Vatican Canon Law Adviser: NY Governor Andrew Cuomo Should Be Denied Communion

February 21, 2011 - 11:18 AM

cuomo and lee

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and partner Sandra Lee after attending Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, NY, on Jan. 2, 2011. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – In receiving communion at a Mass offered by the Roman Catholic bishop of Albany, NY, that state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, who supports abortion, gay marriage, and lives with his girlfriend, committed an “objectively sacrilegious” act that “produces grave scandal,” according to Dr. Edward Peters, a top expert in Catholic Church law and a consultant to the highest court at the Vatican.

Peters specifically cited Cuomo's cohabiting with Food Network hostess Sandra Lee as "publicly acting in violation of a fundamental moral expectation of the Church," and that "as long as he persists in such conduct, he should refrain from taking Holy Communion" and "if he approaches for Holy Communion, he should be denied the august sacrament in accord with Canon 915."

Canon 915, from the Church's Code of Canon Law, says that persons “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy communion.”

In addition, based on the news reports of the Mass and the sermon given by Bp. Howard Hubbard, the bishop’s remarks constituted “a failure in pastoral care,” said Peters, largely for what the prelate “did not say, than for what he did say.”

“Bp. Hubbard, faced with a prominent Catholic leader of whom, it may be fairly said, there are ‘great expectations,’ did not challenge the governor to begin his reform of the state with a reform of his person,” said Peters.

CNSNews.com spoke by e-mail with Dr. Peters,  who was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI last year as a referendarius (consultant) to the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s highest administrative tribunal, itself subject only to the Pope and under the direction of Cardinal Raymond Burke, the archbishop emeritus of St. Louis, Mo.

howard hubbard

Bishop Howard Hubbard, Diocese of Albany.

Peters’ comments concerning Gov. Cuomo, a Catholic and a Democrat, were made in reference to Canon Law, the administrative and moral law of the Church, and the Catechism, the teaching of the Church.

Back on Jan. 2, the Times Union of Albany  and the New York Daily News reported on Cuomo’s attendance at the Mass that day, which took place at Albany’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

As reported and photographed in the Daily News, Governor Cuomo went to the Mass with his three daughters (from his first marriage) and his “live-in girlfriend,” Sandra Lee, author and host of the Food Network program Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee.  They sat in the front pew of the church.

Gov. Cuomo’s relationship with Lee – he lives in her house in Westchester County, NY – has been widely reported on by The New York Times, New York Post, USA TodayNew York Daily NewsNBC News,  and many other media.

Bp. Hubbard, who oversees the diocese of Albany, offered the Mass and gave the homily (sermon), in which he praised Cuomo and Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, who also attended the Mass with his wife.

After the homily, the main ritual of the Mass – sacrificial prayers and distribution of holy communion – was performed, Cuomo, as the Daily News reported, “the divorced son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, who was once chastised by Catholic leaders for his support of abortion rights, calmly received Holy Communion. Lee walked in line for Communion with him.”

As noted, Canon Law 915 states that persons “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy communion.”  In addition, the Catechism, section 2390,  states that “in a so-called free union, a man and a woman refuse to give juridical and public form to a liaison involving sexual intimacy. … The expression covers a number of different situations: concubinage, rejection of marriage as such, or inability to make long-term commitments. All these situations offend against the dignity of marriage; they destroy the very idea of the family; they weaken the sense of fidelity. They are contrary to the moral law. The sexual act must take place exclusively within marriage. Outside of marriage it always constitutes a grave sin and excludes one from sacramental communion.”

Writing about the Cuomo-Lee relationship on his canon lawyer’s blog on Jan. 4, Dr. Peters wrote, “Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, and Sandra Lee, a television celebrity, live in what is known technically as public concubinage. The fact that both Cuomo and Lee are divorced renders the concubinage adulterous on both sides as well.”

The lifestyle adopted by Cuomo and Lee, Peters continued, has serious consequences under Canon 915 for the reception of holy communion.

cuomo and lee

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and partner Sandra Lee. (AP Photo)

CNSNews.com asked Peters by e-mail, “Is Gov. Andrew Cuomo living in a ‘free union’ (Catechism 2390) with Sandra Lee -- in the objective order – ‘contrary to the moral law’ and does this behavior ‘always constitutes a grave sin and excludes one from sacramental communion’? (2390)”

Peters answered, “Yes. There is no dispute about this one, whatsoever. The governor, with complete freedom, is publicly acting in violation of a fundamental moral expectation of the Church. On these facts alone, his taking holy Communion is objectively sacrilegious and produces grave scandal within the faith community.”

“As long as he persists in such conduct, he should refrain from taking holy Communion in accord with Canon 916.  If he approaches for holy Communion, he should be denied the august sacrament in accord with Canon 915.”

Before he was elected governor of New York in November, Andrew Cuomo was the attorney general for the state. He was the secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Clinton. His marriage to Kerry Kennedy was from 1990 to 2003, ending in divorce. That marriage produced three daughters: Cara, Michaela and Mariah.

As New York’s governor, Cuomo has put forth a variety of public policy initiatives, many of which are detailed in the document, Andrew Cuomo, The New NY Agenda: A Plan for Action.

In his Plan for Action, Cuomo calls for putting same-sex marriage on the same legal ground as heterosexual marriage. He also defends abortion and calls for its expansion under the Reproductive Rights Act.

Direct abortion,  homosexual behavior,  and same-sex marriage are all contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

In Plan for Action, it states, “Marriage equality is a question of principle and the State shouldn’t discriminate against same-sex couples who wish to get married. Barring marriage equality denies same-sex couples and their families over 1,000 federal and 700 state rights and responsibilities. … As Governor, Andrew Cuomo will not stand for such discrimination. He will fight to make sure all couples have equal marriage rights under the law.”

In the section “Protect Reproductive Rights,” it says, “Andrew Cuomo will continue to vigorously protect a woman’s right to choose and will fight for passage of the Reproductive Rights Act …. A woman facing an unplanned or problem pregnancy should have the opportunity to make the best decision for herself and her family, whether her decision is continuing the pregnancy, adoption, or abortion."

With those policy positions in mind, CNSNews.com asked Dr. Peters, “Does Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s public policy of supporting abortion and passage of the Reproductive Rights Act constitute -- in the objective order – ‘persevering in manifest grave sin’ and should Cuomo therefore not ‘be admitted to holy communion?’”

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, his partner Sandra Lee, and his three daughters leave the Cathdral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, NY, after Mass on Jan. 2, 2011. (AP Photo)

Peters said, “I would want experts on New York law and politics to verify a few facts here, but based on what is widely reported about the governor’s consistent support for abortionism in New York, I see no other way to interpret his abortion-related conduct except as sufficient to warrant withholding of holy Communion from him under Canon 915.”

As for Cuomo’s support for homosexual marriage, CNSNews.com asked Peters, “Does Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s public policy of equal marriage rights under the law for same-sex couples constitute -- in the objective order – ‘persevering in manifest grave sin’ and should Cuomo therefore not ‘be admitted to holy communion?’”

Peters answered, “Canon 915 requires the demonstration of certain facts in order for the obligation to withhold holy Communion from a member of the faithful to apply. Among the facts that need demonstration are that the action be objectively ‘gravely sinful’ and that the conduct be ‘obstinate.’”

“As for the objective wrongness of policies that treat homosexual unions as if they were the same thing as “marriage” (whether natural or sacramental marriage, it doesn’t matter), that depends on the actual wording of the policies of course, but, in general, such polices tend to distort the character of a basic human institution and therefore damage society,” said Peters.  “It is, of course, wrong for public officials to lend support to programs that damage the foundations of the very societies they govern.”

“As for whether Cuomo’s conduct is ‘obstinate,’ again, it depends on the degree of real understanding that the governor has regarding the scope of his policies -- and never underestimate how little adult Catholics today know about natural law or Church teaching -- but ascribing to homosexual unions the same characteristics that have long been associated only with ‘marriage’ is a pretty basic error,” said Peters. “In any case, if the governor wants a reliable refresher session on what human history and Church teaching regard as ‘marriage,’ he can easily secure one.”

Cardinal Raymond Burke, who heads the highest court at the Vatican and to which Peters serves as an adviser, chastised Catholics who support abortion and same-sex marriage. As CNSNews.com reported in October, Cardinal Burke said, “We find self-professed Catholics, for example, who sustain and support the right of a woman to procure the death of the infant in her womb, or the right of two persons of the same sex to the recognition which the State gives to a man and a woman who have entered into marriage. It is not possible to be a practicing Catholic and to conduct oneself publicly in this manner.”

raymond burke

Cardinal Raymond Burke, head of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest court at the Vatican.

Arbp. Burke also said that Catholics in public life “who persistently violate the moral law” on abortion and homosexual marriage “lead many into confusion and or even error,” which does the “gravest harm to our brothers and sisters and, therefore, to the whole nation.”

Burke added that, as a discipline for such actions, the Church will withhold Communion “to those who persist, after admonition, in the grave violation of the moral law.”

In 2004, Burke said he would not give holy communion to then-presidential candidate John Kerry (D-Mass) because of his pro-abortion views. Burke stated in 2009 that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius “has publicly and repeatedly betrayed her Catholic faith” and should not present herself for holy communion because “she obstinately persists in serious sin,” namely her long-term support for abortion.

At the Jan. 2 Mass in Albany, the Times Union reported that, in his homily, Bp. Hubbard said the following about Gov. Cuomo and Lt. Gov. Duffy: "They, over the next four years, will be deeply immersed in the work of evangelism by bringing about the transformation of our state and our society and we assure them of our prayers, of our support and of our best wishes for challenges they will face."

CNSNews.com asked Dr. Peters, “In expressing ‘support’ for Gov. Cuomo and Duffy and ‘the challenges they will face’ is Bishop Hubbard -- in the objective order -- creating scandal given Cuomo’s policies in support of same-sex marriage and abortion?’”

Peters said,Based on the reports I’ve seen, Bp. Hubbard’s homily was, I think, a failure in pastoral care, but more for what he did not say, than for what he did say.”

“Bp. Hubbard, faced with a prominent Catholic leader of whom, it may be fairly said, there are ‘great expectations,’ did not challenge the governor to begin his reform of the state with a reform of his person,” said Peters. “The bishop did not, it seems, allude to the fact that the higher one goes in public service, the more rigorously one must examine one’s conscience. When discrepancies between principle and practice are found -- as such failings will be found in everyone of us -- it is incumbent on us to bring our behavior into line with right reason, and for that matter, with Church teaching. Christ’s help will not be lacking.”

“The bishop was right to promise his prayers and best wishes for Cuomo, of course, and, in an ironic way, he was even right about the governor’s being deeply immersed in evangelism,” said Peters.  “A Catholic in major public office cannot not be a prominent example to others of how a Catholic lives the Gospel. That is the essence of evangelism.”

“The question is not, therefore, whether the governor will be an example to others,” said Peters, “the question is, what kind of example will Cuomo be?”

CNSNews.com sent several e-mails to and spoke with the press office of Bp. Hubbard in the Albany Diocese for a response to the issues raised in this news story.  The diocese did not respond.

Questions and the complete remarks of Dr. Peters were e-mailed to Gov. Cuomo’s press office and telephone inquiries were made to that office by CNSNews.com.  Neither the governor nor his office responded.