WASHINGTON - The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced a renewed campaign against the death penalty yesterday, launching an education program in parishes, schools, universities, and seminaries and expanding its advocacy efforts in Congress and state legislatures.
"We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing," said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington. "We cannot defend life by taking life."
Archbishop McCarrick said that while the bishops' conference has opposed the death penalty for 25 years, the new efforts will bring greater "urgency and unity, increased energy and advocacy, and a renewed call to our people" to continue the fight to end the death penalty.
The bishops said their educational work would be aimed at parishes, while they would renew lobbying efforts at both the state and national levels.
A survey of 1,785 Roman Catholic adults of all demographics shows a general trend away from support of the death penalty by Catholics, said pollster John Zogby.
"In past surveys, Catholic support for the death penalty was as high as 68 percent," Mr. Zogby said. "In our November survey, we found that less than half of the Catholic adults in our poll now support the use of the death penalty."
The poll, billed as the largest and most comprehensive study of Catholic attitudes on capital punishment, found that 48 percent of Catholics surveyed support the death penalty.
Almost a third of the Catholics opposed to the death penalty said they had previously supported it but had changed their minds. When asked why they reconsidered, the No. 1 reason cited was religion.
"This is a seismic shift in public opinion," said Mr. Zogby, president of Zogby International. Mr. Zogby said the increased use of DNA evidence in exonerating people on death row has created a "cataclysmic event" that is altering public opinion.
Toledo's Catholic diocese has actively opposed the death penalty, including organizing local protests against the 1999 execution of Wilford Berry, the first man to die after the death penalty's reinstatement in Ohio.
Diocesan officials did not return a call seeking comment yesterday about the bishops' announcement.
The Rev. Robert F. Drinan, a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, called the shift in Catholic opinion a "dramatic development." Although use of DNA evidence is one factor in the shift, Reverend Drinan said, he also pointed to the persistent pleas of Pope John Paul II to protect life.
"The Catholic Church has evolved in its teaching on the death penalty," he said.