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State’s use of death penalty diminishes culture of life, dignity of human person

As I wrote at the end of my previous column, this month’s is about the death penalty. A referendum will be on the ballot Nov. 8 deciding either to bring back the death penalty to Nebraska or retain last year’s repeal of the death penalty through LB 268.

Efforts already have started in Nebraska’s three dioceses to educate and form the consciences of Catholics in this area. As Archbishop George J. Lucas stated in his Catholic Voice column last month, Catholics should work to retain last year’s new law abolishing and replacing the death penalty.

The reasons for this are many, and they include prudential judgments about what is possible as we protect our citizens, the impact on victims’ families, the concern over the fact that the poor and minority populations end up on death row in disproportionate numbers, the costly and complicated process for attaining new lethal-injection drugs, a discomfort with the government having the power to execute and the questionable claims about deterrence.

One of the arguments in the news lately has been the cost. A recent study reported that the State of Nebraska stands to save millions of dollars annually by retaining the repeal of the death penalty, millions which could be used to help fund services for victims’ families and better support our correctional facility staff.

From several different points of view, then, the death penalty just doesn’t seem a prudential use of our resources. But none of these arguments really get at the core of the church’s teaching, or express the fullness of what the church means by a culture of life, the heart of the Catholic view.

When Pope St. John Paul II wrote his wonderful encyclical "The Gospel of Life," he laid out for us that Catholic view. He said that "the Gospel of God’s love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the person and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel." And the heart of that Gospel is that "the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end" must be "respected to the highest degree." (#2)

This sacred value doesn’t disappear just because someone is a criminal. Reflecting on the story of Cain and Abel, St. John Paul wrote that "Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God pledges himself to guarantee this." Then quoting St. Ambrose’s reflection on Cain we read, "God, who preferred the correction rather than the death of a sinner, did not desire that a homicide be punished by the exaction of another act of homicide." (#9)

There are situations, writes the Holy Father, when killing someone is necessary in order to defend someone else’s life. In this way, the issue of the death penalty is not like abortion, which can never be justified. But John Paul II said, that to be consistent with our own Catholic principles, if there are "bloodless means" by which to protect society, we must use them. (#56) To do otherwise would be to violate the core Christian belief that there is a fundamental dignity in every human person.

Why? Well, because no matter how someone was conceived, no matter what their disability and no matter what they have done, the sacred value of every human life must still be defended. A person is a person no matter how small and no matter how corrupted by sin.

To use the death penalty when it is not necessary violates our core principles as Catholics, and it allows a "culture of death" to win out over the Gospel of Life.


Omar Gutierrez is manager of the archdiocesan Office of Missions and Justice. Contact him at

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