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Catechism and recent popes very clear on church teaching regarding death penalty

You will recall that last year our state legislators voted to replace the use of the death penalty in Nebraska with life in prison without parole. The Catholic bishops of our state supported this change. Now you are aware that significant efforts have been underway to repeal this new law in order to bring back the death penalty. Along with my brother bishops, I am encouraging all Catholics to work to retain last year’s new law abolishing and replacing the death penalty.

The weeks between now and the Nov. 8 election will be a time for Catholics to form our consciences concerning this important life and death issue in Nebraska. The question of retaining the repeal of the death penalty is primarily a moral question, not only a political matter. This is why the church teaches so clearly about it.

The "Catechism of the Catholic Church," published more than 20 years ago by St. John Paul II, outlines current church teaching this way (#2267):

"Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

"If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’" (Evangelium Vitae #56)

While it is true that the church has not held to an absolute prohibition of the death penalty in the same manner as the prohibition of taking innocent life in the womb (abortion), we are instructed that we never should resort to the taking of a human life if it is not necessary. The modern prison system and the sentence of life without parole makes the use of capital punishment unnecessary in Nebraska. Therefore, it should not be done.

Our recent popes have consistently taught that the state should not resort to the death penalty. I was serving as a priest in St. Louis when St. John Paul II visited there in January 1999. I participated in the Mass when he said, as part of his homily "A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal that I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."

In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: "Prisoners are human persons who, despite their crime, deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. They need our care. With this in mind, the church must provide for pastoral care in prisons, for the material and spiritual welfare of the prisoners. This pastoral activity is a real service that the church offers to society, and it is one that the state should support for the sake of the common good. Together with the Synod members, I draw the attention of society’s leaders to the need to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty and to reform the penal system in a way that ensures respect for prisoners’ human dignity."

And during his address to the United States Congress last fall, Pope Francis echoed the teaching of his predecessors: "This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation."

It bears repeating that we should never resort to the taking of a human life if it is not necessary. While the church has judged in the past that the death penalty could be allowed, this was never mandated. It is the firm teaching of the church that when non-lethal means are available to protect society, then those non-lethal means must be used.

It is the prudential assessment of the popes, the U.S. bishops and the bishops of Nebraska that society is sufficiently protected by life in prison without parole. There is not a sufficient moral reason for reinstating the death penalty. Those who dissent from this assessment would have to demonstrate that life in prison does not protect society effectively and that the common good would be enhanced by state-sponsored executions.

I will have more to share on this important matter between now and November. Please join me in praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we approach a decision about life in Nebraska.

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