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Issue Date:  April 1, 2005

Boost for death penalty opponents

The consistent ethic approach to social issues in the Catholic world just got a little more consistent with the U.S. bishops’ “Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty.”

While it is clear that the church does not teach by consulting opinion polls, it is nevertheless an advantage to have public sentiment moving your way. And the bishops made no small use of a December poll by Quinnipiac University that found more than 60 percent of Americans supportive of the death penalty, where a decade earlier, 80 percent favored executing convicted murderers.

Certainly, papal teaching on the matter has had some effect.

The pope has consistently spoken out against the death penalty and has personally intervened on behalf of convicted killers in the United States on several occasions.

It should be instructive to bishops as teachers, however, to note that the public conviction growing around opposition to the death penalty is the fruit of persuasion based on evidence: DNA testing that has exonerated death-row inmates; state moratoriums on the death sentence; sentiment around the rest of the globe; growing concern about the unevenness of legal representation from one state to the next; and the recent Supreme Court decisions forbidding execution of the mentally retarded and those under age 18 at the time of the crime.

All of that can make an impression on Catholics who begin to see executions as acts carried out not by individuals but by the state, with their tax dollars, in their name and in the name of a brand of justice that in modern society does not comport with the Gospels.

Across the wide range of theological and ideological views that make up the church, no group is completely free of its “cafeteria” approach to church teachings. We all have to figure out ways to deal with details of teaching with which we might not fully agree. Certainly there are loyal Catholics who will cling to the slightest loophole to maintain their conviction that even in the face of repeated papal admonition, the death penalty is justifiable. We understand.

The important thing here is that the bishops have given forces that oppose the death penalty new impetus, not to mention language and authority with which to carry on their campaign. It also brings some balance to the Catholic social justice picture following a presidential campaign in which Catholic “values” and concerns were too often construed in a distorted and narrow way.

If the polls are correct, the Catholic community is out ahead on this issue and that opposition to the state executions should deepen and become more concerted as the campaign is carried to Catholic schools and parish religious education programs.

National Catholic Reporter, April 1, 2005

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