Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Pro-Life America: Is this a Spaghetti Western?

During a recent Republican Party presidential candidate debate, Texas governor Rick Perry said, “In the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is you will be executed.” At the time of this comment, 234 inmates had received this “ultimate justice” in the state under his leadership.

For Catholics, the Catechism provides the following direction: “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. … Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state had for effectively preventing crime … the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent’” (2267).

Never are the words “ultimate justice” (or justice in any form) used in connection with executing someone in current Catholic teachings. This is only something done when necessary in extraordinary situations (unlikely to exist at in the United States—including Texas). Why? It’s simple: “Every human life, from the moment of conception until death, is sacred” (Catechism, 2319).

But how many Catholics would side with Gov. Perry against the teachings of their Church? Surveys indicate most of them. Although Catholic approval of the death penalty has dropped from its peak height of 82% in 1985, still two-thirds of Catholics (65%) supported the policy in 2010.

But what of Catholicism and the pro-life movement? It is true that recent polls have indicated that a growing majority of Catholics consider themselves to be pro-life, however, many don’t seem to include the death penalty as an issue under this umbrella—even when it clearly is in the teachings of the Church (see Catechism, 2258-2330).

In 2010, about two-thirds of Catholics (65%) expressed opinions that were consistent with the Church’s opposition to abortion “on demand.” In addition to opposition to abortion for “any reason,” majorities of Catholics also oppose abortion in cases where the reason given is: not wanting any more children, low income or inability to afford more children, or the absence of marriage.

But Catholic attitudes regarding other reasons for abortion come with a few asterisks. Majorities—seven in ten or more—do think abortion should be possible when a woman’s health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy, when pregnancy is the result of rape, or when there is a strong chance of “serious defect in the baby.”

There are even more wrinkles. Add euthanasia into the mix and you begin to question whether there really are any U.S. Catholics consistent with the Church on life issues. Nearly seven in ten U.S. Catholics (68%) supported physician assisted suicide for patients with terminal illnesses in 2010. The Church of course teaches that euthanasia is “morally unacceptable” (Catechism, 2277).

How many Catholics are consistent on all three life issues? The structure of survey questions make it difficult to come to a precise estimate. However, as an example, just more than one in ten U.S. adult Catholics oppose: 1) abortion if there is a strong chance of a birth defect for the child, 2) capital punishment for convicted murders, and 3) euthanasia for terminally ill patients who request this. Most express at least one attitude that is in conflict with Church teachings.

These results emerge when the questions are asked independently. The percentage rises a bit when all three are presented in the same question. Less than one in five adult Catholics (19%) in a recent CARA survey “strongly agreed” that “All human life, from conception to natural death, is sacred. For this reason, the taking of life—whether through abortion, the death penalty, or assisted suicide—is wrong.”

The largest conflicted group among Catholic adults includes those who oppose abortion on demand yet support the death penalty (about four in ten U.S. adult Catholics during the last decade and specifically in 2010; only about one in ten support abortion on demand and oppose the death penalty). Here there is a split identity—in one instance mostly consistent with Rome and in another more in line with American culture and history. You might call it a “Spaghetti Western-style” pro-life identity—a uniquely American re-invention of Church teachings with a bit of the old west thrown in. In America, many appear to put matters of guilt and innocence above the overall sanctity of life and believe that they can be faithful and support the execution of a “bad guy.” These sentiments may be an important part of the explanation for how the U.S. is one of the few democratic capitalist nations with a Christian majority population that still allows for and uses the death penalty for civilians (e.g., the others are Botswana and Uganda).

Above photo courtesy of nicksarebi at Flickr Creative Commons.

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