Let’s make a deal: Catholic conscience and compromise
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archbishop of Denver
Denver Catholic Register
September 22, 2004
Two September anniversaries give us plenty to think about, this year and
"If you sup with the devil, you’d better bring a long spoon."
— American folk saying
September is the month when election campaigns get serious. So it’s also the
traditional season for Catholic politicians to explain why their faith won’t
"dictate" their public actions.
Forty-four years ago this month (Sept. 12, 1960), John F. Kennedy delivered
remarks to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association wherein he effectively
severed his Catholic identity from his public service. It’s OK to elect me
president, he argued to a wary Protestant audience, because I won’t let the pope
tell me what to do.
In pledging to put the "national interest" above "religious pressures or
dictates," Kennedy created a template for a generation of Catholic candidates:
Be American first; be Catholic second. This was an easy calculus for Kennedy,
who wore his faith loosely anyway. And it was certainly what the American public
square, with its historic anti-Catholic prejudice, wanted to hear.
The Kennedy compromise seemed to work pretty well as long as the "religious
pressures" faced by Catholic elected officials involved issues like divorce,
federal aid to Catholic schools or diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Each
of these issues was important, surely, but none involved life and death. None
In 1973, by legalizing abortion on demand, the U.S. Supreme Court changed
everything. The reason is simple: Abortion is different. Abortion kills. The
great Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke for the whole
Christian tradition when he wrote:
"Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right
to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question
whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to
confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a
human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of
his life. And that is nothing but murder."
Resistance to abortion cuts across all religions. It’s not a "Catholic"
issue. In fact, it’s finally not a religious issue at all, but a matter of human
rights, reinforced by the irrefutable scientific fact that life begins at
After 1973, because of Roe v. Wade, Catholic elected officials faced a
choice. They could either work to change or at least mitigate permissive
abortion laws, while at the same time trying to repopulate the courts with
pro-life judges. Or they could abandon the unborn and look for a way to morally
sanitize their decision. For those who chose the latter course, the leading
Catholic political figure of the day stepped in to help them out.
Twenty years ago this month (Sept. 13, 1984), then-New York Governor Mario
Cuomo delivered a speech at the University of Notre Dame that sought to give
intellectual muscle to the Kennedy compromise. Cuomo, unlike Kennedy, was more
educated about his faith. Cuomo, unlike Kennedy, had the benefit of seeing where
Kennedy’s Houston speech had finally led. But Cuomo, like Kennedy, was a man
with presidential prospects. To what degree those prospects shaped the talk he
gave — "Religious belief and public morality: a Catholic governor’s perspective"
— is unclear. But the results remain with us still.
Cuomo argued that "in our attempt to find a political answer to abortion — an
answer beyond our private observance of Catholic morality" — he had concluded
that "legal interdicting of abortion by either the federal government or the
individual states is not a plausible possibility, and even if it could be
obtained, it wouldn’t work." He might privately oppose abortion but, in his
view, he had no right to "impose" that belief on others.
In hindsight, Cuomo’s speech is a tour de force of articulate misdirection.
It refuses to acknowledge the teaching and formative power of the law. It
implicitly equates unequal types of issues. It misuses the "seamless garment"
metaphor. It effectively blames Catholics themselves for the abortion problem.
It selectively misreads history.
In the end, Cuomo argued that "approval or rejection of legal restrictions on
abortion should not be the exclusive litmus test of Catholic loyalty." With
those words, he wrote the alibi for every "pro-choice" Catholic who has held
public office since.
In deference to his understanding of pluralistic democracy, Governor Cuomo —
despite his personal opposition to abortion — went on to resist repeated
attempts to restrict abortion in his own state of New York. He also supported
public funding of abortion for poor women.
His Catholic conscience apparently did kick in on selective issues though,
whether "pluralism" liked it or not. Governor Cuomo vetoed legislative efforts
to re-institute the death penalty — 12 times.
Next month, October, is Respect Life month. It’s a good time to reflect on
the meaning of the Kennedy-Cuomo legacy. In brief, it’s OK to be Catholic in
public service as long as you’re willing to jettison what’s inconveniently
That’s not a compromise. That’s a deal with the devil, and it has a balloon
payment no nation, no public servant and no voter can afford.