Faithful citizenship and the death penalty
April 18, 2019
Every election cycle, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops re-issues its teaching document on the political responsibility of Catholics ("Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship") found at usccb.org. This document provides guidance "in the exercise of [our] rights and duties as participants in our democracy" and "lifts up our dual heritage as both faithful Catholics and American citizens."
In an opening paragraph of the document, Catholics are reminded "we are called to participate in public life in a manner consistent with the mission of our Lord."
Quoting Pope Francis, the document states that "an authentic faith … always notices a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it. … If indeed ‘the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics,’ the church ‘cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.’"
This opportunity to transmit Gospel values, leave the world somehow better, and join in the fight for justice is manifest in a concrete, tangible way with "Referendum No. 426" to retain the repeal of the death penalty, which Nebraska voters will confront on the November ballot.
Referendum No. 426 asks Nebraska voters: "The purpose of Legislative Bill 268, passed by the First Session of the 104th Nebraska Legislature in 2015, is to eliminate the death penalty and change the maximum penalty for the crime of murder in the first degree to life imprisonment. Shall Legislative Bill 268 be repealed?" The responses to this question are "Retain" or "Repeal."
The referendum states that "a vote to ‘Retain’ will eliminate the death penalty and change the maximum penalty for the crime of murder in the first degree to life imprisonment by retaining Legislative Bill 268" and "a vote to ‘Repeal’ will keep the death penalty as a possible penalty for the crime of murder in the first degree by repealing Legislative Bill 268."
Our bishops – Archbishop George J. Lucas of Omaha; Lincoln Bishop James D. Conley; and Grand Island Bishop Joseph G. Hanefeldt – supported and urged the passage of LB268. Likewise, they support and urge all Nebraska Catholics to vote "Retain" on Referendum No. 426. Our bishops have taken this position based on the strong foundations of Catholic social teaching.
First, Catholic social teaching recognizes the justice of the death penalty as exercised by state authority under certain strict conditions. The retributive aim of justice recognizes that greater crimes call for greater punishment. Thus, the gravity of certain heinous criminal offenses permits capital punishment.
Second, more recently, Catholic social teaching has clarified serious limitations on the state’s just use of the death penalty. Pope St. John Paul II was clear that other aims of justice – in addition to retribution – must be considered when determining the just use of the death penalty. He stressed 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 adds: "As a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent."
The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" further states: "If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of the persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person."
As the bishops concluded in their joint statement during debate on LB268, "The death penalty is not necessary in Nebraska. The purposes of a criminal justice system are rehabilitation, deterrence, public safety and the restoration of justice. The death penalty does not provide rehabilitation to convicted criminals. There is no clear evidence that executions deter crime. Public safety can be assured through other means. And justice requires punishment, but it does not require that those who have committed capital crimes be put to death."
As you submit absentee ballots and go to the polls this November, the bishops urge you to vote "Retain" on Referendum No. 426. For more information on the death penalty, please visit necatholic.org/deathpenalty.
Tom Venzor is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, with headquarters in Lincoln. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.