state of affairs than existed before it began. While Mr. Kerry, like many other Democrats, voted for the war, he has since objected to the way it was planned and waged.
Our interest is in the continuation of the morally vacuous argument that was initiated 20 years ago by Cuomo, restated in the meandering Kerry response in St. Louis, furthered in this Times op-ed today, and to be heard many more times before November 2.