Holy Week Campaign to End Death Penalty
by Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Bolstered by trends in public policy and new polling data showing that Catholics increasingly oppose capital punishment, the U.S. bishops March 21 kicked off Holy Week by launching a Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty.
The U.S. bishops as a group have spoken out against the death penalty several times since the 1970s, including a comprehensive 1980 statement and a 1999 Good Friday appeal. Individual bishops and state or regional church organizations also have issued dozens of statements and pastoral letters on the topic.
"But this campaign is new," said Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington at the press conference where the campaign was announced. "It brings greater urgency and unity, increased energy and advocacy and a renewed call to our people and to our leaders to end the use of the death penalty in our nation."
Cardinal McCarrick said the campaign will include educational efforts through schools, parishes, universities and seminaries; advocacy with Congress and state legislatures and before the courts; working to change the debate about the death penalty and challenging the notion that justice allows "an eye for an eye"; as well as prayer and reflection.
Pollster John Zogby presented data from his two recent polls showing nearly half of Catholics now oppose capital punishment, a shift of about 20 percent from polls as recent as 2001, when 68 percent of Catholics polled by CBS supported the death penalty.
He said he found the Catholics most likely to oppose the death penalty are those who go to church most frequently. Fifty-six percent of those who attend Mass at least weekly oppose the death penalty, compared to 50 percent of less frequent churchgoers, he found.
That finding was surprising to him, Zogby said, "because my impression and observation in the past has been that frequent Massgoers tended to be bedrock conservatives on a range of issues."
A phone survey of more than 1,700 Catholics interviewed in November found 48 percent of all Catholics supported the death penalty, and 47 percent opposed it. A follow-up survey in March of about 1,000 Catholics found supporters and opponents split at 48.5 percent and 48.2 percent, respectively, Zogby said.
Broader polls done by Gallup and Quinnipiac University last fall found Americans overall supported capital punishment by 66 percent and 62 percent, respectively. Both the Gallup and Quinnipiac reports said those figures represented a decrease in support of several percentage points from the most recent previous polls.
Gallup's all-time high point for support was in 1994, when 80 percent of Americans said they supported the death penalty. Until recently, Catholics have tended to support capital punishment by about the same percentage rate as the general public.
Zogby said the shift in opinion among Catholics seems to be that they are hearing and taking to heart the church's teaching that fundamental respect for human life includes even those guilty of crimes. Pope John Paul II and the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" say that while the state has the right to resort to capital punishment in order to protect society, in the modern world the death penalty is unnecessary because such circumstances are essentially nonexistent.
"For us this is not about ideology but respect for life," said Cardinal McCarrick. "We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing. We cannot defend life by taking life."
John Carr, director of the bishops' Department of Social Development and World Peace, which is coordinating the campaign, said the simple fact that the press conference drew so many reporters that the room couldn't hold them and press kits ran out suggests that momentum is shifting against the death penalty.
"We've been working the death penalty for a long time without you," he said, but recent events have shown that momentum is working in favor of ending capital punishment.
Carr said one of the factors that seems to be changing people's support for the death penalty may be that "we've been executing a lot of people and we don't feel better."
He said the shift in opinion among Catholics owes much to the work of bishops and priests who speak against it and Catholic activists such as Sister of St. Joseph Helen Prejean, author of the best-selling book, "Dead Man Walking"; Bud Welch, the father of a young woman killed in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995; and Kirk Bloodsworth, a former death-row inmate who was exonerated by DNA evidence. Welch and Bloodsworth both participated in the press conference.
Capital punishment will eventually be gone from the United States, Carr said, but it won't be because of a single court ruling or law passed by Congress, but the combination of lots of smaller events, such as the recent Supreme Court rulings saying it is unconstitutional to execute people who are mentally retarded or who committed their crimes as juveniles.
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Editor's Note: Information on the Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty can be found on the Internet at: www.ccedp.org.