Monday, March 21, 2005

Catholic support for the death penalty has “plunged” from 68 percent in 2001 to 48 percent, according to a Zogby poll released yesterday.

Catholic opinion on the death penalty is virtually tied — 48.5 percent support it while 48.4 are opposed. The poll of 1,785 Catholics was taken in November and has a margin of error of three percentage points.

The poll was commissioned as part of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual “Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty” on the grounds that if Jesus Christ was executed unjustly as a convicted criminal, others might be as well.

“We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing,” said Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick. “We cannot defend life by taking life.”

When reminded of the Bush administration’s support of the death penalty, Cardinal McCarrick said, “There are many people of good will — the president and others — who feel there is a valid use for the death penalty, but we’ll try to persuade them that we are right.”

The U.S. conference said the nation’s Catholic bishops would issue a new teaching on the matter in November.

Pope John Paul II has consistently spoken out against the death penalty. As for the laity, 29 percent of the 1,785 adults polled by Zogby International said they had once favored the death penalty but had changed their minds.

Many of those who attend Mass frequently — who usually poll against abortion and euthanasia, and for the war in Iraq — now oppose the death penalty at a rate of 56 percent, pollster John Zogby said.

“I’m seeing a coming together of pro-lifers and anti-death-penalty people,” he said.

Of the 18- to 28-year-olds polled, 39 percent supported the death penalty compared with 53 percent against; among those who had attended a Catholic college, 42 percent supported the death penalty versus 54 percent who did not.

Reasons for the change of opinion included more accurate identification of criminals through DNA testing, and Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s decision in 2003 to commute death sentences for 156 inmates after state courts found more than a dozen death row inmates had been convicted wrongfully, Mr. Zogby said.

The U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972, then changed its stance in 1976.

Support for the death penalty peaked in 1994, when President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, expanding the federal death penalty. Since then, “seismic” changes in the criminal justice system have resulted in increased exonerations, Mr. Zogby said.

Catholic teaching does not rule out the death penalty, “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor,” the Catholic catechism says.

But if the state can “render one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm — without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself,” it says, then the case of capital punishment is “rare if not practically nonexistent.”

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