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The church and the death penalty

Catholics have an opportunity to learn about our faith’s tradition and teaching on the death penalty at a program – Catholic Voices Against the Death Penalty – Oct. 24 in Omaha.

Scheduled at St. Cecilia Cathedral, the program also will feature moving testimonies that shed light on the problematic aspects of the death penalty (see story on Page 3).

The same program will be offered Oct. 25 at St. Mary Cathedral in Grand Island and Oct. 26 at the Cathedral of the Risen Christ in Lincoln. Each program runs from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

Archbishop George J. Lucas will be on hand for the program in Omaha, and speakers will include a former death row inmate who was exonerated and family members of two murder victims.

These cathedral events provide another opportunity for Catholics to wrestle with the death penalty issue as the Nov. 8 election approaches. While we invite anybody to attend, I would extend a special invitation to those who are still struggling to determine their position on the issue.

Though the traditional teaching of our Catholic Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, Pope St. John Paul II and the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" propose an opportunity for society to broaden its understanding of the gospel of life and the dignity of the human person.

In his revered encyclical, "Evangelium Vitae," Pope St. John Paul II exhorted that the state "ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society." He believed that improvements in the penal system made such cases of absolute necessity "very rare, if not practically non-existent."

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

These statements form the basis for making a judgment about whether our society has the capability to "defend human lives against the unjust aggressor" without recourse to the death penalty. The bishops and the Nebraska Catholic Conference firmly believe improvements in our penal system allow society to protect human lives (including those within our prison systems) from even the most heinous criminals.

This reasoning and conclusion lies at the crux of the bishops’ and Nebraska Catholic Conference’s advocacy to encourage all Catholics and people of good will across the state of Nebraska to vote "Retain" on Referendum 426 on Nov. 8.

The powerful and compelling stories of the participating speakers at the various cathedral events will help form additional, supporting experiences and arguments that reveal problematic aspects of the death penalty. Such concerns are worthy of consideration as we determine our capacity to properly execute the death penalty.

I hope you join us for these cathedral events and use them as an opportunity to dig deeper into this important issue. While you are at it, invite a family member or friend (or two) to join.


Tom Venzor is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, with headquarters in Lincoln. Contact him at

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