As Vatican seeks to abolish death penalty, local bishops urge Nebraska to halt Moore’s execution

August 4, 2018

LINCOLN — Hours after the Catholic Church changed its official teaching Thursday to fully reject the death penalty, a trio of bishops urged action to halt an upcoming execution in Nebraska.

Meanwhile, Gov. Pete Ricketts, who is Catholic, said Thursday that he remains in support of capital punishment.

The Vatican announced that going forward, the death penalty is inadmissible in all cases and the church should work to abolish it worldwide. Previously, the church held that execution was allowable in rare cases to defend innocent lives from an “unjust aggressor.”

The change was endorsed by Pope Francis in May but announced Thursday. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will include the change in new editions of the catechism, the compendium of Catholic teaching.

The shift in church doctrine comes as Nebraska approaches its first execution in more than two decades. The Nebraska Supreme Court has set Aug. 14 for the lethal injection of a double-murderer who has spent 38 years on death row.

“In light of this teaching, we call on all people of good will to contact Nebraska state officials to stop the scheduled Aug. 14 execution of Carey Dean Moore,” said the joint statement by Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, Bishop James Conley of Lincoln and Bishop Joseph Hanefeldt of Grand Island.

The bishops, who argued that the death penalty is no longer needed to ensure public safety in Nebraska, called the pope’s decision “an answer for our prayers and welcome news.” They also called for prayers for victims of serious crime and the 12 men on death row.

Ricketts, meanwhile, has been a leading advocate for restoring the death penalty in the state. In 2015, he vetoed legislation that repealed capital punishment, then helped fund a petition drive to put the issue on the 2016 general election ballot. A solid majority of voters reversed the repeal.

“While I respect the pope’s perspective, capital punishment remains the will of the people and the law of the State of Nebraska,” the governor said Thursday in an email. “It is an important tool to protect our corrections officers and public safety.”

The governor has said in the past that he has researched, prayed and meditated upon on the topic and concluded that support for capital punishment is consistent with his faith. He pointed to the writings of church fathers and theologians who have long held that the death penalty is a morally sound form of punishment. The church’s updated teaching states that capital punishment is “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

The pope has for years been a vocal critic of the death penalty, calling it an “inhuman measure,” but his latest move places the issue toward the forefront of his efforts to reform and modernize the church.

It also could shape discussion about the issue in the United States, which like several dozen countries, uses capital punishment.

The Argentine pontiff, who had hinted last year that such a change might come, has described the church’s death penalty stance as evidence of how the Vatican can evolve — in this case, over a generation. A quarter-century ago, the church said that the death penalty was justified in cases of “extreme gravity.” Then, in 1997, Pope John Paul II narrowed the standards for when the punishment was permissible. Since then, the number of nations that use capital punishment has gradually decreased.

The death penalty is “contrary to the Gospel,” the pope said last year, noting that the faith emphasized the dignity of life from conception until death.

Dudley Sharp, a pro-death penalty researcher in Houston, said he was “astounded” by the news. Sharp, who is not Catholic, said the change appears to reject 2,000 years of teaching by the church that the death penalty is a morally just punishment.

According to Amnesty International, more than 20,000 people across the world are on death row. On Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country could soon reinstate the death penalty — something it had abolished in 2004 as part of the reforms necessary to enter the European Union.

In the United States, according to the Pew Research Center, public support for the death penalty has ticked up slightly since hitting a four-decade low in 2016, with 54 percent now approving of the punishment for those convicted of murder. The attitudes of Catholics mirror those of the nation, with 53 percent favoring the death penalty.

In a letter sent to bishops from the Vatican’s doctrine office, Cardinal Luis Ladaria noted that the church’s stance on the death penalty stemmed from a “new understanding” of modern punishment, which should aim to rehabilitate and socially reintegrate those who have committed crimes.

“Given that modern society possesses more efficient detention systems,” Ladaria wrote, “the death penalty becomes unnecessary as protection for the life of innocent people.”

Ladaria said that the church’s new teaching aims to “give energy” to a movement that would “allow for the elimination of the death penalty where it is still in effect.”

This report includes material from the Washington Post.

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