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Tensions flare between Cuomo, Catholic Church


A feud has been growing between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and leaders of the Catholic Church over an abortion rights bill the governor signed last week. The governor has been fueling the flames of the disagreement.

There was jubilation among supporters of a woman’s right to choose abortion at a bill-signing ceremony for the Reproductive Health Act on Jan. 22, the anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision.

The Reproductive Health Act codifies the abortion rights in the Roe decision and permits late-term abortions if the life or the health of the mother is threatened by the pregnancy or if the fetus is determined not to be viable.

To commemorate the event, Cuomo directed One World Trade Center, also known as the Freedom Tower, in downtown Manhattan to be illuminated with pink lights.

Cuomo is a Catholic, and his support for the advancement of abortion rights in New York puts him at odds with church teaching. He said that divide has been difficult.

“I'm a former altar boy, and my relationship with the church is important to me,” Cuomo said. “And I've found the differences painful over the years.” 

But Cuomo seems ready for a fight, calling out church leaders during his budget presentation over past opposition to Child Victims Act, which expands access to civil and criminal lawsuits for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Cuomo quoted Pope Francis, who said the abuse of minors is “so brutal that the church cannot remain indifferent.”

“I say we stand with Pope Francis and we pass the Child Victims Act this year because if you believe in justice for all, then you believe in passing the Child Victims Act and follow the leadership of Pope Francis,” Cuomo said as the audience cheered. 

The church dropped its opposition to the measure a few days later, after lawmakers agreed to clarify language in the bill to ensure that public and private institutions are treated equally under the new bill. The legislation was approved Jan. 28.

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, appearing on the Fox News program “Fox and Friends,” condemned the Reproductive Health Act and its provisions for late term abortions as “ghoulish” and “grisly.”

Dolan recalled a time when supporters of abortion rights were more sober about the procedure, saying it should be “safe and legal” but rarely performed.

“Safe, legal and rare — forget it, it’s now dangerous, it’s now enforced, and it’s now frequent,” said Dolan, who also criticized the governor’s lighting up of the World Trade Center to celebrate the bill’s passage. “How can you brag about that?”

Dolan also took issue with Cuomo’s quoting of Pope Francis.

“We have a governor that uses his dissent from church teachings as applause lines,” Dolan said. “We have a governor that takes quotes from Pope Francis out of context to draw an artificial cleavage between the bishops of New York and the Holy Father himself.”

Some Catholics have called on New York’s bishops to excommunicate Cuomo. Dolan said that only gives “ammo” to what he called the church’s “enemies” and said he will not take that step.

The governor’s father, the late former Gov. Mario Cuomo, also sparred with the church over the issue of abortion. The elder Cuomo was personally against the procedure but said he could not impose his views on a civil society.

“This is not a new issue for a governor named Cuomo,” the governor said

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.