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Connecticut Catholics Disagree with Church Leaders over Capital Punishment

The case of a convicted serial killer in the state of Connecticut is exposing differences between the Roman Catholic clergy and laity over the the use of the death penalty.

The execution of Michael Ross has been delayed several times over the last few weeks, as the courts heard multiple appeals from his family and from opponents of capital punishment.

Some of the strongest opposition to the impending execution has come from Connecticut's three Catholic bishops, who have called upon the state's one million Roman Catholics to oppose the death penalty under any circumstance. More than half of Connecticut's residents say they are Catholic, but many of them are not supporting the bishops' stand.

In 1995, Pope John Paul II issued an encyclical in which he called capital punishment a "a significant cause of grave moral decline." Calling upon nations to support a culture of life, the Pope declared that there are very few, if any, circumstances under which the death penalty can be justified.

Nevertheless, a recent poll of Connecticut residents found that 59% of them favored capital punishment - and among Catholic voters, support for the death penalty was 66%. "Some people tend to think that when the bishops speak, the Catholic laity salute and follow and do exactly what they're told," says Father Thomas Reese, who edits America magazine, a weekly Jesuit publication. "In the 2,000 years of Catholic Church history, I don't think that's ever been true."

Father Reese says Catholics in the United States are a product of American culture -- not just Church teaching -- and so their attitudes toward the death penalty are really not that different from the attitudes of their non-Catholic neighbors. "The polls show that the Catholics who go to church on a weekly basis are less supportive of capital punishment than Catholics who don't go to church," he says. "So certainly when they're going to church, they are hearing the message of the bishops in support of life and against capital punishment. But this is a whole cultural phenomenon in the United States, and it's going to take quite a bit to change it."

During his last visit to the United States in 1999, Pope John Paul II personally asked Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan to commute the death sentence of a convicted murder named Darrell Mease. Governor Carnahan honored the Pope's request.

But not all public officials have agreed with the Church on this issue. Last year, during a forum at the University of Chicago, Antonin Scalia -- one of three Catholic justices on the U.S. Supreme Court -- criticized the Church's teachings on capital punishment, noting that support for the death penalty can be found in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

Alex Mikulish says Catholic clergy are partially to blame for the failure of the laity to embrace the Church's teachings on the death penalty. The professor of religious studies at Connecticut's St. Joseph's College says the Church has not been shy about taking political positions on social issues. However, he says, when it comes to the death penalty, church officials have not been consistently vocal.

Professor Mikulish notes that, during the recent U.S. presidential campaign, some the nation's bishops criticized Senator John Kerry's stance on the issue of abortion, but failed to challenge President Bush's record on capital punishment. "President Bush, when he was governor in Texas, he stood over a lot of people who were executed," he says. "I think the Church failed to witness to a consistent ethic of life in this election, and they could have challenged both candidates, because both candidates were weak in terms of a consistent ethic of life."

Mr. Mikulich says the Catholic clergy in Connecticut - and across the country -- must continue to be vocal about the death penalty if they want to change the minds of Catholics...and Americans in general.