Mario Cuomo (h/t gilly youner)

Once again, Notre Dame finds itself in the midst of a battle over purity going on in the Catholic church. The Vatican, encouraged by lay and clergy American rightwingers, have been going after alleged liberals in seminaries via episcopal pressure on faculty members and Vatican visits, in religious orders (especially those run by women), and in Catholic colleges.

Behind the scenes at the last couple of meetings of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the bishops have been having some very brutal battles over how vigorous a public stance they should take on things like abortion and communion practices of politicians. Thus far, the hardliners have been thwarted in getting the USCCB to go hard right, and they are getting more and more restless.

One recent piece of this battle was Randall Terry using former St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke (now head of the Vatican’s supreme court) to slam American bishops like DC’s McCarrick and LA’s Mahoney for not being hardline enough in fighting for a sufficiently pure catholicism.

This is not new.

Back in 1984, then-NY Governor Mario Cuomo gave a speech to the Theology Department at Notre Dame University: Religious Belief and Public Morality. Those who criticize Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to be their commencement speaker like Chicago’s Cardinal George might want to go back and take a look at Cuomo’s remarks.

The issue, said Cuomo, is not over what Catholics believe, but how that gets translated into political action:

It has been argued that the failure to endorse a legal ban on abortions is equivalent to refusing to support the cause of abolition before the Civil War. This analogy has been advanced by bishops of my own state.

But the truth of the matter is, as I’m sure you know, few, if any, Catholic bishops spoke for abolition in the years before the Civil War. And it wasn’t, I believe, that the bishops endorsed the idea of some humans owning and exploiting other humans. Not at all. Pope Gregory XVI, in 1840, had condemned the slave trade. Instead it was a practical political judgment that the bishops made. And they weren’t hypocrites; they were realists. . . They concluded that under the circumstances arguing for a constitutional amendment against slavery would do more harm than good, so they were silent — as they have been, generally, in recent years, on the question of birth control, and as the Church has been on even more controversial issues in the past, even ones that dealt with life and death.

Now, what is relevant to this discussion is that the bishops were making judgments about translating Catholic teaching into public policy, not about the moral validity of the teachings. In so doing they grappled with the unique political complexities of their time. The decision they made to remain silent on a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery or on the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law wasn’t a mark of their moral indifference. It was a measured attempt to balance moral truths against political realities. Their decision reflected their sense of complexity, not their diffidence. And as history reveals, Lincoln behaved with similar discretion.

Now, the parallel I want to draw here is not between or among what we Catholics believe to be moral wrongs. It is in the Catholic political response to those wrongs. Church teaching on abortion and slavery is clear. But in the application of those teachings — the exact way we translate them into political action, the specific laws we propose, the exact legal sanctions we seek — there was and is no one, clear, absolute route that the Church says, as a matter of doctrine, we must follow.

Fr. John Langan S.J. of Georgetown University nailed it:

The bishops need to think carefully about whether they are showing a heroic resistance to absolute evil or whether they are being used by selfish and dishonest political interests and by zealots who show more passion than judgment when they stubbornly refuse to recognize the limits of what is politically possible in a pluralistic and individualistic society.

Could it be that folks like Cardinal Burke, Cardinal George, and the other bishops who are opposed to Notre Dame giving an honorary degree to Obama find it easier to stamp their feet and demand obedience than to effectively teach their flock and try to persuade the wider world about the wisdom of their positions?