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Death Penalty Review

July 23, 2010 | By: Bishop William J. Dendinger

Occasionally it is good to do a review of basic moral issues, lest we become insensitive to the gravity of each issue. Certainly the death penalty is a moral issue we need to review periodically.

The position of the Catholic Church is clearly enunciated in several places. First and foremost is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, (Second Edition). It’s a lengthy statement and it is carefully nuanced.

“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 with the dignity of the human person.”

“Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibility which the state has for effectively preventing the crime, by rendering one who committed an offense incapable of doing harm—without definitively 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 non-existent.”

In the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults we read, “Our nation’s increasing reliance on the death penalty cannot be justified. We do not teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill others.” Pope John Paul II has said the penalty of death is both cruel and unnecessary in his homily in St. Louis, Jan. 27, 1999.

The Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church uses similar words and rationale.

“The Church sees as a sign of hope a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of legitimate defense on the part of society. Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform.”

Civic groups, such as the Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, have testified in the Nebraska State Legislature for the past several years. According to their website, there are five basic arguments against the death penalty. First, it is degrading of human dignity. Second, it does not deter crime according to most social studies. Third, it is not administered fairly as the poor are much more likely to be convicted. Fourth, mistakes have been made as innocent persons have been executed, although some have survived the death sentence proving years later they were wrongly accused. Fifth, it is much more expensive than life in prison.

James Cunningham, Executive Director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, has testified many times before the Nebraska State Legislature about the Catholic teaching on capital punishment. He frequently quotes from the 1994 Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Bishops, Confronting a Culture of Violence. “Increasingly, our society looks to violent measures to deal with some of our most difficult social problems. Violence is not the solution; it is the clearest sign of our failures….”

It’s logical to ask, “Why has the death penalty survived in light of the opposition?” It’s very simple. Lawmakers are elected officials and there is a very vocal group of people who want retribution and will vote for those who favor capital punishment and against those who oppose it.

The culture of favoring capital punishment is very firmly entrenched in many people and it will require long and extensive education based primarily in the inherent dignity of human life to bring about any change.


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