The Archbishop and the Governor
New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan is greatly relieved that the pesky matter of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s unCatholic (at least for now) lifestyle is finally behind us. The divorced Catholic governor has been very publicly living with his girlfriend and taking her to official events. An advisor to the Vatican’s highest court, Edward Peters, had called for the denial of communion to Cuomo on the ground of his “public concubinage”—a perfectly reasonable interpretation of Catholic doctrine.
The New York hierarchy, however, immediately closed ranks around Cuomo and brushed off this pesky Vatican busy-body. The leader of the Albany diocese, Bishop Howard Hubbard, assured Cuomo and the world that the Church fathers would not dream of judging Cuomo’s domestic arrangements:
“There are norms for all Catholics about receiving communion and we have to be sensitive pastorally to every person in their [sic] own particular situation,” Bishop Hubbard said.
Bishop Hubbard’s logic here is puzzling. The very existence of universal “norms for all Catholics” means that they apply to “every person” regardless of his “own particular situation.” Not any more, it seems:
“When it comes to judging worthiness for communion, . . . it’s not something we comment on,” said Hubbard.
New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan was even more dismissive of the silly idea of stigmatizing Cuomo for his out-of-wedlock relationship. Cuomo had threatened to cancel a scheduled lunch with Dolan, possibly out of pique at the criticism of his “concubinage” emanating from distant Catholic redoubts. But then Cuomo magnanimously found time in his busy schedule for lunch with the assorted New York priests. Dolan later reported that Cuomo’s living arrangements never came up, adding:
“Thank God it didn’t, because it was a bit of a tempest in a teapot . . . . We were just happy to be there, and he obviously was, too.”
Lots of jolliness all around, obviously. Dolan joked that the best part of the fact that Cuomo rescheduled their meeting was that “We got lunch out of it.”
(How the once fearsome power of the Church has shrunk! King Phillip in Verdi’s Don Carlo complains that the “throne must always bow to the altar.” Now the altar creeps up to the throne and is grateful for a few table scraps.)
One of the core purposes of the “secular conservative” construct, in my view, is to show that traditional morality can be justified on secular grounds alone. Divine revelation is not needed to argue for obedience to the law and respect for the rights of others. More particularly, the married two-parent biological family can be shown to be superior to all other arrangements for raising children, based on evidence and on an understanding of the role of marriage in civilizing men and tying them to their children. You don’t need to worship a supernatural deity to grasp that the rise in illegitimacy and single-parent households is the greatest problem facing American society, mitigated only by the country’s enormous affluence.
I suppose I should thank Archbishop Dolan for indirectly buttressing the argument behind secular conservatism. Not only is religious faith not required to justify traditional morality, religious leaders do not even have the backbone any more to stand up for traditional morality in the hard individual case, leavin’ jes’ us secular conservatives to stick our necks out. If, after centuries of accumulating scientific triumph in understanding the causal mechanisms of our world, we still must have relics, amulets, magical potions, and incantations, the one indisputable benefit that religion could provide would be fearlessness in stigmatizing anti-social behavior. Instead, we get an Archbishop who calls concern over a Catholic’s carnal sin a “tempest in a teapot” and who thanks God for cooling down said “tempest.” To be sure, Cuomo has not fathered a child out of wedlock, but the depressing and sordid practice of Daddy imposing his “girlfriend” and Mommy imposing her “boyfriend” on the children of divorce is intimately related to the catastrophic breakdown of the family. With apologies to my pro-life friends, I would argue that the epidemic of unwed fertility, divorce, and serial cohabitation is far more consequential to society than abortion.
Dolan has shown the Church to be a follower rather than a leader of morality. Today, no one gets booted out of the country club for divorcing his wife or for living with his girlfriend. So he’s darn well not going to be denied his communion wafer, either.
As religion accommodates itself to changing secular norms—even discarding the notion of eternal punishment for the wrong belief or for no belief, a barbaric idea which a tolerant society can no longer stomach—I predict that the one irreducible religious idea will prove to be belief in an invisible Special Friend who can get us out of scrapes and misfortune by suspending the laws of nature on our behalf.