Church teaching keeps some Catholics off jury

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February 9, 2015

Out of Boston comes the news that potential jurors in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, charged with murder in the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, are being asked whether they are Catholic and if they agree with Church teaching on the death penalty. If the answer to both questions is "yes," they are excluded from serving on the jury, one requirement for such service being that a juror must be willing to impose the death penalty or a life sentence with no possibility of release.

Catholic reaction to this news, according to an article in USA Today, has been mixed. Some maintain that Catholics who uphold Church opposition to the death penalty are part of mainstream society and should be allowed on the jury. Others say those who in conscience oppose carrying out a legally-prescribed penalty should not serve on the jury just as those over-eager for blood should be excluded.

Either way, the Catholic teaching opposes the law of Massachusetts. Church teaching holds out the possibility of humanizing society by encouraging reconsideration of the death penalty.

The USA Today story says 62 per cent of American Catholics in 2012 favoured capital punishment, a percentage notably less than 30 years earlier when 82 per cent supported it. One cannot say with certainty that the strong opposition of recent popes to capital punishment is the cause of this decline – Catholics are notoriously indifferent to Church teaching when it doesn't accord with their own opinions – but surely the well-publicized pronouncements of Pope John Paul II had some effect.

Of course, Catholic teaching does not determine society's laws, especially when others hold different views. However, the fact that some faithful Catholics are being barred from jury duty – a basic duty of citizenship – should stir deeper reflection on what positive effects can come from putting people to death when other means exist to protect society from even the most dangerous criminals.