It's not over yet: Nebraska bishops, Catholics continue to fight death penalty

Bishop James Conley of Lincoln prepares to administer Confirmation to prisoners during a Mass said at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, March 31, 2015. Photo courtesy of the Southern Nebraska Register.
Bishop James Conley of Lincoln prepares to administer Confirmation to prisoners during a Mass said at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, March 31, 2015. Photo courtesy of the Southern Nebraska Register.

.- Nebraska’s three Catholic bishops have asked all people of goodwill to continue to fight the death penalty, after it won a last-minute reprieve in the state Wednesday.

The group Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, largely financed by Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and his supporters, said it had gathered 166,692 signatures from all 93 of the state's counties, enough to briefly halt the repeal of the death penalty approved by the state’s unicameral legislature in May.

The advocacy group needed roughly 114,000 signatures to immediately halt the repeal of the death penalty, a move which will likely place the fate of capital punishment in the hands of Nebraska voters in 2016.

"Nebraskans sent a strong message about crime and punishment in our state by signing this petition in extraordinary numbers," said state treasurer and former attorney general Don Stenberg, a co-chair of the petition drive, according to the AP.

The three Nebraskan bishops, who said in May that capital punishment “cannot be justified” in the state at present, asked in a statement Thursday that all people of goodwill join them in continued opposition to the death penalty.

“Justice requires punishment, but it does not require that those who have committed serious crimes be put to death,” the bishops said in their Aug. 27 statement.

“For the Catholic community, this issue – like all life issues – involves more than public policy,” they said. “It involves our faith and the central principle that human life is sacred. Reflection on the God-given dignity of every human person should guide all our decisions about life, including refraining from the use of the death penalty.”

The bishops join the three most recent Popes – St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis – in opposing capital punishment in most cases. As explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, because life is sacred, the death penalty should only be used if there are no other means with which to protect the public.

In paragraph 2267, the catechism notes that in the modern world, scenarios in which the death penalty is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent," language borrowed from St. John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae.

The collected signatures from Nebraskans for the Death Penalty were delivered Wednesday to the Nebraska secretary of state's office, which will verify them with each country as belonging to registered voters. If the necessary number was obtained, the death penalty repeal will be blocked until voters decide on the issue in the November 2016 general election.

Even if the repeal is blocked, Nebraska still has no way to execute people on death row, as it lacks two of the three legally required lethal injection drugs.

In recent years, many domestic pharmaceutical companies have decided they do not want to be associated with the taking of life and have therefore stopped providing lethal drugs. This causes states to look for companies abroad, but since the European Union holds the death penalty as a violation of human rights, it is illegal for European pharmaceutical companies to sell the drugs to the United States.

When the Nebraska legislature repealed capital punishment in May, overriding Ricketts' veto, it became the first conservative state to do so in 42 years.

In their statement, the Nebraska bishops vowed to keep fighting capital punishment, which they say does not clearly deter crime and disproportionately affects minorities and the poor.

“Other means are available to punish criminals and to protect society that are more respectful of human life,” they said.

“This is the message Nebraska’s three bishops will take to the state’s 375,000 Catholics in the coming year to encourage support for upholding the prohibition of the death penalty.”

Nebraska’s three bishops are Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha; Bishop James Conley of Lincoln; and Bishop Joseph Hanefeldt of Grand Island.

Tags: Capital Punishment, Bishop Conley, Go Big Red, Bishop Handefeldt, Archbishop Lucas