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Democratization of Doctrine

The U.S. Bishops launched a new campaign today to end the death penalty in America. However even more interesting was their justification.

In a press conference held today, John Zogby himself was in attendance to provide some new Catholic polling data:

We found that support for the use of the death penalty among American Catholics has plunged in the past few years. The intensity of support has declined as well. In past surveys, Catholic support for the death penalty was as high as 68%. In our November survey, we found that less than half of the Catholic adults in our poll (48%) now support the use of the death penalty, while 47% oppose it. The percentage of Catholics who are intensely supportive of the death penalty has been halved, from a high of 40% to 20% in this survey.

I am persuaded that the death penalty is rarely if ever necessary in the U.S. and I think the goal is a laudable one, but employing polls to make the case seems a bit odd to me. Perhaps from a prudential perspective, one can argue that the poll is the "hook" to get the MSM to pick up the story. If so, I am impressed with the Bishop's increasing media savvy. But if on the other hand, we are talking about a democratization of doctrine (teaching on what's increasingly popular) I'm definitely not a fan. Let's hope it's the former rather than the latter.

An interesting aside:

The distinction between "life issues" and "social justice issues" will also be an interesting one to track as this campaign unfolds. The campaign seems to borrow language from both, though it definitely has a social justice emphasis.

The strange thing about this is that the death penalty falls under the treatment of the 5th Commandment in the Catechism, not more than 4 paragraphs from the treatment of abortion, placing it squarely in the "life issues" camp. "Social justice" on the other hand is treated under the 7th Commandment.

Now the case can be made that social justice is a much broader category, as it does enjoy its own article in the 2nd part of the 3rd part of the catechism (and you thought the Summa was hard to follow) but there is no mention of the death penalty there. If the death penalty is a social justice issue per se, it shares this status with abortion.

Now some may wonder why go on and on about such a minor distinction, but I have found it is acutually a blue state / red state type of distinction. Life issue are red social justice issues blue. You rarely hear "social justice" Catholics talk about abortion, and you rarely hear "life issues" Catholics talk about the death penalty, though the reds are, in my experience, more likely to cross the aisle.

Framing the death penalty as a social justice issue is probably more politically prudent, as you can build a much larger base (the blues will be behind you, and lots of reds will cross over), but it is to do so at the expense of the reason for the teaching. The death penalty is fundamentally wrong for the same reason abortion is wrong. Life is a gift and should be protected to the greatest extent possible.

To call abortion a "life issue" and the death penalty a "social justice issue" is to deprive opposition to the death penalty of its ultimate grounding, a respect for human life, and to ignore the far reaching social injustices that abortion has and continues to wreck upon our society.


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