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Despite pope’s edict on death penalty, Ducey to follow state law

Gov. Doug Ducey and Pope Francis

Gov. Doug Ducey and Pope Francis

PHOENIX – Gov. Doug Ducey said he will obey Arizona law and not Pope Francis, who has now declared that the death penalty is unacceptable in all cases.

But the governor said that, at least for the moment, he doesn't have to make that choice.

The issue arises because the pope, in the strongest statement ever, said earlier this month that executions are "an attack'' on human dignity. And Francis promised to work "with determination'' to abolish capital punishment wherever it still exists.

"I, of course, am going to listen to what the pope says,'' Ducey said Monday when asked about it. The governor is a practicing Catholic.

"At the same time, I took an oath to uphold the law in Arizona,'' he continued. “And I'm going to continue to uphold the law.''

Anyway, Ducey said, it's not like this is something new.

"This has been the catechism for some time of the church,'' he said, referring to the beliefs, laid on in writing of the Catholic faithful, saying that Francis was only "adding a qualifying comment.''

But that has not exactly been the case.

In his 1995 Evangelium vitae – the Gospel of Life – Pope John Paul II said that execution is only appropriate in cases of absolute necessity, "in other words when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society'' through non-lethal means. That language provided enough of an escape clause of sorts for Catholic officials like the governor who must sign death warrants.

What Francis said earlier this month effectively closes any loophole, at least as far as Catholic doctrine.

The governor sidestepped questions of whether he is saying that state statutes – and his oath to obey them – are superior to God's law, at least as interpreted by the pope.

"We can have an interesting discussion about that and about life,'' Ducey responded. And he pointed out that, at least for the time being, he doesn't have to make that choice.

"Thankfully, there's nothing on the docket in front of me at the time,'' he said.

The last execution in Arizona was in 2014, under Gov. Jan Brewer. Since that time a series of legal actions about the penalty and the drugs used to execute inmates have resulted in a virtual moratorium.

There are currently 117 inmates on "death row,'' including three women.