Bishops Fight Death Penalty in New Drive


New York Times

March 22, 2005

WASHINGTON, March 21 - The country's Roman Catholic bishops on Monday announced a more prominent effort to bar the death penalty, saying they hoped to build on a continuing shift in public opinion, and among Catholics in particular, against capital punishment.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops staked out a comprehensive position against the death penalty 25 years ago. But Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., said the conference was beginning a campaign for "greater urgency and unity, increased energy and advocacy."

"We cannot teach killing is wrong by killing," Cardinal McCarrick said at a news conference here. "We cannot defend life by taking life."

Already, clergy members who were successful at mobilizing Catholics on other issues, like opposition to abortion, have sounded a call to fight the death penalty. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Colorado, for example, who told voters during the 2004 presidential campaign that abortion was a "foundational" issue, wrote in a recent article in a Catholic newsletter that "we need to end the death penalty now."

John Carr, the director of social development for the conference, said Catholics were taking their campaign to the state level, pointing to efforts to halt the reinstatement of capital punishment in Massachusetts and a continuing drive to overturn the death penalty in New Mexico.

Some experts on the church, like Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the ecumenical magazine First Things, said they doubted that capital punishment would galvanize conservative Catholics to the extent that abortion and same-sex marriage have. Nor is the church's stance on capital punishment as absolute as it is on abortion. The church unconditionally opposes abortion, for example, but it says the state has the right to execute a prisoner if there is no other way to defend society.

The bishops, however, produced polling to show that they are already gaining in public opinion. A survey of nearly 1,800 Catholics conducted this month by Zogby International Polling and commissioned by the conference showed a drop in the percentage of those who supported the death penalty.

For years, surveys have shown that more than 60 percent of Catholics favored capital punishment, including polls taken in late 2003, said John Zogby, the president of the polling company.

But in two recent Zogby polls, one in November 2004 and the one this month, Catholics were evenly split. The latest poll, which had a margin of sampling error of 3 percent, showed that 48.5 percent of respondents supported the death penalty and that 48.4 percent did not.