A Mortal and Sinful Man


Saint Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius – Anthony van Dyck


15 years ago last August, as I walked the streets of Vienna with my college classmates, we stopped briefly before a plain, unassuming church with an exterior the color of freshly dug clay. In a city (and continent) full of stunning architecture, this was a spot more likely than not to escape our notice entirely. But our guide — a professor from Texas in love with the Catholic history of Europe — knew better. He told us there was something special about it. Something hidden beneath the quotidian facade.

The church was St. Mary of the Angels: the centuries-old burial place of the Habsburgs, the great Catholic monarchs of Central Europe. Beneath this simple Kapuzinerkirche  (Capuchin Church) was the Imperial Crypt of the Holy Roman Emperors.

What was particularly striking to me was the description of the ritual that took place whenever a monarch was interred there. A translation of the ceremony — last used in 2011 at the funeral of Otto von Habsburg, the last Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary — is as follows:

(The MC knocks thrice)

Prior: Who desires entry?

MC: Otto of Austria; once Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary; Royal Prince of Hungary and Bohemia, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria and Illyria; Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cracow; Duke of Lorraine, Salzburg, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola and the Bukowina; Grand Prince of Transylvania, Margrave of Moravia; Duke of Upper and Lower Silesia, of Modena, Parma, Piacenza, Guastalla, of Oświęcim and Zator, Teschen, Friaul, Dubrovnik and Zadar; Princely Count of Habsburg and Tyrol, of Kyburg, Gorizia and Gradisca; Prince of Trent and Brixen; Margrave of Upper and Lower Lusatia and Istria; Count of Hohenems, Feldkirch, Bregenz, Sonnenburg etc.; Lord of Trieste, Kotor and Windic March, Grand Voivod of the Voivodeship of Serbia etc. etc.

Prior: We do not know him.

(The MC knocks thrice)

Prior: Who desires entry?

MC: Dr. Otto von Habsburg, President and Honorary President of the Paneuropean Union, Member and quondam President of the European Parliament, honorary doctor of many universities, honorary citizen of many cities in Central Europe, member of numerous venerable academies and institutes, recipient of high civil and ecclesiastical honors, awards, and medals, which were given him in recognition of his decades-long struggle for the freedom of peoples for justice and right.

Prior: We do not know him.

(The MC knocks thrice)

Prior: Who desires entry?

MC: Otto, a mortal and sinful man.

Prior: Then let him come in.

“A mortal and sinful man.” Humility is the gate by which we enter heaven. No matter our power or success in this life; no matter our titles and accomplishments, if we enter eternal felicity, we do it by way of the confessional and the Cross. Otto von Habsburg appeared to understand this well. He is quoted as saying:

When we go to our Creator we will be judged only on whether we did our duty and set our will on the good. God does not demand that we bring him victories.

What does it mean to set one’s will on the good when they serve as the ruler of a people or a governor of men? Do civic leaders have a special obligation to seek God’s will in public policy, even when victories are not in sight? It would seem that justice, and fidelity to Our Lord, demands it. Those who hold the power of an office or a throne, whether ecclesiastical or civil, set the example for those who fall under their authority. Fighting for the good whenever and wherever possible is the imperative of Catholics to whom God has given authority – and it is His authority, for as Christ told Pontius Pilate, “Thou shouldst not have any power … unless it were given thee from above.” (Jn. 19:11)


This morning, another Catholic with a storied legacy of public governance is being laid to rest. His burial will not be held in the crypt of a Capuchin Church in Vienna, Austria, but rather in St. John’s Cemetary in Queens, New York. His funeral is being celebrated at the church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. This is, perhaps, itself a symbol of his status, inasmuch as the Jesuit-run parish is a preferred funeral spot for New York’s rich and famous.

The deceased is none other than Mario Cuomo, a three-term Governor of New York. Cuomo ruled for over a decade over the Empire State, though not exactly an actual empire, but his dynasty — arguably as real as that of any European Monarch — continues with his son Andrew now serving a second term in the seat of power he formerly occupied.

At his funeral today, nobody will be asked to knock before entering with his casket. Nobody will be compelled to gain admittance for the mortal remains of the deceased to the holy temple of God by answering the question, “Who desires entry?” with a lowly, “Mario, a mortal and sinful man.”

If any political figure of recent memory should have prompted such an eloquent reflection on the the lowliness of man before the reality of the Eschaton, it is Mario Cuomo, perhaps most famous for being among the first American Catholic politicians to publicly attempt to reconcile his support for legal abortion with his Catholic faith. Such reverent humility, sadly, is nowhere in sight. Instead, the departed’s widow recently smiled as she told reporters of her confidence of his place in heaven:

“He’s up there, telling God what to do. He’s working with God now…”

To be fair to Governor Cuomo, we don’t know the state of his soul, or what opportunities Divine Providence may have offered him for final repentance. By the grace of God, we are bound in charity to desire his salvation – and to pray for it. But as a man who held the executive seat of one of the most pro-abortion states in the nation in the years immediately following the legalization of this heinous crime, we have reason to be concerned for him. This is how, in his own words, he described his position on the matter:

As a Catholic, I have accepted certain answers as the right ones for myself and my family, and because I have, they have influenced me in special ways, as Matilda’s husband, as a father of five children, as a son who stood next to his own father’s death bed trying to decide if the tubes and needles no longer served a purpose.

As a Governor, however, I am involved in defining policies that determine other people’s rights in these same areas of life and death. Abortion is one of these issues, and while it is one issue among many, it is one of the most controversial and affects me in a special way as a Catholic public official.


I believe that legal interdicting of abortion by either the federal government or the individual states is not a plausible possibility and even if it could be obtained, it wouldn’t work. Given present attitudes, it would be “Prohibition” revisited, legislating what couldn’t be enforced and in the process creating a disrepect for law in general. And as much as I admire the bishops’ hope that a constitutional amendment against abortion would be the basis for a full, new bill of rights for mothers and children, I disagree that this would be the result.


In the end, even if after a long and divisive struggle we were able to remove all medicaid funding for abortion and restore the law to what it was — if we could put most abortions out of our sight, return them to the backrooms where they were performed for so long — I don’t believe our responsibility as Catholics would be any closer to being fulfilled than it is now, with abortion guaranteed by the law as a woman’s right.

The hard truth is that abortion isn’t a failure of government. No agency or department of government forces women to have abortions, but abortion goes on. Catholics, the statistics show, support the right to abortion in equal proportion to the rest of the population. Despite the teaching in our homes and schools and pulpits, despite the sermons and pleadings of parents and priests and prelates, despite all the effort at defining our opposition to the sin of abortion, collectively we Catholics apparently believe — and perhaps act — little differently from those who don’t share our commitment.

Are we asking government to make criminal what we believe to be sinful because we ourselves can’t stop committing the sin?

The failure here is not Caesar’s. This failure is our failure, the failure of the entire people of God.

The language in this speech, given at Notre Dame in 1984, marks a milestone in the American political process. Drawing strength from John F. Kennedy’s own disavowal of the Church’s morality as the arbiter of his political choices, it blazed yet another trail for other Catholic politicians of dubious conscience to follow. Cuomo’s own son has now taken his father’s position even further, saying that pro-life people, among others, have “no place in the State of New York.”

Are these words demonstrative of how a Catholic in power is obligated to perform his duty? How he is to set his will on the good? Is this language of a man who does what is right while, in the words of Otto von Habsburg, understanding that “God does not demand that we bring him victories”?

Mario Cuomo’s Notre Dame speech offers us a glimpse of a powerful intellect – would that it had been used for the good! His is one of the most artful and eloquent arguments yet made in favor of the unacceptable embrace of abortion by Catholic politicians. So artful, in fact, that it was dangerously persuasive. Only a man who understood his faith well could have so cleverly have addressed its objections to his position. And his credentials on the matter of Catholic morality were made clear:

I speak here as a politician. And also as a Catholic, a lay person baptized and raised in the pre-Vatican II Church, educated in Catholic schools, attached to the Church first by birth, then by choice, now by love. An old-fashioned Catholic who sins, regrets, struggles, worries, gets confused and most of the time feels better after confession.

In other words: he was a man who knew better.

But the fault lies not only with him. It lies with the ecclesiastical powers that even now tolerate the errors of such men without confronting them. When bishops give cover to Catholic politicos who embrace gravely sinful, life (and soul) destroying policies, they create more of the same.

It wasn’t always so.


The Roman Emperor Theodosius was in many respects a good man, and a Catholic one. He was a gifted leader who had made strides towards dealing with some of the empire’s more intractable problems. But he had a notorious and violent temper.

In Thessalonica, a city under Roman governance, there was a certain charioteer who was very popular with the people. He was, however, a drunk and debauched man who, according to some historical accounts, was caught in the attempted rape of a slave. This crime greatly offended Botheric, the upright captain of the Roman garrison stationed there. The charioteer was arrested and imprisoned, but the locals were outraged. A riot broke out around the prison, and Botheric, along with at least one of his men, were brutally murdered.

When word reached Theodosius, he flew into a rage. He sent a messenger to the field army closest to Thessalonica, telling them to deal with the inhabitants of the city as they saw fit. Though the emperor thought better of this choice the next day, and sent a new messenger to countermand the order, the message arrived too late. The Roman soldiers entered the city and massacred 7,000 people – men, women, and children.

St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan at the time, was horrified by the emperor’s actions. He refused to see Theodosius or allow him to receive communion, instead writing him a letter urging his repentance. It is clear that Ambrose knew the potential consequences of such an action. But his conscience made his course of action clear:

What, then, could I do? Should I not hear? But I could not close my ears with the wax of the old fables. Should I utter what I heard? But I was bound to be on my guard in my words against that which I feared in your commands, namely, lest some deed of blood should be committed. Should I keep silence? But then my conscience would be bound, my utterance taken away, which would be the most wretched condition of all. And where would be that text? If the priest speak not to him that errs, he who errs shall die in his sin, and the priest shall be liable to the penalty because he warned not the erring. Ezekiel 3:18

St. Ambrose faced an emperor with a temper that brought forth torrents of blood at a command – and he did so not as a saint, but as a bishop. It was by acting with courage as the latter that he was, through a long life of virtue, able to attain the status of the former. We are none of us saints in this life. It is only by faithfulness to our vocation and office that we may become so.

Public penance for public sin. This is what we are called to by true pastors of souls. Theodosius was said to have gone home in tears when he was denied the sacraments; eight months later he returned, repentant, and even passed a law delaying the carrying out of a death sentence for a period of time after it was levied in order to prevent such a massacre from happening again. Bishop Ambrose could have himself faced death for his admonitions against the emperor. Instead, he quite possibly saved a soul, and perhaps the lives of many others besides.

Almost seven centuries later, Pope Gregory VII excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, for denouncing him as pope after Gregory attempted to reform the lay investiture process. Henry was only able to restore himself after a penitent pilgrimage through the Alps to Canossa Castle where the pope was staying. Henry was said to have walked barefoot in a hair shirt and the traditional garments of a monk, and even upon arrival at the castle was at first refused entrance by the holy father. In response, Henry knelt outside the gate in a blizzard, praying and fasting until at last the pope received him, absolved him, and restored his communion with the Church.

If these examples from history seem too remote; the relics of a lost time, a more recent example exists: in 1985, Cardinal O’Connor of New York forbade a Catholic Funeral for Mafia Big Boss Paul Castellano. One can’t help but wonder if the good Cardinal, unlike the man who currently occupies his see, would have ordered the same for Governor Cuomo. Surely the latter’s refusal to prohibit or restrict abortion in New York led to far more innocent bloodshed than even the brutality of a crime boss like Castellano.

Perhaps if such ecclesiastical penalties were levied while men like Cuomo were still living, like Theodosius and Henry IV before them, they would recognize the danger to their eternal soul and repent.

When I hear bishops saying that the enforcement of Canon 915 turns the Eucharist into a weapon, I wonder what they really believe. If they believe that it is truly the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord, Jesus Christ – what do they fear? Surely the consequences they could suffer pale in comparison to those faced by St. Ambrose. The idea that their failure to act is “pastoral” holds up to no scrutiny whatsoever. Paul’s admonition in First Corinthians should make clear that denial of communion to manifest grave sinners is not the deployment of a weapon, but a mercy – the exact sort of mercy a pastor should desire for his flock:

“Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself: and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 11:27-29)

The goal when levying the penalites of Church law against Catholic rulers gone astray is not punishment, but repentance. It is not exclusion, but conversion. God can forgive any sin, but He can only absolve the living. It is too late when we are faced with His judgment seat to change our course.

Every man, no matter how great in the eyes of the world, must remember his death. When the hour comes, he must approach the throne of Our Lord and Savior, not as a ruler or a man possessed of wealth and accolades, but as “a mortal and sinful man.”

I urge your prayers for the repose of the soul of Governor Cuomo. Likewise, we must pray for the bishops and priests who have failed to ignore their own discomfort and do all in their power to lead him — and others like him — through atonement and penance toward the attainment of eternal life.

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