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Catholicism isn’t a pick ‘n’ mix – politicians like Andrew Cuomo must stop seeing it as such

4 August 2018

4:28 PM

4 August 2018

4:28 PM

I’m fairly certain the Pope’s a Catholic but Andrew Cuomo is anyone’s guess. Barely had the Holy Father revised Church teaching to declare capital punishment ‘inadmissible’ than the New York Governor tweeted this:

The scion of the Cuomo dynasty — the Kennedys remade for radio — is battling Sex and the City star turned progressive heroine Cynthia Nixon for the Democrat nomination ahead of November’s gubernatorial election. Some tacking left never hurt anyone in a New York Democrat primary but, beyond that, this is pure gesture. The state appeals court struck down New York’s death penalty statute in 2004 and the execution chamber was shuttered in 2008. The last person put to death was Eddie Lee Mays, who was electrocuted in 1963.

Still, I’m sure the infallible apostolic successor to Saint Peter will appreciate Cuomo’s ‘solidarity’. It’ll really help him in the next Vatican primaries. Cuomo’s endorsement of the Pope, as though he was running for secretary of the local Teamsters branch, is an illuminating example of how culturally Catholic US politicians think about the Church. It is another interest group to be courted, another photo-op to tick off the schedule. The dynamic is commercial: the politician looks pious to religious voters, the Church gets another public figure on board.

Cuomo’s Catholicism, like that of most Democrat politicians, is peripatetic. Paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church will change from decreeing the death penalty permissible ‘if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor’ to calling it ‘inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’. This accords with Cuomo’s secular worldview and so he embraces it. Exactly three paragraphs later, the Catechism reads:

‘Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognised as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.’


This does not accord with Cuomo’s secular worldview, which mirrors the general Democrat extremism on abortion. In a 2014 radio interview, Cuomo pronounced that ‘these extreme conservatives who are right-to-life […] have no place in the state of New York’. He has campaigned on safeguarding the legality of abortion into the ninth month of pregnancy; less than three per cent of terminations in the state takes place after month five. He is threatening to sue the federal government if it enforces the terms of Title X, which prohibits the appropriation of funds for programmes ‘where abortion is a method of family planning’. Clinics in receipt of Title X funding would not be allowed to counsel abortion or refer patients to abortion services but could still provide abortions in a separate clinic that does not take public money.

I would ordinarily say ‘fair enough’. I am out of step with any number of my Church’s teachings, including on abortion where no exceptions are made for the protection of the woman’s life, physical health, emotional wellbeing or whether the pregnancy was the result of rape. I struggle with these matters, I pray Church doctrine will evolve. I don’t seek to enact catechism into law one minute and facilitate late-term abortions the next.

The Catholic Church isn’t (yet) one of those fun, rainbow Jesus, ach-it’s-only-Leviticus denominations. For those who favour Polonius Christianity, in which the only law is ‘to thine own self be true’, there are plenty of other worship options. I’m told the Episcopalians are lovely.

Helpfully, the Pope’s revision of the Catechism explodes the myth that ‘cafeteria Catholicism’ is unique to progressives. The American left’s sanctification of abortion is grim but it is easily matched by the American right’s lusty enthusiasm for capital punishment.

Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts, a practising Catholic, was none too pleased when the state legislature, in an unusual coalition of Democrats and Republicans, repealed the death penalty statute. This was in large part thanks to another Catholic, Colby Coash, then a Republican state senator who convinced his conservative colleagues to vote for repeal with an argument both novel and obvious: To be truly pro-life, Christians must oppose the death penalty. This got his foot in the door to make a broader right-wing case that the death penalty was costly, inefficient, bureaucratic and failed to deter crime.

‘Pro-lifer’ Ricketts responded with a referendum campaign, largely financed from his own pocket, to restore the death penalty statute. This seemed at odds with the boast that his anti-abortion policies were creating ‘a culture of life’ in Nebraska. However, on capital punishment, he explicitly tied his stance to his Catholic faith, even closely paraphrasing the Catechism in justification:

‘The Catholic Church does not preclude the use of the death penalty under certain circumstances: That guilt is determined and the crime is heinous. Also, protecting society. As I’ve thought about this and meditated on it and prayed on it and researched it, I’ve determined it’s an important tool.’

The voters backed Ricketts in the referendum and now Carey Dean Moore, a double-murderer condemned for almost 40 years, will be put to death in ten days’ time, Nebraska’s first execution in over a decade and first by lethal injection. Governor Ricketts says the sentence will be carried out despite the Holy See’s announcement, telling the media: ‘While I respect the Pope’s perspective, capital punishment remains the will of the people and the law of the state of Nebraska.’

Hold your horses, Father Flanagan. You don’t get to bring your friendship with Jesus into public policy when it suits you then tell the Church to do one when it doesn’t. If you listen closely to the governor’s statement, you can hear a cock crowing in the distance. Ricketts is the sort of Catholic for whom the right to life begins at conception and ends at birth. Just as progressives believe in human rights for everyone except the unborn, conservatives’ interest in family values never seems to last long enough to get decent daycare funding or family support measures out of them.

Neither Cuomo nor Ricketts is an intellectual force but they should prompt some soul-searching among those of us who believe faith has a place in political life. The Church’s shift has won praise — mostly from those who declaim its every other intervention — but the behaviour of some of its most visible adherents has made Catholicism look contingent and hypocritical. Does this do the Church, or the Word, any good?


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