Saturday, January 3, 2015

Remembering Mario Cuomo: Issue That Above All Others Defines His Legacy Was Opposition to Death Penalty

John Nichols's eulogy for Mario Cuomo at The Nation is the best I've yet read. I like how Nichols gets that Cuomo's political vision was deeply informed by a Catholic vision of the common good on which Cuomo continued to insist even as his political party, at a national level and under several popular Democratic presidents, moved decisively to the "center" (that is, to the right) and endorsed neoliberal socioeconomic ideas that left working- and even middle-class Americans out in the cold.

As Cuomo declared in his speech to the Democratic National Convention in 1984, directly addressing Ronald Reagan and his "shining city on a hill" fabulism (I'm citing Nichols here), 

You know, the Republicans called it "trickle-down" when Hoover tried it. Now they call it "supply side." But it's the same shining city for those relative few who are lucky enough to live in its good neighborhoods. But for the people who are excluded, for the people who are locked out, all they can do is stare from a distance at that city's glimmering towers.

But, most of all, I like how John Nichols points out that, "on one issue, above all others, [Cuomo] was the most rigorously and necessarily right of all the prominent political figures of his time." That issue was capital punishment. 

Here, too, Cuomo was resolute in defending Catholic teaching about the common good which insists that the death penalty frays the bonds that bind us together as human beings, rather than making them stronger and more compelling. As Nichols notes, when Cuomo vetoed legislation to enact the death penalty in New York in 1991, he stated,

The death penalty legitimizes the ultimate act of vengeance in the name of the state, violates fundamental human rights, fuels a mistaken belief by some that justice is being served and demeans those who strive to preserve human life and dignity.

A state that chooses vengeance over the pursuit of justice cannot credibly call itself a humane state. A state that violates human rights in order, as it claims, to uphold human rights, is making a mockery of itself as a civilized social body. It is impossible to serve the values of human life by taking human lives. All of these affirmations stem in the most direct way possible from Catholic social teaching — which Cuomo defended in the face of the U.S. bishops as they sought to whittle that teaching down to the single shibboleth issue of abortion, when they blessed as God's chosen party a political party whose socioeoconomic agenda blatantly violated a pro-life ethic on almost every ground imaginable save the single-issue ground of abortion.

In a week in which the outgoing Catholic (and Democratic) governor of Maryland Martin O'Malley chose, as one of his final acts as governor, to commute the death sentences of all those still on death row in Maryland, it's important to remember the anti-death-penalty legacy of visionary Catholic leaders of the 20th century like Mario Cuomo. Particularly when prophetic moral leadership at this point in history has for some time now been provided to the American Catholic community by such leaders and by religious women, in the absence of such moral leadership from the official pastoral leaders of our community . . . .  

The photo is a photo of Mario Cuomo taken in September 2007 at Baldwin-Wallace College by Wikipedia user Wizardman, available for sharing at Wikimedia Commons.

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