Ken Woodward has decided it’s time to challenge a speech I gave at Notre Dame twenty years ago, and John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for president who, he says, may have been influenced by it. He does so by excerpting the speech selectively and, I regret to say, carelessly. He also finds it useful to review my life since 1984, probe my psyche, and announce that he has discovered I lacked “political courage,” was guilty of “sophistry,” and generally have not been as sincere about my religion as he is. I will not respond in kind. I am not interested in discerning Ken’s hidden intentions, political preferences (I have a guess here), private ambitions, or character weaknesses. He has been for a long time a successful professional writer on religion whose writings I have read and learned from without needing to wonder what he truly believed or only says he believes, judging instead only the words he has chosen to write.

My speech echoed the teaching of great American theologians like John Courtney Murray who told us it is a “foolish position to say all sins ought to be made crimes.” Murray’s position was consistent with Aquinas’s observation that although civil law is concerned with leading everyone to virtue, it does so prudentially—gradually and not suddenly. Aquinas believed good law must be enforceable, otherwise it would be disregarded and risk causing contempt for all laws. These considerations seemed to me relevant in dealing with the subject of abortion as the governor of New York State in 1984, when it was already apparent that our church had failed to convince even our own members not to have abortions. The relevance was further illuminated by the fact that the church appeared to be making no effort to insist on civil laws against contraceptives, divorce and remarriage, and the death penalty. All of that remains true today, with the added significance of the church’s refusal to speak out against what the pope and the bishops have called an unjust war in Iraq, although it has killed many thousands of human beings and continues to kill more every day; and the fact that the church in America continues to refuse to take an aggressive stand against the death penalty, although the pope and the new catechism clearly condemn it (in all places capable of imposing permanent life imprisonment) as plainly as they condemn abortion.

My 1984 speech said that I believed it was not the right time for the church to be punishing Catholic politicians or Catholic voters for failing to promote aggressively civil laws that would deny a woman the right to an abortion—even when not being able to legally obtain an abortion might lead to her death. The only really effective way of judging Ken’s discursive attacks on the speech is to read the speech in its entirety. It’s easily accessible on the Internet in a number of places, or from me ([email protected]), and it can be read in a half-hour or so. For now I will have to limit myself to pointing out a few of Ken’s conclusions that I believe miss the mark.

Ken’s article is principally a dissertation on abortion as a religious issue. It culminates in his confident assertion that a fetus is a human being from the moment of conception. He arrives at the conclusion not from scientific evidence he has gathered but because he says it is the current clear teaching of the church. Ken suggests—as have only a handful of American bishops out of three hundred that are in place—that Catholic politicians who do not promote the church’s position on abortion aggressively are at fault politically and morally; he names John Kerry three times. He does so without pause to consider Fr. Murray, Aquinas, or the church’s selective choice of grave matters it chooses to advocate.

Of course, if the proposition that human life begins at conception were as clear to the American people—or even just the Catholic people of America—as Ken makes it out to be, there would have been no speech in 1984, and Ken and Robert George, whom he quotes, would have no difficulty finding support in the Constitution for their position. The difficulty is that at the moment it is considered at best an article of faith accepted by only some of the faithful.

My speech was not a religious dissertation. If it were, I would have felt obliged to point out that not only does today’s Catholic Church refuse to claim infallibility in teaching that the fetus is a human person from the time of conception, it is a conclusion that has troubled the church for centuries and that has been contradicted by the church’s own actions in modern times. If the fetus is a human person from conception, every abortion, whether to save the life of the mother or not—except in limited cases where the principle of double effect might apply—would be prima facie a murder. But it wasn’t until Pope Pius IX’s 1869 decree that the church taught for the first time that ensoulment occurs at conception. Aquinas thought it would not happen for forty days, and Augustine confessed he did not know when the fetus became a human. Were they wrong? And if the church were certain it happened at conception, wouldn’t the church have insisted on baptizing aborted fetuses and burying them in consecrated ground, which it has not? Is this the kind of evidence Ken and his followers believe we should present to the American people as we make the case that women should be denied the right to abortion even if it means the loss of their own life?

I am not a philosopher or theologian, or even a gifted writer on religion who can, on my own, arrive at sure conclusions about when life as a human being begins. I am an old-fashioned Catholic sinner who needs my church desperately and who chooses to live by my church’s rules because my Catholicism is based on faith and not pure intellect. That faith is strong enough to keep me Catholic, but surely a willingness to believe what I cannot myself prove is no basis on which to build a consensus of Americans (even Catholic Americans) in favor of a ban on all abortions from conception on, even to save the life of the mother.

Nor does it require me to advocate “unrestricted abortion rights,” which Ken falsely asserts I do. Even Roe v. Wade does not condone “unrestricted abortion rights.” Ken’s abortion position is the absolutist version—the fetus is human from the moment of conception and any abortion after that would have to be considered murder. Only a tiny percentage of Americans accept that position, although I suspect most Americans agree there are too many abortions. As governor, I strenuously advocated a series of programs to reduce abortions by reducing the number of unintended pregnancies. The programs also assured a poor woman who did find herself unintentionally pregnant all the resources she needed to bring the fetus to term and then have the child adopted by a suitable parent or parents. Ken knows this but failed to mention it.

Ken correctly quotes my statement that I resent and object to any president—Republican or Democrat—who tells me what god to believe in or how to apply that god’s judgments to today’s realities. Our laws should be based upon intelligence, wisdom, history, philosophy, the sciences, and the natural reason shared by the thinking people of the community, not solely the president’s religious faith, however sincere. That is clearly the problem with President George W. Bush’s treatment of embryonic stem cells. Dr. John H. Marburger III, President Bush’s science advisor, queried about his position on stem-cell retrieval from embryos which President Bush condemns as a taking of “life,” said the following (New York Times, March 30, 2004):

Stem cells, for instance, "offer great promise for addressing previously incurable diseases and afflictions....But I can’t tell when a fertilized egg becomes sacred. That’s not my job. That’s not a science issue. And so whatever I think about reproductive technology or choice or whatever, is irrelevant for my job as a science advisor."

My speech pointed out that the First Amendment, which forbids the official preference of one religion over others, also affirms the right to argue religious belief that would serve well as an article of our universal public morality because it is not just based on faith and therefore narrowly sectarian, but fulfills a human desire for order, peace, justice, kindness, love...values most of us agree are desirable, even apart from their specific religious origin. I note in the speech that whenever that opportunity is presented the question for the religious public official becomes: Should I try? Would the effort be helpful? Would it produce harmony and understanding? Or might the effort itself be divisive in a way that weakens our ability to function as a pluralistic community?

So, for me as a Catholic governor considering all that I knew about abortion, the question created by my oath, the Constitution, and my personal inclinations was: “When should I argue to make my religious value your morality: my rule of conduct your limitation?” As I understood my religion, it required me to accept the restraints imposed by my religion in my own life, but it did not require that I seek to impose all of them on all New Yorkers—Catholic or not—whatever the circumstances of the moment. Thus, having heard the pope renew the church’s ban on birth-control devices, I was not required to veto the funding of contraceptive programs for non-Catholics or dissenting Catholics in my state, if I did not believe it to be in the interest of the whole pluralistic community I was sworn to serve. My church did not object to the laws allowing contraceptives, apparently because it understands that our religious values will not be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large. The plausibility of achieving that consensus is a relevant consideration in deciding whether or not to make the effort. There is clearly an American-Catholic tradition of political realism: the church has always made prudential, practical judgments with respect to its attempt to interpolate Catholic principles into the civil law. That was true of slavery in the nineteenth century and is true of a variety of grave Catholic beliefs today. Catholics have lived with these truths of our democratic society fairly comfortably over the years.

A few other scattered observations: Ken seeks to divine what I believe to be true by analyzing what I have not said. In so doing he faults my record on “human rights” and “social justice.” I will let my Notre Dame speech in its entirety and my record in public service speak for me on those subjects.

Ken also complains that I should say about the abortion position what I say so vigorously about the death penalty. The obvious difference is that the death penalty deals—unarguably—with the life of a mature, and usually adult, human being. Moreover, the better question for Ken would be: “Why don’t Ken and the church say about the death penalty everything they say about abortion?”

In answer to my suggestion to Ken that the church encourage an in-depth discussion of when life as a human begins, Ken says—despite our church’s centuries-old confusion on the issue—that the question is not worth discussing because it is answered conclusively by the fact that “a human embryo can never be a cat or dog.” That kind of cavalier disdain for the need to explain or justify the Catholic position is the kind of attitude that makes it difficult for Catholics to convince the rest of society that our faith teaches us to be sincerely concerned with their interests as well as our own.

I think it is reasonably clear that the position I took in the speech at Notre Dame twenty years ago has a good deal more support in both the Catholic and non-Catholic community today than it did then, despite Ken’s arguments and the handful of bishops who have set their sights on John Kerry...while failing to mention the unjust war that rages in Iraq.

If you find the time to look at the speech Ken Woodward has worked so hard to discredit, I hope you will find a couple of minutes to read the last few paragraphs which include these words: We can live and practice the morality Christ gave us, maintaining his truth in this world, struggling to embody his love....Not just by trying to make laws for others to live by, but by living the laws already written for us by God, in our hearts and minds....Persuading not coercing. Leading people to truth by love. And still all the while, respecting and enjoying our unique pluralistic democracy. And we can do it even as politicians.

Mario M. Cuomo is a former governor of New York.

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Published in the 2004-09-24 issue: View Contents
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