Two years ago when working on a California campaign to end death sentences, I had the opportunity to work with representatives of the state's Roman Catholic bishops. These men -- who had just recently successfully trashed my kind in an anti-gay marriage campaign -- were serious allies to the campaign. They organized in parishes to get initiative petitions signed; used Catholic media to push the proposed measure; and enjoined priests to educate the faithful.
Too bad all this did very little to influence the outcome. In California as in the rest of the U.S., a majority of Catholics seem to support the death penalty. In California as in the rest of the U.S., racial and ethnic identities are stronger predictors of opposition: Blacks (historically Protestant) and Latinos (mostly Catholic) show majorities against. In my campaign role, I discovered polling that suggested that, among all Catholic positions on social issues, opposing the death penalty is the one on which ordinary people in the pews are most likely to break with their hierarchs.
Now Catholics have a pope who is affirming unequivocal opposition.
The article from Religion News Service quoted here goes on to remark that U.S. Catholic conservatives "chafed at the abolition pleas." After quoting some of the objectors who point out that historic Catholic teaching includes considerable wiggle room in which to approve the death penalty, it asks:
Like bishops who pick and choose which people should have their human rights affirmed, ordinary Catholics have a history of picking and choosing when to agree with their leaders.
But it can't hurt that a loveable pope has taken up the cause. Loveable counts when convincing people of new possibilities. My kind knows that.