NASHVILLE, TN — With the state scheduled to carry out the death penalty for the first time in nine years next month, Tennessee’s three Roman Catholic bishops urged Gov. Bill Haslam to stop executions.

Bishops J. Mark Spalding of Nashville, Martin Holley of Memphis and Richard Stika of Knoxville wrote Haslam a letter, saying they “urge you to use your authority as governor to put an end to the fast-track executions planned for later this year.”

“It is within your power to establish your legacy as a governor of Tennessee who did not preside
over an execution on your watch,” the trio wrote.

Billy Ray Irick, who was convicted in 1986 for the rape and murder of 7-year-old Paula Dyer, is scheduled to die August 9. More than 30 death-row inmates filed a lawsuit earlier this year challenging the state’s method of execution, a three-drug cocktail that begins with midazolam, a sedative experts say may not be strong enough to counter the pain caused by the paralytic vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. Experts liken the pain of those drugs to being burned or buried alive. The case is currently at trial.

In their letter, the bishops recall the role played by the late Pope John Paul II – since canonized – in commuting the sentence of Missouri’s Darrell Mease during a papal visit to St. Louis in 1999.

“At that time, the pope called for the end to the death penalty as cruel and unnecessary,” they wrote. “He said that it is simply not necessary as the only means to protect society while still providing a just punishment for those who break civil laws. Rather than serving as a path to justice, the death penalty contributes to the growing disrespect for human life.”

Though the Catholic Church is widely considered abolitionist on the death penalty, the church’s position is more nuanced, despite the strong pronouncements by both John Paul II and current Pope Francis against capital punishment. In his 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae,” John Paul re-affirmed long-standing Catholic teaching that “execution is only appropriate in cases of absolute necessity, in other words when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society,” but he then wrote that improvements to the penal system makes such instances extraordinarily rare.

In the catechism, the church teaches “if bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means.”

In any event, the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops campaigns for the end of the death penalty and the Holy See’s delegation to the United Nations gave its “full support” to the U.N.’s efforts to end executions.

Tennessee has executed six people since the Supreme Court re-instated the death penalty in Gregg v. Georgia in 1976. There are currently 62 men and one woman on death row.

Subscribe to Nashville Patch for more local news and real-time alerts

Image via Tennessee Department of Correction