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What’s up with 59 percent of white Catholics?

A new Pew survey shows “modest decline” in support for the death penalty, with 55 percent of U.S. adults saying they favor it for people convicted of murder and 37 percent opposing, as opposed to 62 percent favoring and 31 percent opposing in 2011, the last time Pew asked the question.

Any drop comes as good news for those opposed to capital punishment, but as usual the drill-downs turn up the interesting information. Take race: Many more whites (63 percent) continue to support the death penalty than do Hispanics (40 percent) or African Americans (36 percent). Or religion-and-race: 67 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 64 percent of white mainline Protestants support the death penalty; for Hispanic Catholics and black Protestants, support is 37 and 33 percent, respectively. And white Catholics? Support for capital punishment is higher than the overall number, at 59 percent.

However you slice it—“more than half” of white Catholics or “nearly six in ten” or “three-fifths” or “half again as much as Hispanic Catholics”—59 percent looks like a pretty high number. Maybe stubbornly high? In 2011, the number was 61 percent. A two-point drop over three years—vs. a twenty-point collapse of support among Hispanic Catholics (from 57 percent) in the same period.

For Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, the racial disparity in death-penalty support doesn’t get the attention it should; he also notes that “religion—or at least Protestantism—tends to increase the divide” (as he further frames it, white Catholics are “the least likely among religious whites to support capital punishment,” which may come as cold comfort). “It sounds glib,” Bouie concludes, “but if you needed a one-word answer to why whites are so supportive of the death penalty, ‘racism’ isn’t a bad choice.” Responding in the Washington Post, Andrew Gelman says death-penalty support isn’t about race so much as it is about politics: “Whites have become more politically conservative, but that’s not the same as becoming more racist. … [C]apital punishment has become a partisan attitude, associated with general conservatism,” which among whites is on the rise “not just in the south but in other parts of the country as well.”

I’m not sure either explanation gets completely to the heart of it, and it’s probably not helpful to think of it in such binary fashion anyway. So if there are other factors involved, what could they be? And how might they be at work when it comes to that 59 percent in particular?

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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Unless you see a further breakdown by region it's hard to interpret.  When assessing white support for Obama, the difference between regions was stark -- it hovered between 45% and 52% (or thereabouts) in the Northeast, Midwest and West, but was no better than 30% in the South.  In Pennsylvania, my home state, Romney won 55% of whites.  The HIGHEST percentage of whites in a southern state to support Obama was 35%, in North Carolina. 

I would be shocked if you did not see a similar pattern of support for the death penalty by demographic group.  And white Catholics, being more likely to live in other parts of the country than the South, are probably showing a regional and not a strictly religious variation. 

What's disturbing is that many who are pro-life are also for the death penalty ... maybe it is about political conservatism (and controlling perople and their acts).

Crystal, maybe that's because of the variety of ways people interpret the term "pro-life."

An article a couple years ago about Michigan's long ban on the death penalty adds credence to Barbara's theory that attitudes may be regional:

I have heard many Christians, including Catholics, cite the Bible in support of the death penalty. In addition, many people believe it is a deterrent, in spite of evidence to the contrary; especially as it is practiced now.  I have had discussions with people about that, and some have come back with, "The death penalty is certainly a deterrent to the ones it is applied to!" Which is true. However at an estimated average cost of 1.26 million dollars each time the death penalty is applied, as opposed to something like a third of that for life without parole, one would think fiscal conservatives would find it a poor use of law enforcement dollars. Additionally a sentence for life in prison is much more swift and sure than an average of about 14 years to go through appeals and finally execute someone on death row.

Katherine Nielsen,

I'm not sure how it would deter people like Cameron Todd Willingham, who had the misfortune of having his house start of fire in a jurisdiction with incompetent arson investigators and judicial system, unless they consider nuking everyone a good way to deter crime.

Ryan, I am not advocating the death penalty (which I oppose) as a deterrent. I was discussing reasons why some of the 59% of white Catholics mentioned in the post support it.  Yes, the fact that innocent people are sometimes put to death is another reason to oppose it.

I don't personally support the death penalty but I do not agree with the position that there is any irony in supporting the death penalty while opposing abortion. It is very easy to draw a moral line between killing done as a punitive act of justice and the killing of innocent unborn children. People who support the death penalty would also oppose infanticide, murder, and genocide. Does that make them hypocrites? It's entirely consistent to believe that there are certain times when taking a human life is justifiable, but that aborting an unborn child isn't one of them.

And of course, pro-choice Catholics are further out of step with Church teaching then Catholics who support the death penalty, The Church does not condemn capital punishment in all situations for all reasons. This wouldn't make much sense, since the law code of the ancient Hebrews, recorded in the Bible, reccomends death as the punishment for a number of crimes. But the Church does hold that if society can hold itself together without taking lives, it should not use capital punishment. I think this position makes the use of capital punishment in advanced western countries unjustifiable. But there is room for disagreement. The Catholic position on abortion is obviously much more ironclad.

One reason I can see that Catholics- and Chrisitians generally- might be more ready to accept capitol punishment is a belief in moral agency . Many people in the West see justice in purely utilitarian terms- that is in terms of getting criminals off the streets and hopefully rehabilitating them. This sounds good, but one can see a how a utilitarian approach to justice can obscure the fact that a criminal is responsible for his own actions and has committed an immoral act. Some deny this entirely- like Richard Dawkins who sees criminals as being like faulty computers that need to be reprogrammed. I can see this attitude being offensive to many Christians seeing as how it seems to deny moral agency. Thus supporting retributive justice could be seen as an assertion of the reality of moral agency, with capital punishment being sort of an extreme manifestation version of this.

"there are certain times when taking a human life is justifiable"

What bit of the gospels supports that view?  I never get how members of a church the founder of which was against violence and who was himself a victim of execution can justify supporting the death penalty.

Warren Patton,

I'd argue that abortion and the death penalty are very different moral issues despite both involving death, so people are not necessarily hypocrites.

I don't think supporting the death penalty reinforces agency but rather the opposite. There seems to be an implicit assumption that the person is incapable of redemption.

In other cases of Catholics, distinctions are made.  Catholics who go to Mass once a month, twice a month, twice a year, lapsed,  etc. Should not the same criteria be  used here?

Isn't it hypocritical for Christians to be against the death penalty? After all, if it weren't for the death penalty we wouldn't have a religion.

But seriously, I do not see any cognitive dissonance in being against abortion (in almost all situations) and in favour of the death penalty (in rare ones). Mostly because the arguments both centre on a legitimate right to self defense. Only the most pacifist interpretation of the Gospels and the Christian message deny the right to self defense. The question then arises when is the death of the aggressor considered 'reasonable force'. I would argue that reasonable force is being used in entopic pregnancies when the death of the child is the result but not the intention of the surgery. In this case, the aggressor is not intentionally aggressive, much like a semi-truck driver might be in a similar situation of 'my life or your' if a car swerves towards him and he must choose between a head on collision (likely causing the death of the other driver) and leaving the road and risking his own life.

Likewise, reasonable force is likewise being used by the state to render a person unable to continue to harm society when other options are not available. In western societies this is almost never necessary except in cases of perhaps terrorism (where a message of hate can continue to be spread and followers incited to commit acts of violence) and with druglords who continue to control the trade and the resulting violence. 

In other nations without such a developed penal and justice systems it would be an unfair burden or possibly impossible to expect the society to protect its citizens from serious threats without recourse to the death penalty.

Redemption a wonder but sometime impractical consideration.


Self-defense and resonable force are ideas from Aquinas, not the gospels. 

I can understand someone being against the death penlaty but not pro-choice .... if killing people is what is bad, and if fetuses are not thought of as people, then early abortions would not violate non-killing.

"Redemption a wonder but sometime impractical consideration."

Adam, I realize the Church teaches that the death penalty could arguably be used if there were absolutely no other way to protect innocents from a convicted criminal. I'm not sure what you mean by redemption being sometimes impractical.

 It is very easy to draw a moral line between killing done as a punitive act of justice and the killing of innocent unborn children.

Warren Patton - I agree with this distinction

At the same time, though, it should also be noted that John Paul II's opposition to the death penalty is rooted in his apprehending that contemporary developed culture is, in many ways, a culture of death.  Thus it may be said that the problem of abortion, and the problem of the death penalty in contemporary culture, are both symptoms of a common malaise.  The injustices in the death penalty as it is practiced in the United States,which Ryan Rowecamp and Katherine Nielsen point to, might be taken as illustrations.  In Illinois, many death row prisoners have subsequently been released, not because of the normal operation of the judicial process, but because of extraordinary interventions by the Center for Wrongful Convictions and other advocates.  

John Paul II, of course, brought to the issue his perspective of the death penalty as it was practiced under the totalitarianism of Eastern Europe, which surely was significantly more unjust than the processes in the US.

Pope Francis, who witnessed the "disappearing" of many Argentinians, including priests and religious, has renewed the church's opposition to the death penalty.


Dominic - as a follow-on to my previous comment and also to answer the question posed in your headline: I don't know what surveys reveal as to the reasons that white Catholics don't oppose the death penalty, but my sense is that most white Americans perceive that the death penalty as it is practiced in the US to be fundamentally fair and just.  They see it as an exercise in justice.  Virtually everyone put to death in the US has been convicted of a heinous crime.  In many of those cases, the facts aren't really in dispute.

If I'm right about this, then I wouldn't dispute the conclusion that white Catholic support for the death penalty is an instance of blindness to the culture of death.



The first thing I note about this survey is that, although its authors call the drop in support for the death penalty a "modest decline," about sixteen million US adults have ceased supporting it in a little over two years, and fourteen million more people are now opposed. I would call those changes huge, not modest.

The break-out numbers show clearly that race—I do not say racism—is an important factor in the way the death penalty is perceived. And why would it not be, when study after study shows the disparate application of the death penalty? Proportionately, far more African-Americans are sentenced to death for murdering whites than the other around—and that is almost certainly the result of racism. So one race may see the death penalty as providing some sort of protection, while the other sees it as mostly menacing.

The 59% of white Catholics supporting the death penalty may seem "stubbornly high," but it is quite a bit lower than the comparable figure for white Protestants. Is that because Protestants spend more time in the stonings and abominations parts of the Bible, and Catholics more in the blessed are the merciful parts? Don't know. That would require another survey. But I see a lot of ostensibly religious stuff online that seems more Moloch than Christ.


Another possible explanation for these changes is simply that overall crime rates have been declining for two decades. Maybe people are just less fearful.

Maybe the book "The Innocent Man" by Grisham helped change some people's opinion. 

Most whites are far removed fom the reality of how unjust and biased against the poor and people of color the criminal court system is. For instance there is the case of the rich white guy who got three years probation for raping his very young daughter because his privileged background meant that prison would be too harsh for him. But a black woman got 28 years imprisonment for dealing marijuana. in Floruida teh hero of the whites, Zimmer, got off under the "stand your grpound" law. A vblack womman, having shot an intruder in her home (not in her neighborhood) got a steep rison sentence depsite citing the stand your grounf law.

Not that most whites would care about these injustices. As long as they are not affected, or as long as they are favored, many whites will approve.



John McGrath hits on a sad truth.  Incarceration rates for African-Americans are almost 6 times that for whites nationwide, for example, so it is far more likely that Blacks will have experience with the "justice" sytem, and will spend time in prison.  It is also likely that they will receive harsher sentences.  I suspect all this makes you less supportive of such a system.  Racism, whether institutional or individual, clearly comes into play.  The other thing which comes into play is Conservatism.  There is no question that support for the death penalty is simply an article of faith among conservatives.  If somenone describes himself or herself as a conservative, you can almost list the items that they believe regardless of whether they've thought about it.  (There is a list for liberals as well, by the way).  The reality is that the Church's teaching is pretty much irrelevent to this position.


"What bit of the gospels supports that view?  I never get how members of a church the founder of which was against violence and who was himself a victim of execution can justify supporting the death penalty."

I don't support the death penalty. I was just saying the two views are not in contradiction. Maybe the death penalty is in contradiction with Christian doctrine but not with pro-life views generally.


"I don't think supporting the death penalty reinforces agency but rather the opposite. There seems to be an implicit assumption that the person is incapable of redemption."

I agree with this. I think that supporters of retributive justice see rehabilitative justice as immoral and deterministic, but I don't agree with that view. I was just trying to get into their heads.

"there are certain times when taking a human life is justifiable"

What bit of the gospels supports that view? 

There is this, which suggests both that the death penalty is just, and that the fruits of redemption are available even to those who have committed grave crimes:

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.”

The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation?

And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”


Warren Patton @ 11:23 am:

"Maybe the death penalty is in contradiction with Christian doctrine but not with pro-life views generally."


Pro-life means supporting life from conception to NATURAL death. How is death penalty NOT in contradiction with pro-life stance? 



Maybe the death penalty is in contradiction with Christian doctrine but not with pro-life views generally.

It may actually be that it's the other way around: the death penalty does not (at least of its own nature) contradict Christian doctrine, but the death penalty does not align with pro-life views, at least as they've been articulated as a Consistent Ethic of Life.

ISTM that it is logically possible to oppose abortion and support the death penalty. But to reach that position one has to divide the dying into the deserving of life (innocent babes) and the undeserving of life (a serial killer). (That is, always assuming we are killing a real serial killer, which, as DNA is showing us, sometimes is a shaky assumption.) But one does have a position based upon a defensible distinction. It's like the distinction drawn by the wise Alfred P. Doolittle between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor.

Mr. Doolittle, of course, also noted that the undeserving poor need as much to eat as the deserving poor -- and rather more to drink. Likewise, in cases of death, the innocent need less, not more, compassion than the guilty. Jesus' way of looking at such cases seems to have more in common with Mr. Doolittle than with Justice Scalia.

The problem of labels for positions on abortion still bedevils newsrooms and still brings ukases from managing editors, sometimes contradicting previous ukases. People who oppose abortion AND the death penalty clearly have a claim on being called "pro-life."  People who oppose the one and support the other equally clearly do not and should be called -- even though they hate it -- anti-abortion.

and if fetuses are not thought of as people

Crystal,  It doesnt matter what fetuses are 'thought of' but rather what they actually are:  human beings at the earliest stage of life.  That is clear from basic biology.

Bruce, yes they are an early stage of human being - what's not clear is whether embryos and zygotes are persons.

Warren McGrath:

And what about that white rich kid in Texas who killed 4 people while driving drunk and was given 10 years probation without any other punishment because the judge determined that the kid was afflicted with “affluenza”?

The idea that Catholic support for the death penalty comes from pro-lifers is off the mark.

The proof comes from this Gallup poll from 2004, which is probably still applicable today. If you scroll down, you'll find a breakdown of support by "practicing vs. non-practicing" Catholics, defined by "weekly vs. monthly vs. seldom/never" mass attendance. Here is Gallup's conclusion:

"Practicing Catholics, or those who attend church on a weekly or near weekly basis, are less likely to support capital punishment than are non-practicing Catholics (those who attend services rarely or never). Fewer than 6 in 10 practicing Catholics (59%) support the death penalty. This compares with 73% of non-practicing Catholics who support it. This result suggests that practicing Catholics are more likely to adhere to the Catholic Church's anti-death penalty position."

Polls have consistently shown that "practicing" Catholics are most faithful to the Church's moral doctrine across the board. They are more pro-life, pro-chastity, and pro-traditional marriage. This Gallup poll shows they are also more anti-death penalty. They are probably more pro-social justice. There are obviously subgroups within this group, but the overall trendline captures the reality of Catholic social attitudes, which don't fit into US political categories.

In other words, "what's up" with those 59% of white catholics is that they represent the other face of dissent from Church teachings on the part of "lite" Catholics -- the face the secular media ignores when they trumpet the  independent thinking of this group.

144 people who were on death row have been completely exonerated (

One wonders how many innocent people have been put to death. 

I found this lengthy article inspiring.  It is entitled "The Quality of Mercy".  It does have some material on death-penalty inequities and also on the broader issue of class- and race-based sentencing inequities.  It tells the story of a pretty remarkable law professor at St. Thomas University who has worked to reform sentencing disparities.


"It may actually be that it's the other way around: the death penalty does not (at least of its own nature) contradict Christian doctrine, but the death penalty does not align with pro-life views, at least as they've been articulated as a Consistent Ethic of Life."

Alright, fair enough. But support for capital punishment does not contradict an anti-abortion stance, taken on its own (not part of a wider ethical formulation like a Consistent Ethic of Life)

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