What Did Boston Diocesan Official Advise Mario Cuomo for 1984 Notre Dame Speech?

October 12, 2012

The comment made by VP Joe Biden in the debate, “I can believe what the Church believes in my personal life, and not my public life” really gets under the skin of many faithful Catholics. What many people may not know is that Fr. Bryan Hehir, Secretary of Health and Social Services, and a senior aide to Cardinal O’Malley has some history of helping a prominent Catholic politician advance that same position. Since Fr. Hehir was a guest speaker  at Sacred Heart in Quincy, on Thursday night on the topic of “Election Discussion,” and  in view of the question of religion asked in the vice presidential debate tonight, BCI thought it would be timely to share with our readers a bit of history sent our way you may find of interest.

The bulletin and calendar notice in The Pilot said: “Fr. Hehir is a nationally recognized authority on social justice and the Church. He will speak about important issues facing voters in the upcoming election, looking at these issues from the perspective of Catholic social teaching.” Question is, what perspective of Catholic social teaching is Fr. Hehir advancing?  You might reach your own conclusion based on a few things Fr. Hehir has written or said in the past. We go back to 1974 and 1984 for historical perspective.

In 1974, Fr. Hehir was associate secretary for the International Justice and Peace office at what was then known as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (or U.S. Catholic Conference). It was the United Nations Population Year, and the Third World Population Conference was organized by the UN and held in Bucharest, Romania in August 1974. The Holy See, represented by then Archbishop Edouard Gagnon, was rallying Third World countries against population control mandates urged by the Henry Kissinger National Security Study Memorandum 200. Fr. Hehir instead urged the Holy See to take a “low profile” regarding means of population control. Fr. Hehir wrote this article, “THE CHURCH AND THE POPULATION YEAR: NOTES ON A STRATEGY” in Theological Studies which formed the position of Catholic bishops and the Vatican at the UN Population Conference:

“…the Church should not oppose nor seek to prohibit public authorities from designing and implementing policies which employ a range of contraceptive techniques. In other words, save for the issues of abortion and sterilization, the strategy of the Church would be to regard contraceptive practice as an issue of private morality which the Church continues to teach for its members, but not an issue of public morality on which it seeks to affect public policy. (Theological Studies, March 1974).

Fast forward to the 1984 presidential race. Here is an excellent article that summarizes the situation.

In March 1984, John O’Connor became archbishop of New York. That summer, Walter Mondale nominated New Yorker Geraldine Ferraro for vice president. Ferraro attempted to justify her pro-abortion position as being compatible with her Catholic faith, and Archbishop O’Connor corrected her. It became a high-profile controversy. The Catholic Church, in the person of the archbishop of New York, was at odds with a Catholic candidate for national office on a matter of fundamental importance. The Church’s pro-life public witness was clear — painfully clear for some.

It is well known that Mario Cuomo went to Notre Dame to argue that faithful Catholics could in good conscience, as legislators and executives, defend abortion rights, pass laws facilitating abortion, and even fund it with tax dollars. Yet his “Religious Belief and Public Morality” speech was as much about Notre Dame as it was about Cuomo. Notre Dame’s leadership put its prestige on the pro-choice side of American politics.

Cuomo did not just happen to use a lecture at Notre Dame to address abortion politics. He was brought to Notre Dame in a flagrantly provocative manner to undermine the Church’s pro-life witness in politics. Cuomo was then among the most prominent Catholic politicians in the nation. His political star was rising rapidly after he gave a celebrated keynote address at the Democratic National Convention that summer in San Francisco. His address at Notre Dame was scheduled for Sept. 13, 1984, hosted by Father Hesburgh and Father Richard McBrien, chairman of the theology department.

So the stage was set. After the archbishop of New York had clarified that a faithful Catholic could not promote abortion rights, the nation’s premier Catholic university, led by two of the most famous Catholic priests in America, invited the leading Catholic politician in the country to explain why the archbishop of New York was wrong — all this two months before a presidential election in which a vice-presidential candidate was a pro-abortion Catholic. It almost did not matter what Cuomo said; the message Notre Dame sent was clear: The archbishop of New York and his brother bishops did not speak authoritatively for the Church in the United States; Notre Dame had an authoritative voice, too, and she would be heard on the pro-choice side.

In the speech, Cuomo in essence said that what the Catholic Church teaches on abortion was a matter of personal morality, while his public position—in support of legalized abortion–would not be impacted or affected by that private morality. He said:

“The values derived from religious belief will not — and should not — be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large, by consensus….what is ideally desirable isn’t always feasible, that there can be different political approaches to abortion besides unyielding adherence to an absolute prohibition.”
For his pro-choice political position, Cardinal John Joseph O’Connor considered excommunicating him.

Here is a bit more background on the speech, including the role of Fr. Hehir, that BCI has just received from an unimpeachable source.

In November 1983, early into Cuomo’s first term, he delivered a speech about stewardship of political power in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It got press visibility at the time because it was apparently the first time since John F. Kennedy’s famous Houston speech that a Catholic politician had addressed the issue of religion in public life.

As a result of that speech, Cuomo was contacted by Fr. Richard McBrien, from Notre Dame, who invited him to Notre Dame to expand on it. In the meantime, Cardinal O’Connor, newly named as New York archbishop, went after Cuomo and other pro-choice Catholic politicians about their stances on abortion. The issue got a lot of attention in the 1984 presidential campaign. The address at Notre Dame grew in prominence and importance since the national media gave it a great deal of attention.

The speechwriter for Gov. Cuomo was Peter Quinn, and he is on record as having helped craft the Notre Dame speech. Fr. McBrien, who, coincidentally, preached at Fr. Bryan Hehir’s first Mass after his ordination as a priest, came to New York where he discussed the issues involved and Catholic approaches to the issues with the speechwriter.  The original draft was written in collaboration with a former Jesuit student, Bill Hanlon, to reflect what they felt Cuomo believed, as well as their own beliefs as Catholics. Then Gov. Cuomo saw the draft, and after that, Fr. McBrien and Fr. George Hunt, S.J. (then editor of America magazine),.  It then went to Fr. Bryan Hehir, Peter Steinfels at Commonweal Magazine  and others for review and feedback.

We repeat, this information comes from an unimpeachable source, with first-hand knowledge of, and involvement in the 1984 speech and speech-writing effort.

A reasonable person might ask several questions.  Why was Fr. Hehir on the review list for a speech given by a pro-choice Democratic politician, defending their public pro-choice position?  What did Fr. Hehir think of the message then, and what did he advise Mario Cuomo and the speechwriter for that 1984 Notre Dame speech?  What does Fr. Hehir think of the message today?  Why was Fr. Hehir part of an effort to help undermine the U.S. bishops authoritative voice on abortion? How does Fr. Hehir feel that Catholics for a Free Choice cited his statement that contraception was an issue of private morality, not public morality to support their position that Catholic hospitals should not be exempt from having to offer contraceptive coverage? Why has every attempt to run 40 Days for Life in the Boston Archdiocese been rejected by the group responsible for this area, which happens to fall under the authority of Fr. Hehir?  Why does the Pro-Life Office report into Fr. Hehir? Why is the public policy voice of the Massachusetts Bishops, the Mass Catholic Conference, under the authority of Fr. Hehir, when his stated views have been that Church teachings were a matter of private morality, not public morality? To what extent are his views muting the voice of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts today?

If you would like to do something about this situation, click Email icon below and forward this blog post to the U.S. Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano at nuntiususa@nuntiususa.org, or drop a dime and call him at 202-333-7121.

This is what BCI thinks.  What do you think?

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