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Andrew Cuomo Takes Communion and Revives the 'Good Catholic' Debate

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One of Andrew Cuomo's first acts after his inauguration as New York's governor was also one of the least-noticed, even though it could have sparked a serious controversy for the rising Democratic star -- he went to Mass and received communion.

The problem with that, as conservative Catholic activists and some bishops see it, is that Cuomo is pro-choice and divorced, and he backs gay marriage. And if that weren't enough, he attended the Jan. 2 Mass with his live-in girlfriend, Sandra Lee, the Food Network host, who is also Catholic and divorced.

Just supporting abortion rights has in the past been more than enough to create trouble for Mass-going Catholic pols, as Cuomo's father, Mario, found out back when he was governor in the 1980s. He clashed with the late New York Cardinal John O'Connor, who suggested that a pro-choice Catholic official -- like Mario Cuomo -- could be excommunicated. (Denial of the Eucharist is one of the most severe spiritual penalties that can be levied against a Catholic.)

But the scope of the dispute between Catholic pro-choice pols -- principally Democrats -- and abortion-opposing bishops and their conservative Catholic allies has only grown exponentially since then, with the likes of John Kerry and Joe Biden coming in for especially harsh treatment.

So it was no surprise that soon after the Sunday Mass at Albany's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception -- presided over by the local bishop, Howard Hubbard, and also attended by Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, himself a pro-choice Catholic, -- Andrew Cuomo quickly became the target of pointed critiques that threatened to revive the controversy over who is a "good Catholic."

"Disaster," is how conservative political activist Thomas Peters, who goes by the moniker "American Papist," titled his blog post on the event. "I'm not surprised by Bishop Hubbard's actions or those of Cuomo, Duffy and Lee, but I am deeply disappointed by them," Peters wrote. "The pro-life and pro-marriage values the Church upholds were damaged today."

The American Papist's father, Edward Peters, a prominent canon lawyer and also an outspoken conservative blogger, wrote an item parsing church law on the topic and provocatively called it, "Cuomo's concubinage and holy Communion."

"The fact that both Cuomo and Lee are divorced renders the concubinage adulterous on both sides," wrote the elder Peters, who teaches at the seminary of the Detroit archdiocese. He concluded his legal analysis by saying that under the church's canon law, Cuomo and Lee should be denied communion if they approach the altar, and he blasted Hubbard for a "dereliction of pastoral duty" for not taking that step.

Cuomo wasn't the only newly elected pro-choice Catholic Democrat to tempt fate. Pro-life activists were upset that in Nevada, the governor-elect, Brian Sandoval, started his inauguration day at Mass, the first time in recent memory that a new governor has begun his term with a religious service. Moreover, Sandoval was warmly welcomed to the service by Las Vegas Bishop Joseph A. Pepe, who urged Sandoval to retain "a closeness to the people we serve. We have to listen and we have to listen carefully."

That's not what many pro-lifers wanted to hear from a Catholic bishop preaching to a pro-choice politician.

Yet it's still not clear that any of these flashpoints will ignite, or at least not with the power they have in the past.

For example, the Catholic League's Bill Donohue, who is often quoted criticizing pro-choice Catholics, declined to take a swipe at Cuomo when offered the chance. "We're not one to pass judgment" on how people conduct their personal life, Donohue's spokesman told The Daily News.

The News also quoted an unnamed priest close to the new governor as saying Cuomo "takes his Catholicism very seriously." (Cuomo was for years married to Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, who in 2008 wrote an affecting book about her faith called "Being Catholic Now.")

Of Cuomo's live-in relationship with Lee, the priest said, "I'm not going to condemn it, but at the same time, I'm not going to condone it."

Similarly, Bishop Hubbard, who won't reach the mandatory retirement age of 75 for another three years, has a reputation as one of the last progressives in the U.S. hierarchy and is not inclined to use a Mass to publicly embarrass a politician.

True to form, in his homily Bishop Hubbard exhorted Cuomo and Lt. Gov. Duffy to employ "evangelical daring" in working to fix the broken state government. "We know they, over the next four years, will be deeply immersed in the work of evangelization by bringing about the transformation of our state and our society," Hubbard said as Cuomo, flanked by his three daughters, sat in the front row.

But another factor that may contribute to a shift away from what has been called the "Catholic civil war" is that the optics of public Catholicism changed dramatically this week as John Boehner, a reliably pro-life Catholic, took over as speaker of the House from Nancy Pelosi, a reliably pro-choice Catholic.

Moreover, Boehner leads a very different House than the one Pelosi presided over. With the retirement of Rhode Island representative Patrick Kennedy, there is now no member of the Kennedy clan in either chamber of Congress for the first time since 1947, leaving Catholic conservatives without a favorite punching bag. And Boehner is now in charge of a House in which the number of pro-life Democrats is half what it was last year (cut to about 20 from around 40), leaving Republicans with most of the anti-abortion votes -- and the responsibility to translate those votes into policies.

At the same time, Boehner will be held accountable for making -- or not -- tough decisions on a range of other knotty issues, many of which could well run counter to Catholic social justice teachings that Republicans don't usually support.

In the past Boehner led Republican opposition to any number of items that were priorities for the bishops, from universal health care reform (without abortion funding) to an immigration overhaul. But opposition to abortion and gay marriage are the issues that outweigh all others for the bishops. On those items Boehner is on their side, and with other issues now demanding the new speaker's input, Catholic conservatives are already rallying to protect Boehner -- a "real Catholic," as Deacon Keith Fournier calls him -- from any of the "cafeteria Catholic" charges that conservatives often used against liberals.

To be sure, President Obama is still deeply unpopular with leading conservative voices in the U.S. hierarchy, and almost anything he does has the potential to inflame the Catholic right; activists were already agitating over Obama's choice of William Daley as his new chief of staff, characterizing Daley as a "dissenting Catholic" because he has criticized the likes of Chicago Cardinal Francis George.

But the main thrust of conservative Catholic lobbying for the near future may be directed more toward reconciling the Republican agenda with the Catholic catechism than singling out "bad Catholic" Democrats for sacramental banishing.

From that perspective, the Cuomo-communion story may turn out to be the tale of the dog that didn't bark.

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The problem is he is divorced, and divorced Catholics can not rec' the sacrament unless they have rec'd an annullment. Also, since he is co-habitating with his girlfriend, he is also barred from rec' the Sacrament of Holy Communion. The priest and the bishop should of stated this. As an American and a Roman Catholic priest living and working in Italy, one must remember to be a Catholic means following the teachings of the Church, not just doing what you think is right. So, he really doesn't take is faith seriously, end of debate.

January 28 2011 at 7:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Excommunication is not a punishment, it is an acknowledgment of a person's choice not to be Catholic. Catholicism is not a group you are born into and remain part of regardless of personal choice. Catholics are people who choose to hold certain core teachings about God to be true and to live in accordance with the teachings of His Church.

When a Catholic knows what the Church teaches and nevertheless dissents from those teachings or lives in a way contrary to Catholic faith or morals, he/she is no longer Catholic. Such a person has excommunicated him/herself.

Therefore, it is important that when the clergy sees a person veering away from the Catholic faith that they privately contact the person and explain why his/her actions or beliefs are wrong. If at that point the person continues to deny Church teachings, they have excommunicated/cut themselves off from the God. Embracing abortion, homosexual marriage or living an adulterous lifestyle is to excommunicate oneself by denying concrete Church teachings about God's truth.

The situation becomes even more dire when former Catholics are public officials, who have been warned that they are not living a Catholic life but still claim a Catholic identity because then they are misleading the public by their example. To let the person know the serious jeopardy his/her soul is in and to keep the public from being misled and confused about Catholic teachings, it may be necessary to issue a formal letter of excommunication, which basically acknowledges the person's choice not to be Catholic.

However, the Church does this very rarely and with much sadness, when the person has left them no other choice. Even after a formal letter of excommunication, the Church continues to pray for this person, that he/she will come back, renounce all errors, embrace the Catholic faith and amend his/her lifestyle. An excommunicated person leaves by choice and can be welcomed back into the Church by choice. The doors are always open to their conversion and the Church would be overjoyed to guide them back home!

January 25 2011 at 9:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What many pundits don't seem to grasp is that the Catholic Church gets to set its own rules for what constitutes being a Catholic in good standing. Those who bleat most about "Separation!" are the first to whine when Catholic politcians are told that they are free to choose their behavior but some choices come with consequences.

January 25 2011 at 8:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

People, grow up. It's time and has been for a very long time that people need to keep their noses out of anyone else's religion. First off, there is not one religion out there that is perfect, regardless of what anyone wants to believe. Next, when people divorce its usually for a very good reason and has nothing to do with what they believe in. Example, if you're married to someone who beats you, you're suppose to stay in that marriage so that he is allowed to kill you so that you won't fear being excummincated from the church.... I don't think so!!! Get real and wake up each of you hypocrits for i'm sure non of you are living the all holy life style.

January 22 2011 at 2:17 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Kennedy is about as Catholic as I am the Pope. He takes the word hypocrisy to a level rarely seen- except amongst Democrats and Liberals.
He would have attracted less notoriety if he attended Mass AFTER he "fixed" NY's fiscal and political broken-ness.
But then, the Kennedy's always "did it my way".

January 20 2011 at 9:59 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

This is why the church has trouble keeping members. The archaic terms drive everyone away. I am pro-choice because Ive seen to many teens have babies only to neglect them. Excummnication is harsh; it only makes people detest the religion all the more. To be boxed in and adhering to rules you can or have trouble following/ believing in or live by is hard enough because it goes against your moral compass. I should be able to talk to god without going through saints (He's the father, right? why shouldnt I go to to my father?) The rpoblem is changing outdated modes of thinking.

January 19 2011 at 3:51 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

WAKE UP! IT IS 2011 FOR CHRIST SAKE! The same of rhetoric goes on and on ad nauseum. Yes people get divorced. Yes women have abortions. The abortions issue should have never been politicized, it is a medical issue. What happened to doctor patient confidentiality. I personally would never have one and thank God that I have never been put in the position even to consider such. I would no more force some to have an abortion than to not.

January 19 2011 at 10:31 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to unioniron's comment

unioniron--- with profane comments like this it is absolutely no wonder that union membership is held is such low esteem. As is membership. Seems that unions have more corrupt leadership and behavior than any other recognizable group. Except, perhaps, Congressional Democrats.

January 20 2011 at 10:16 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

This is why I am so strained from the Catholic Church. Who are we, as humans, to judge whether or not he is a good man? Who are we in general to judge at all? So what if he supports gay marriage - he has said nothing about supporting gay marriage being forced upon the Catholic Church. Also, he's divorced. Is everyone who is divorced not titled to receive the sacrament? How do you know if he went to confession and was atoned for his sins (according to his beliefs)?
I personally feel that anyone who points the finger at who they believe is a good Catholic or a bad Catholic is not a good person. How can you be when you are doing what God has told us all NEVER to do - basically leave the judging to Him.

I will say, however, that the pro-Choice thing is a little rough to be adamant about and then receive the Eucharist. That's a huge part of the foundation of what the Church stands for today and for him to receive with that being one of the hallmarks of his platform, it makes me a bit uneasy. But - I'd rather have this kind of controversy from our governor than have a governor who sleeps with escorts or one that does drugs and cheats on his wife.

January 15 2011 at 1:59 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I'm a Eucharistic Minister. In church when a person comes up to receive Communion, which is the Sacred Body of our Lord Jesus, I do not ask their marital status, or their politics or their veiws on abortion, I simply say "The Body of Christ"
Prior to receiving the whole Congregation says: "Lord I am not worthy to receive You, but only say the word and I shall be healed"
If after that they feel themselves to be worthy, they come up and receive Communion.

January 15 2011 at 12:13 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

The comments attached to this story, have been the most well written,articulate, non abusive and civil discourse on a subject that I have ever had the pleasure to read. I am reading comments that show dissent without abusive language and written in an intelligent and informative manner.

THANK YOU to all the commentators for your civility!!

January 15 2011 at 8:39 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

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