Up Front and Personal

Doing Justice to Cuomo’s Catholic Faith

By Father Edward Mason

Few politicians of our time have worn their religion on their sleeve to the extent that the late Gov. Mario Cuomo did. He often referred not only to the way his parents brought him up, but also to the essential role of Mass attendance and Eucharist in his own life.

He searched for ways to quote or incorporate the works of St. Paul, St. Augustine and Teilhard de Chardin into his own thoughts. He fancied himself a modern-day Thomas More. But even he had to admit to not quite measuring up to that claim. After a contentious exchange with him during a meeting in the early 1990s, I suggested that we had an archbishop who wanted to be governor and a governor who wanted to be the archbishop.

The discussion of Mario Cuomo and his Catholic faith often revolves around his speech at Notre Dame University. I feel this is most unfortunate and does not do him or his Catholicity justice. He spoke that day of his belief that, as a politician elected to govern a diverse secular state, it was not his place to force his beliefs on the greater society. While I feel that Mr. Cuomo got this wrong at the time, he went on to get much more right. I believe there was a contradiction to what he said at Notre Dame.

He opposed capital punishment on philosophical and religious grounds, vetoing legislation to reinstate the death penalty in New York possibly as many as 11 of his 12 years as governor. His position went against the tide, with both New York State and federal courts ruling it constitutional, and a majority of the citizenry also in favor of it. The governor did “inflict” his views on society in this case. While I believe his support of abortion was incorrect, his administration led the world in funding pregnancy prevention programs aimed at “at risk” teens and adolescents.

In the spring of 1984, the governor gave the commencement address at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. I believe this to be the speech that best defined him as a Catholic politician. I was in attendance that day, awestruck by his words and continue to be influenced by them some 30 years later.

I was then completing my second year of theology in preparation for ordination to the priesthood, and Cuomo’s words gave voice and focus to my own ideas and beliefs. I can only hope that my own 30-plus years of ministry to the poor and disadvantaged of our city and diocese have lived up to the lofty values that he put forth that day. He challenged us who lived in comfort and affluence to make sure we saw and got to know the “other America.” Most of us will never experience the poverty, devastation and tragedies that fill the lives of so many of our fellow citizens. He challenged us to do this primarily because we profess ourselves to be Catholic.

I close this piece with Mario Cuomo’s own words delivered that afternoon at Holy Cross: “I believe that at the very heart of our Catholic tradition is an insistence on community, on reaching salvation by embracing the world, restoring it, rebuilding it, changing it.”

Father Mason is the pastor of Our Lady of the Presentation-Our Lady of Loreto parish in Brownsville.