(Blankety blank) Catholics and Rome -- again

The Catholic Cuomos of New York are constantly in the news, which means that journalists are continuously having to wrestle with adjectives. However, before we look at a classic example of this problem, let me ask a question that sounds simple, but really isn't that simple.

In this day and age, who do you think determines whether a Catholic is, in fact, a faithful, practicing member of a Catholic sacramental community? This person's:

(1) Local bishop, as the representative of the Catholic hierarchy and ultimately Rome.

(2) Spiritual father/confessor.

(3) Local priest (who may or may not be hearing said person's confessions)

(4) The little angel that resides on the right shoulder and whispers remarks in his or her ear about the "spirit of Vatican II."

(5) A local newspaper editor, as the representative of the journalistic hierarchy and ultimately the New York Times.

That is really the issue that haunts the top of the recent Times report that ran under this weak, weak headline: "A Cuomo Who Is Catholic but Hardly Theological." While you need to read the whole thing, the key labeling language is at the top, of course (along with some interesting leaps of logic).

He goes to Mass, though not every Sunday. He considers himself a practicing Roman Catholic, yet avoids calling himself devout. He opposes the death penalty, as church leaders do. But he is divorced. And he supports same-sex marriage and abortion rights, stances sharply at odds with church teaching.

In other words, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York shares the churchgoing habits and social views of a sizable number of the 68 million Americans who have identified themselves as Catholic in recent surveys. His brand of faith is so commonplace -- at least in New York -- that it was barely mentioned during his campaign last year for governor.

But now that he is the governor, the everyday complications of Mr. Cuomo's religious identity have become a lightning rod in a decades-old culture war between conservative Catholics and those, like Mr. Cuomo, who disagree with the church's positions on various issues, including abortion and divorce. Just how fierce that struggle remains became evident last week, when online criticism from a Catholic canon lawyer led to an awkward impasse that threatened to derail the governor's first official meeting with the state's Catholic bishops.

Luckily, this is not a story that is long on whispers and short on concrete details. Thus, we have this kind of whiplash effect at several points.

"This is a very traditional Catholic family," said the Rev. Edward Beck, a family friend who led the extended family in saying grace on Christmas Eve before the traditional Italian "feast of the seven fishes" at the home of the governor's sister Maria Cuomo Cole.

The conflict over the governor's faith began last month, when Edward N. Peters, who teaches at the seminary of the Archdiocese of Detroit and holds an appointment as an adviser to the Vatican on canon law, wrote that Mr. Cuomo should not be allowed to receive holy communion because he is divorced and living with his girlfriend, the Food Network host Sandra Lee, in what Mr. Peters called "public concubinage."

Strongly worded, but we are dealing with an ongoing state of mortal sin. The assumption is that this mortal sin is unconfessed, because it is ongoing. Did I miss something in the facts here?

So, the key at the top of this story is that "conservative" -- as opposed to "traditional" -- Catholics are criticizing a politician who merely wants to continue partaking of the sacraments of his church, even through he is openly and publicly living in a state of open rebellion against his church. The "conservative" label sticks all the way through the story.

However, it is those who are defending the church's teachings who are worthy of the telltale adjective, not the politico. The governor is -- according to sacred poll data -- the normal Catholic. So people who practice Catholicism as defined by the church are "conservative Catholics." People who practice the faith in ways opposed by the actual church, a voluntary association last time I checked, are "Catholics."

Later in the story, we get this:

Mr. Cuomo declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this article, and Mario Cuomo did not respond to a phone message left with his secretary. When Dr. Peters's criticism received public attention last month, the governor said, "My religion is a private matter and not something that I discuss in the political arena."

Of course all religion is "private," even in a church in which much of the faith is -- for better or for worse -- practiced in public. The assumption here, of course, is that this Cuomo drama is a matter of POLITICAL importance, not a matter of SPIRITUAL importance.

So, let's say that you are a priest or an archbishop who is actually concerned about the souls involved in this highly public sin. What action could you take that would defend your church's teachings and end this public scandal, yet would NOT be considered a public act by "conservative Catholic" activists? How do you do your job, in other words? What action would the leaders of the Times think is appropriate and label-free?

Just asking.

PHOTO: From the governor's Flickr page.

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