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Half Of U.S. Catholics Disagree With Pope Francis On The Death Penalty

A papal appeal didn’t stop Kelly Gissendaner’s execution, which took place Wednesday morning in Georgia nearly 17 years after she was convicted of arranging the murder of her husband. Pope Francis sent a letter to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles asking that her death sentence be commuted and made it clear in his speech to Congress last week that he opposes the death penalty in all cases, saying that “a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”

The pardons board in Georgia disagreed with the pontiff, and so do many American Catholics.

In a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of Americans said they supported the death penalty for people convicted of murder. Catholics were a little less likely than other Americans to express support: 51 percent endorsed it, while 41 percent were opposed.

Catholics varied considerably on this issue by race. White, non-Hispanic Catholics were much more likely to support the death penalty than Hispanic Catholics (59 percent versus 37 percent). The majority of American Catholics are white non-Hispanics (59 percent), but Hispanic Catholics are a sizable 34 percent of the Catholic Church in America.

Protestants also showed a racial gap. Overall, 57 percent of Protestants in the Pew survey said they supported the death penalty, but white evangelical and mainline Protestants were more likely to endorse it (67 percent and 64 percent, respectively) than black Protestants (33 percent).

A 2010 survey by the Death Penalty Information Center found that Catholics were more likely than others to agree with concerns about how the death penalty is administered, although they largely did not share the pope’s blanket moral opposition or his concerns about the dignity of all prisoners, even the guilty.

The Death Penalty Information Center asked respondents to rate their agreement with statements on a 10-point scale, where 0 represents strong disagreement, 10 represents strong agreement and 5 is neutral.1

Don’t trust politicians 7.4 6.9 6.8
Risk of executing innocent 6.7 6.2 6.7
People need chance to change 6.1 5.8 5.8
Violates my moral beliefs 5.9 4.2 4.8

For many American Catholics, opposition to the death penalty might be more a factor of race than religion, and their qualms have more to do with how it is carried out than whether it should ever be allowed.


  1. The full statements represented in the table below were:

    • “I don’t trust politicians with the power to decide who lives and who dies.”
    • “The death penalty carries too much risk of executing an innocent person.”
    • “With a sentence of life without parole, people at least have a chance to change while serving their time.”
    • “The death penalty is against my moral beliefs.”

Leah Libresco is a former news writer for FiveThirtyEight.