The media attention devoted to Mario Cuomo’s death highlighted the tension in the former governor’s thought between his personal moral convictions and his responsibilities and work as an elected official. Put simply, is it possible to be personally committed to Roman Catholic morality but in public life follow a different moral standard? Here’s how Crux described it:
. . . the Catholic hierarchy was taking a decidedly more conservative turn under Pope John Paul II. Abortion was the salient issue for the US bishops, a nonnegotiable point that no Catholic pol could ignore if he wanted to stay in the good graces of the bishops, or, in the view of some, be eligible to take Communion.
Cuomo’s fellow New Yorker and Italian Catholic, Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, had just made history as Walter Mondale’s running mate, and she also supported abortion rights. It was left to Cuomo to provide a Catholic intellectual defense against her many critics.
“(W)hile we always owe our bishops’ words respectful attention and careful consideration, the question whether to engage the political system in a struggle to have it adopt certain articles of our belief as part of public morality, is not a matter of doctrine: it is a matter of prudential political judgment,” Cuomo said in the landmark Notre Dame speech.
Cuomo even anticipated conservatives’ adoption of his stance when he asked if he would have to follow the bishops’ teaching on economic justice “even if I am an unrepentant supply sider?” And he pointedly quoted Michael Novak, known as the Catholic “theologian of capitalism,” who wrote: “Religious judgment and political judgment are both needed. But they are not identical.”
One could argue that John F. Kennedy articulated a version of this personal vs. public 25 years earlier.
But it is not a problem that only bedevils Roman Catholics. Protestant politicians may be personally opposed to desecrating the Lord’s Day, and if such a public figure is an officer in a Presbyterian church has even vowed to uphold Sabbatarianism, but in their public duties or owing to political calculation fail to work for Blue Laws. In fact, all believers who hold public office in a religiously diverse and tolerant society need to separate the teachings and practices of their religious communities from the norms that guide civil life. At the very least, they need to juggle the public and private unless they are willing to seek the implementation of their own faith for all of civil society
The irony is that religious right championed a view of the relationship between personal and public responsibilities that derided folks like Cuomo as either hypocritical or cynical. The irony becomes even more ironic when the religious right complains that radical Islam is incapable of making the very distinction that Cuomo defended.