Will Catholics follow Pope Francis and clamor against the death penalty? And will the Church now campaign against state execution like it has against abortion?

By making the opposition to capital punishment part of church law, Pope Francis cited a moral reason to oppose the death penalty: because “it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” Of course, morality is the first victim when people feel threatened. Fear stokes a certain American blood-thirstiness that made a majority of Americans approve the mass incarceration laws of the 1990s and the Bush II torture regime. Fear-induced bloodthirstiness has swayed large numbers of Americans to support the current administration’s mean-hearted treatment of immigrants and refugees.

Pew studies show that currently 54% of all Americans and 53% of Catholics favor the state killing people convicted of certain crimes. Only 39% of all Americans and 42% of Catholics oppose the death penalty. Will the Pope’s announcement change minds? Past experience suggest the answer is, “not many,” unless the Catholic Church engages in an aggressive campaign to promote the new position. Even that might not work, considering how many rightwing politicians depend on fear-mongering about crime, drugs, immigrants and terrorism to get elected.

Catholics in westernized nations, like their Jewish and Muslim cousins, find it an easy matter to reject religious teachings when it’s convenient for them to do so. A year ago, the Gutmacher Institute reported that 98% of all Catholic women will use birth control methods banned by the Church sometime in their lives. Another Gutmacher study showed that about 24% of all women who have abortions are Catholic. An older Gutmacher survey found that about 2.2% of Catholic women have an abortion each year, compared to 1.8% of Protestant women. About eight years ago, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that 61% of all American women will live in a sexual relationship with someone without the benefit of marriage sometime in their life; based on how Catholics compare to others when it comes to capital punishment, birth control and abortion, we can safely assume that the percentage among Catholics who cohabitate is about the same as the overall population. Thus, Catholics are used to using a “just say no” approach to the teachings of their religion.

We can only hope that the Catholic Church throws at least as many resources behind advocating against capital punishment as it has to oppose a woman’s right to control her own body.

Morality is just one of several reasons to oppose capital punishment. Here are some of the others:

  • It doesn’t work as a deterrent. The preponderance of the evidence from the studies done on the deterrent effect of capital punishment show that the fear of being executed does not stop murders. And it turns out that, as with a lot of research supporting rightwing positions, many studies claiming to show that capital punishment does deter people from taking the lives of others have severe methodological and mathematical errors. One researcher reran the numbers used in a survey supposedly proving that capital punishment works as a deterrent and found that it actually increased the murder rate!
  • Capital punishment is irrevocable: Juries make mistakes all the time. When the mistake is uncovered, the wrongly convicted person usually eventually gets out of jail. But society can’t reverse an execution.
  • Our adversarial legal system makes executing someone an expensive process. Executing an inmate on death row costs much more than sending an inmate to prison for life without the possibility of parole. Those sentenced to death are guaranteed by the Constitution to a very long, thorough and expensive judicial process before taking the needle. It costs states millions of dollars for each execution.
  • It is unfair, or at least will remain unfair as long as racism and poverty exist. The racial bias to capital verdicts in the United States has existed since record-keeping of such matters began. Wealthy people can afford expensive attorneys, whereas poor people often have to settle for overworked public defenders. The unfairness of capital verdicts reflects and magnifies the unequal treatment of minorities and the poor throughout the judicial system.
  • Virtually all other countries have abolished the death penalty: About 140 nations worldwide, including the vast majority of countries in Western Europe and the Americas, have abandoned capital punishment. The United States remains in the bad company of Iraq, Iran, China and other human rights abusers as countries still engaging in state execution. In the 21st century global village, capital punishment may have become “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore inherently unconstitutional.
  • It demeans society. Capital punishment reduces society to the level of the murderer. As a society, we are supposed to be better than our worst elements.  Sparing the killer’s life makes us more human and more humane than the killer, and increases the value that our society puts on human life. Sparing the killer is an affirmation of our social contract to live in peace. Sparing the killer tells him or her, and the world, that when we say that human life is holy we mean it.

Of course, what the Pope is saying supersedes all these reasons. Even if capital punishment served as a deterrent, it would still be immoral. Even if it were no longer expensive for society or biased against racial minorities and the poor, it would still be immoral. Even if every country in the world allowed state executions, it would still be immoral.

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