Much was made, in the wake of Mario Cuomo’s passing last week, of the former New York governor’s speech at Notre Dame University in 1984.

“The Catholic Church,” Cuomo said back then, “is my spiritual home.”

But the passing of time seems to have softened the explosive nature of what Cuomo said next.

“I accept the church’s teaching on abortion,” Cuomo said. “Must I insist you do?”

Most Cuomo obituaries focused on Cuomo’s theological and philosophical wizardry, aided and abetted by the brilliant Irish American novelist and historian Peter Quinn who served as a Cuomo speechwriter, having served in the same capacity for the previous governor, Irish American Hugh Carey.

Contemporary observers credit Cuomo for carving out a nuanced position, a balance between personal faith and public morality. An entire generation of Catholic politicians (especially Democrats) have ridden on Cuomo’s shoulders, as they try and remain Catholic, while also defending their right to belong to a pro-choice political party.

What has gotten a whole lot less attention was the nasty war of words among a generation of prominent New York Irish and Italian American Catholics that led up to Cuomo’s speech.

This was, after all, barely a decade after the infamous Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision which thrust abortion politics into the national spotlight. Up to this point, many Americans had only recently come to accept that a Roman Catholic could even be president. Until John F. Kennedy, large numbers of voters worried out loud that a Catholic president would blindly obey Catholic teachings.

And here came Cuomo, trying to transform Kennedy’s weakness (JFK barely won the popular vote, after all) into some kind of strength, a way to be both a devout Catholic and dedicated, open-minded American.

He was prompted to do this by New York’s combative Irish American Archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor, who had been installed as New York’s spiritual leader two days after St. Patrick’s Day in 1984.

O’Connor quickly addressed the issue of abortion and Catholic voters.

“I do not see how a Catholic, in good conscience, can vote for an individual expressing himself or herself as favoring abortion,” O’Connor said.

This issue only got more heated in the summer of 1984 when Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale selected Geraldine Ferraro, a pro-choice Catholic, as his running mate. O’Connor publicly criticized Ferraro. Senator Ted Kennedy criticized O’Connor.

Cuomo also struck back, telling The New York Times, “You have the archbishop of New York saying that no Catholic can vote for…anybody who disagrees with him on abortion.”

Cuomo later told Newsday, “I’m a Catholic governor. I’m going to make you all Catholics -- no birth control, you have to go to church on Sunday, no abortion. . . . What happens when an atheist wins?”

By September, the stage was set for a grand statement on the issue of Catholicism and abortion in public life.

Cuomo could not have chosen a more provocative stage than Notre Dame, the country’s most prominent Catholic university.

After the speech liberal Catholics cheered Cuomo as a hero, just as zealously at conservatives blasted Cuomo as a “cafeteria Catholic,” who adhered only to the elements of the faith he believed in.

A civil war within the American Catholic Church that had kicked off with the reforms of Vatican II in the late 1960s had reached its boiling point. It’s not clear if it has yet been resolved.

Because, as respected Religion News Service journalist David Gibson recently pointed out, Cuomo’s long-lasting legacy may actually benefit conservatives.

“A new generation of Catholic conservatives -- mainly Republicans -- invokes the same kind of ‘personally opposed’ ethos to part ways with the church on issues such as economic and foreign policy, the death penalty and immigration reform,” Gibson noted.

But such is the power of strong ideas. Once let loose into the world, we cannot control them.

As we embark on yet another presidential election, let’s at least hope Cuomo’s desire to eloquently confront tough questions is an issue on which both sides can agree.

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