Catholics Unite to Oppose Death Penalty

11.11.2005 | Law, Students, Catholic, FacultyAs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops prepares to announce on Monday its national "Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty," religion experts at the University of Dayton, one of the country's top Roman Catholic colleges, say it's great news and long overdue.

Therese Lysaught, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton who specializes in theological ethics, said the bishops should be applauded for being willing to speak so clearly on the church's opposition to the death penalty. "I'm glad to see that Catholics' attitudes toward the death penalty are changing. This is, no doubt, due to a number of factors, first and foremost of which has been the late John Paul II's powerful, public witness that while governments have the right to execute criminals, conditions have changed so much that it is no longer just for them to exercise that right," Lysaught said.

John Paul II, Lysaught said, highlighted how ironic it is "that the U.S. continues to support the death penalty -- the last democratic, first-world country to do so. He made clear that we continue to practice capital punishment in the context of a judicial system that is deeply flawed in terms of race and class. And he intertwined all of these sorts of arguments with powerful arguments from the Christian tradition -- that Christians are called not to execute their enemies but to love them."

Nick Cardilino, director of the University of Dayton's Center for Social Concern, has attended several execution vigils with students and is pleased that polls show more Catholics turning away from supporting the death penalty, but said those same Catholics are not demonstrating any increase in a 'consistent ethic of life.' "My own limited experience as a Catholic campus minister gives me hope, however, since I've seen more students subscribe to that ethic over the past few years," Cardilino said.

"The outstanding leaders of our Students for Life group operate out of that kind of framework, and have done a fine job of encouraging members to get involved in the death penalty abolition movement. These student leaders, who have challenged the opinions of some of their peers to be more consistent, are the future of the Church. So, there is much for me to hope in."

Sandra Yocum Mize, chair of the religious studies department at the University of Dayton, believes that announcing an official campaign turns what may have been seen as simply Catholic doctrine into something tangible. "Calling for an end to the death penalty provides an important witness to the Catholic church's public witness to respect human life not as some abstract reality…..it also offers the Catholic community an opportunity to take up its challenge of being the community of reconciliation that Jesus Christ calls his community of disciples to be."

Kelly Johnson, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, looks at what this trend would mean for Catholics' participation in national politics. Johnson contends that as more Catholics become aware of and committed to opposing the death penalty, they'll be faced with incompatible political party options.

"Catholic teaching holds positions usually associated with Republicans, such as opposition to abortion and gay marriage. It also holds, with no less vigor, positions associated with Democrats, including medical care for the most vulnerable, environmental protection and gun control," Johnson said. "If, in fact, 'pro-life' is finally beginning to include issues beyond abortion, that's good news for the church. But it's not easy news, because it means more Catholics than ever will face a crisis of conscience when they have to vote in national elections."

For media interviews, contact:
Therese Lysaught at (937) 229-2079 or therese.lysaught@notes.udayton.edu;
Nick Cardilino at (937) 229-2576 or nicholas.cardilino@notes.udayton.edu;
Sandra Yocum Mize at (937) 229-4321 or sandra.yocum-mize@udayton.edu;
Kelly Johnson at (937) 229-1336 or kelly.johnson@notes.udayton.edu.