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


David Gibson

Religion Reporter
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.