Despite four high-profile executions in Arkansas in April, the death penalty is on the decline in the United States — and that is thanks in large measure to a major shift in public opinion that has been driven in part by Catholics.

“The message of the Church is resonating,” said Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, who chairs the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

Annual executions peaked at 98 in 1999 and have been on the decline ever since. In 2016 there were 20 executions, the lowest in a quarter of a century.

The drop in annual death sentences has been even more precipitous: from 295 in 1998 to 30 last year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit which tracks data on capital punishment in the United States.

“We’re undergoing a national climate change on the death penalty,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the center.

Recent developments on the state level reinforce the downward trend. Over the last year in Florida, a series of court rulings and new legislation have made it harder to pass death sentences by barring judges from overriding juries and requiring jury recommendations to be unanimous. In 2016, the absence of such protections in the Delaware’s death-penalty statute led the state Supreme Court to strike it down.

A key factor in the decline of the death penalty is public opinion. “We have seen changes in public attitudes toward the death penalty across all demographics. That includes religious groups,” Dunham said.

Polls show that the number of Americans who still support capital punishment is falling. In the mid-1990s an estimated 80% of the public approved. By 2016, that had diminished to 60%, according to Gallup. Another poll, from the Pew Research Center, puts it even lower, with 49% still in favor and 42% against.

Catholics are divided but slightly in favor of abolition: 46% to 43%, according to Pew.

For Catholics, an instrumental point in challenging acceptance of the practice was Pope St. John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Value and Inviolability of Life), which called for the use of the death penalty as a means of societal self-defense and only when there was no other option, such as lifetime incarceration.

“He said we shouldn’t ever need to do this,” Bishop Dewane said.


Theological Perspectives

Among theologians, however, there is a debate as to whether John Paul II was issuing a prudential judgment or developing Church doctrine on the matter.

“Conservative Catholics tend to have a much higher regard than progressives for the voice of tradition in moral debates. They see that the death penalty was strongly defended for over a thousand years by the Catholic Church — although never defended by any infallible teaching — and feel an understandable hesitation to conclude that there’s something inherently problematic with it, as John Paul II taught that there was,” said Christian Brugger, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney, Australia, and the author of Capital Punishment and Roman Catholic Moral Tradition.

While Brugger said he sympathizes with conservatives who hold to the Church’s small-t tradition on morality, he faults those who “continue to defend a normative role” for the death penalty for failing to fully engage with the teaching of John Paul II.

“The Pope taught more than that the death penalty should be limited to cases of necessity. He deliberately re-conceptualized the justification of capital punishment from a model of retributive justice to one of societal self-defense. This is not a minor move. No longer can the state justifiably kill someone for what he’s done — because he ‘deserves’ it. It can only kill a man if he poses a grave and present aggressor’s threat to the community’s welfare,” Brugger said.

However, others say this is going too far.

Edward Feser, a philosopher at Pasadena City College and the author of the forthcoming book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, contends Brugger’s position is undermined by the fact that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said soon after the release of the encyclical that John Paul II had not, in Feser’s words, “modified any doctrinal principles.” In 2004 Ratzinger then said that faithful Catholics could disagree with the Pope, according to Feser.

“Another problem is that if the Pope had really made this alleged doctrinal modification, he would have been contradicting the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture, the Fathers of the Church and previous popes, all of whom teach that capital punishment can, in principle, be legitimate for purposes other than countering an immediate physical threat — for example, for purposes of retributive justice or for deterrence purposes,” Feser said.

“There is simply nothing else for John Paul II’s statements to be other than a prudential judgment, given the Church’s indefectibility,” Feser added.


Changed Minds

Whether a prudential judgment or a doctrinal statement, it appears that John Paul II’s opposition to the death penalty has influenced many Catholics to change their stance.

Heather Beaudoin, the co-coordinator of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said that many of those involved in the movement hail from a Catholic background. She noted that one of the founders of the group is longtime conservative fundraiser and publisher Richard Viguerie, who is Catholic. A number of Republican lawmakers who have led the charge to end capital punishment also are Catholic, according to Beaudoin.

Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, which was founded on a national level in 2013, represents a growing discomfort over state executions among the political right.

Beaudoin once worked at a crisis-pregnancy center in her home state of Montana and said being against the death penalty is part of being pro-life. Some may contend that there’s a difference, because those sentenced to death are not innocent. But Beaudoin says the risk of executing someone who later turns out to be innocent is too high: Since the 1970s, more than 150 death-row inmates have been exonerated, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The death penalty should also give fiscally minded conservatives pause, too, Beaudoin says, given its exorbitant cost.

In Kansas, for example, death-penalty cases cost on average $400,000, four times as much as those where it is not a factor, according to a 2014 state report. California has spent more than $4 billion on death penalty-related expenses, according to a report cited by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Some counties have been nearly bankrupted by such high costs, Beaudoin said. (One county in Nebraska, for example, had to mortgage its ambulances after attempting to execute two offenders, according to Beaudoin.)

There’s also an important philosophical argument to consider for those who want limited government. “There is no greater power that we can give to the state than the ability to decide who lives and who dies,” Beaudoin said.


Still Room for Debate

For Catholics, it’s not only John Paul II who has reinforced the Vatican’s stance against the death penalty, according to Bishop Dewane. So have his successors.

Pope Francis’ message of mercy in particular is having an effect by creating a climate that nurtures abolitionist efforts, according to Dunham.

“Mercy and the death penalty are not compatible,” Dunham said.

But Brugger believes Francis is unlikely to address the underlying “theoretical issue” behind the Church’s firm stance against the death penalty — leaving room for theologians to debate whether that stance is a development in doctrine or merely a change in how doctrine is applied. The question is an important one because it affects the level of assent to this teaching that is required from faithful Catholics.

Given the ongoing debate among theologians, what is the average lay Catholic to do?

“Given the confusions about the state of the question, it’s not easy to give a succinct answer,” Brugger said. “They should do their best to think with the Church on the issue. This means, on the one hand, they should be under no illusion about the fact that Catholic theological tradition defended for centuries the right of the state to kill malefactors through lethal punishment. On the other, they should see that under the influence of St. John Paul II the Church’s theological tradition of justifiable homicide underwent a significant development.”

Brugger pointed to the Church’s teaching on just-war principles as another recent development in doctrine.

Said Brugger, “Intellectual docility towards these developments and a readiness to fairly characterize what’s been happening under John Paul II seem to me required of all Catholics.”


Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.


The Catechism and Capital Punishment

“The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people's rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people's safety, has a medicinal purpose: As far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party” (2266).

“Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

“If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

“Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm — without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself — the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent’” (2267).