By Stephen P. Hayford
Pope Francis’s recent pronouncement on the death penalty has drawn public attention to important questions about respect for human life.
On August 2, the pontiff announced that the Roman Catholic Church no longer regards capital punishment as morally acceptable under any circumstances. Until now, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has taught that the death penalty is acceptable if it is “‘the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.’”
The Pope’s announcement attracted support from two Cuomos. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo applauded the statement, adding that he would—in “solidarity” with Pope Francis—introduce legislation to repeal New York’s death penalty law. Given that this law was held unconstitutional in 2004, and given that the state has not executed anyone since 1963, removing the law from the books would be a symbolic act with no practical significance. Also, given his views on other matters relating to human life, Gov. Cuomo’s sudden zeal for Catholic teaching is curious; the Governor has made expanded access to abortion—including late-term abortion—an integral part of his 2018 re-election bid.
Gov. Cuomo’s younger brother, CNN host Chris Cuomo, also praised the Pope’s death penalty announcement. Cuomo expressed admiration for the Pope’s history of speaking out against “‘inequities of how we treat the living.’” Cuomo then questioned whether pro-life Americans’ views on criminal justice, gun rights, poverty, and immigration are in accord with their respect for the lives of the unborn.
To the extent that Cuomo’s question is sincere, the answer is that those who sincerely believe in the value and worth of all human life may disagree about how that principle is best applied in regard to gun rights, immigration, and other issues. Also, pro-life Americans across the nation can be found working on the public policy level and the human services level to serve the poor and the oppressed; in particular, pro-life Americans fund and staff pregnancy centers across the country to assist pregnant women and new mothers facing challenging circumstances. The pro-abortion claim that pro-life Americans care only about the lives of the unborn has never been true.
According to Cuomo, the Pope’s statement also pointed to “‘an inconsistency that we see here in America,’ where ‘many who call themselves pro-life are also pro-death penalty.’” This claim is disputable. Pro-life Americans who support the death penalty believe a society displays respect for human life by allowing the ultimate punishment for persons convicted of taking human life. Capital punishment is a challenging and nuanced issue, and there is room for diverse views on that issue within the pro-life movement.
Regardless of one’s views on capital punishment or abortion, it is a mistake to view the two issues as having equal significance in the 21st century United States. The statistics are clear: According to Vox.com, 35 persons were executed throughout the United States in 2014. In stark contrast, 652,629 abortions were reported to the Centers for Disease Control during that same year. Those who oppose both abortion and the death penalty should agree that the abortion issue demands much greater effort and attention, given its exponentially greater impact upon the country.
To those—like Gov. Cuomo—who welcome the Pope’s opposition to the death penalty but do not share his opposition to abortion, I ask: Where is the consistency in your views? By what logic should an innocent unborn child not enjoy the same legal protection that you would accord a convicted murderer?