Sunday, January 11, 2015

Farewell to two good men

I read some obituaries with great interest. Recently, the deaths of two unrelated men, Mario Cuomo and Edward Herrmann, moved me in different ways even though I did not know either man or know a great deal about them.

About Cuomo, I felt some sadness that this two-term Governor of New York, called by Peter Steinfels "thoughtful, brilliant, and gifted" with great skills in building consensus, did not serve his country more broadly.  I remember him from two key speeches he made in 1984: one to the Democratic national convention, the other at Notre Dame, in which he called for some ways for Catholics divided over the abortion issue to find common ground.

In articulating a defense of his controversial pro-abortion rights view, Cuomo tried to find, in the words of E. J. Dionne, some basic agreement with those with whom he disagreed. The sadness is that he did not follow through on the conversation he called for on the relation of public and private morality in American society. So, too, in politics, he could have done more to avoid polarization in the Democratic party and, if he had been less "difficult," he apparently could have served nobly on the Supreme Court, going head-to-head with Antonin Scalia.

But, like a blazing comet, Cuomo the public intellectual faded from public view, retiring to a life of writing.  Who today can express as he could the complexity of the Catholic tradition in U.S. society?  Still, I am grateful for his life, for the many good things he did.

Cuomo was 82. The actor Edward Herrmann was only 71. I remember his portrayal of FDR and other notable figures, admiring his patrician air and his versatility as an actor. I would have ignored his obituary except for a telling quote about the relation between his art and his faith (he was a Catholic convert). I will save this whenever I encounter an argument about the existence of God.

He was writing here about acting and other arts, but the statement applies to the art of living.  "We don't begin with reason, we begin with feeling and insight.  All of life is 99 percent irrational. Reason is nothing compared to God's love. That's what makes us who we are. Reason is the first thing that should be dropped when you start exploring the spirit. . . ."

Words worth remembering.

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