The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) expends considerable effort to educate pro-death penalty Catholics with the intention of persuading them to reconsider their positions and more closely align with Church teaching on the often emotionally charged issue. The results of the long-term re-education process have been incremental, but consistently encouraging.
The most recent USCCB polling on the issue, completed in 2005, showed a dramatic drop in Catholic support for capital punishment. "We found that support for the use of the death penalty among American Catholics has plunged in the past few years," Zogby International President John Zogby said at the time the results were released.
The polling revealed that less than 48 percent of adult Catholics support the use of the death penalty, while 47 percent oppose. And while every conversion is important, some are more high-profile and therefore more potentially influential than others.
When the 2005 poll was released, one of those high-profile conversions, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, D.C., reflected on his own transformation from death-penalty supporter to opponent. Cardinal McCarrick said that supporting the death penalty was an inherent part of growing up in a family that had a lot of police officers. But the call of Pope John Paul II and his position as a Church teacher and pastor, compelled him to evolve.
"I have come to believe the death penalty hurts all of us, not just the one being executed," he said. "It diminishes and contradicts our respect for all human life and dignity."
Andrew Rivas, the U.S. bishop's policy adviser on criminal-justice issues, explained that conversions like Cardinal McCarrick's can have an influence on obstinate, pro-death penalty Catholics. "I think that gives people a little bit more incentive and makes them feel more comfortable in at least talking about it," he said. "And then once they get to talking about it, then we start changing their minds."
In California, another influential and long-time pro-death penalty Catholic has recently expressed his own reservations about capital punishment. Appointed to the Ventura County bench in 1974 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, Judge Charles McGrath was a lifelong law-and-order Republican and death-penalty proponent. Known as a strict jurist throughout his career, McGrath refused to allow plea bargains in his courtroom until a higher court ruling forced him to change the policy.
McGrath attributes the formation of his judicial philosophy to his conservative Irish-Catholic upbringing. Over his career, the 68-year-old judge presided over several death-penalty cases, and in two of them, sentenced the defendant to die by lethal injection.
In an unprecedented reversal last January, McGrath asked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to change the sentence one of those defendants, Michael Morales, to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Morales was convicted of raping and killing a teen girl in 1981.
Citing new evidence in the case that indicated key prosecution testimony was tainted, McGrath told California's governor that executing Morales would constitute a "grievous and freakish"injustice. Schwarzenegger, also a Catholic, denied the request. However, Morales was granted an indefinite stay of execution after the courts could not find qualified medical professionals to administer the lethal injection. The state is now reviewing its lethal-injection policies.
McGrath, who attends Mass at Santa Clara Parish in Oxnard, is a reserved man and not prone to exaggerated introspection. He was reluctant to say much more about the Morales case. And since he is still an active judge, he declines to say outright whether he supports capital punishment, but does admit that his once-stringent beliefs have evolved.
"I'm a little dubious about the efficacy of the death penalty," he explained. But it appears his reservations actually began to evolve several years ago.
While reflecting back on his career after he retired to part-time status in 1997, McGrath told a local reporter that sentencing someone to death was the hardest decision a judge could make. He also expressed doubts about the effectiveness and practicality of the death penalty.
"The appeals are interminable. We could use our judicial resources in other ways. Nobody really argues any more that it's a deterrent," he said. "I am beginning to feel it's not worth all the trouble."
Stephen James writes from California.