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Issue Date:  April 1, 2005

Catholics on the cutting edge of growing death penalty opposition


Growing opposition to the death penalty represents a “cataclysmic” shift in public opinion concerning capital punishment -- and American Catholics are leading the way. That was among the findings of two polls conducted over the past five months at the behest of the U.S. bishops’ conference, which launched the “Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty” March 21.

Support for the death penalty is down among all groups. A December 2004 Quinnipiac University Poll found more than 60 percent of Americans supportive of the death penalty; a decade earlier, 80 percent favored executing convicted murderers.

But Catholics -- who previously mirrored public opinion on the death penalty -- stand out distinctly in the latest surveys. Half now say they oppose capital punishment -- up about 20 percentage points from polls conducted just 18 months ago. And among the half who continue to support the death penalty, the intensity of that belief (measured by those who say they “strongly support” the practice) has dropped from 40 percent to 20 percent.

Wide swings over such a short period of time can only be explained by “some sort of cataclysmic event … that seismically moves public opinion,” explained pollster John Zogby. For the general population, the pollster continued, that “event” was actually several things: among them, publicity about DNA testing that has exonerated some imprisoned death-row inmates, the moratorium on death sentences instigated by former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, and recent Supreme Court decisions forbidding death sentences for the mentally retarded and those under age 18 at the time they committed the crime.

Catholic opinion has been influenced by those events, said Zogby, but also by the steadfast opposition of church leaders to the death penalty. Catholics, said Zogby, “are listening to the message of the pope and the bishops.”

The American bishops first spoke out collectively against the death penalty 25 years ago. State Catholic conferences, the church’s lobbying arm in state capitals around the country, are among the most organized opponents of capital punishment, the national bishops’ conference was among those petitioners cited in the recent Supreme Court decision banning the execution of minors, and individual bishops frequently lobby to curtail the practice. “Except in the most extreme circumstances, capital punishment cannot be justified,” Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput said in his March 9 newspaper column. “In developed countries like our own,” wrote Chaput, “it should have no place in our public life.” Pope John Paul II has repeatedly criticized the death penalty, including in a January 1999 statement in a visit to St. Louis where he termed it “both cruel and unnecessary.”

Among Catholics, the strongest opposition to the death penalty, 56 percent, came from those who attend Mass at least weekly, a figure that surprised Zogby. Frequency of church attendance, he noted, typically correlates with conservative views on social issues.

More than half of those who attended Catholic universities and those between the ages of 18-28 oppose the death penalty. Meanwhile, nearly one-third of Catholics now opposed to the death penalty previously supported the practice, a trend that encourages continuing church education on the issue, according to church officials.

“I am one of those Catholics who has reflected on and reconsidered my support for the use of the death penalty,” Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick told the press. “Support for the death penalty was part of growing up” in a family “with a lot of policemen,” said McCarrick. “I’ve come to believe the death penalty hurts all of us, not just the one being executed. It diminishes and contradicts our respect for all human life and dignity,” he said.

The bishops’ campaign “to end the use” of the death penalty indirectly acknowledges that Catholic teaching does not require governments to reject their theoretical right to take the life of a murderer. “The Catholic church has long acknowledged the right of the state to use the death penalty in order to protect society,” said McCarrick. “However, the church has more and more clearly insisted the state should forgo this right if it has other means to protect society.”

The “Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty” will include outreach on the issue to Catholic schools and religious education programs, continued lobbying at the state and federal levels, and publishing of materials for use by local church-based death penalty opponents. The campaign Web site is

National Catholic Reporter, April 1, 2005

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