WASHINGTON - Several commentators have tried recently to intimidate U.S. Roman Catholics. The occasion was the warning from prison by Bishop Austin Vaughan about the danger to the immortal soul of Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York because of his action (or inaction) on abortion. The Bishop's warning, these commentators ominously hint, gives ammunition to anti-Catholic "bigots." They have pointed out that anti-Catholicism almost caused John F. Kennedy to lose the presidency in 1960, just as it caused Al Smith to lose in 1928. They warn Catholics that, if they don't keep quiet about abortion and other matters of conscience, they will again be subjected to bigotry.
Such warnings to Catholic bishops are themselves examples of bigotry. When an ordained leader of any faith speaks to moral questions, he is exercising both his right to the free exercise of his religion and his duty as a pastor. Cuomo graciously recognized this and defended it.
When in the past Catholic bishops issued similar warnings about the immorality of racism, these same commentators applauded. What they would seem to object to, then, are only those public statements by bishops that rub against their own views. Yet of what use would bishops be if all they voiced was the conventional wisdom even of nonbelievers?
What sort of "free exercise of religion" would that represent?
Cuomo is right to make a conscientious judgment that, despite the moral convictions of his own community of faith about abortion, he must uphold the law as it is written, and thus respect the will of a constitutional majority. Reasons of public concord and respect for law support such a decision.
But there is also another moral imperative, to which perhaps Bishop Vaughan was pointing. In the matter of capital punishment, Cuomo has shown the boldness to argue publicly and tirelessly against the views of a majority in New York state. He has vetoed legislation on the death penalty passed by significant majorities. He has followed his own conscience, even against predominant and opposite convictions.
Why, then, does he not show equal courage regarding the inalienable natural right to life on the part of the unborn? He has said that, in his own conscience, he is "personally opposed to abortion, but ..."
But he has so far behaved much more timidly in opposing abortion than in opposing capital punishment.
Cuomo could argue that the American public has steadily expanded the boundaries of those to be included under the wing of constitutional protection. He could argue, with Lincoln, that arguments for the right to choose abortion will eventually go the way of arguments for the right to choose slavery. Cuomo could in this way play an important role in shaping a new, progressive moral consensus. He could articulate in public what it is that he finds offensive about abortion.
The governor could point out that technological control over both infants and the elderly is increasing; that what kind of people we Americans intend to be will be decided by how we choose who is worthy to be included under constitutional protection. He could point out that those lines will cut across the lives of all of us and that they cannot be drawn by individual conscience only, for the most vulnerable of the victims are at the mercy of the interests of others.
Neither a Catholic conscience nor any other social conscience should be embodied in American law unless, under a constitutional process, majorities accept it as their own, through public debate and public persuasion.
But this also means that Catholics, including bishops, should not cease to exercise their right to speak, just because someone threatens that there are other bigots out there who want to take those rights away.