'Pro-life' Gov. Greg Abbott oversees his 55th execution in Texas

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The GOP governor has referred to the death penalty as 'Texas justice.' Catholic activists say that puts him at odds with his own faith.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott oversaw his 55th execution on Tuesday.

Rick Rhoades, who was convicted of double homicide in 1991, was executed on Tuesday after spending 28 years on death row. Rhoades' death marked Texas' third lethal injection this year.

Rhoades chose not to make a final statement before he was injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital. He was pronounced dead at 6:29 p.m. on Tuesday.

In the past, Abbott has jokingly referred to the death penalty as "Texas justice."

Still, he maintains that he is a pro-life Christian guided by his own Roman Catholic faith.

In May, Abbott signed into law the most draconian abortion ban in the country. The law, S.B. 8, effectively outlaws abortion at six weeks — before most patients even know they're pregnant. On Sept. 1, the U.S. Supreme Court chose not to strike down Texas' abortion law in a 5-4 vote along partisan lines.

Abbott has justified the six-week abortion ban by saying that "our creator endowed us with the right to life." But Catholic activists say Abbott's enthusiastic support of the death penalty runs counter to his professed pro-life values.

"This pursuit of state-sanctioned killing contradicts the governor's own pronouncement on the 'right to life' and tarnishes his pro-life rationale," Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, said in a statement.

She added, "Pro-life values are meaningless when they are inconsistent."

Texas leads the nation in executions, due in part to Abbott's own avid support for the death penalty. While running for governor, Abbott branded himself as a tough-on-crime, law-and-order attorney general who vigorously pursued executions.

Chris Castillo, who works for the Diocese of Beaumont, strongly opposes Abbott's view of "Texas justice." In 1991, Castillo lost his mother to homicide. But through years of advocacy with the restorative justice group Bridges To Life, which brought him into prisons to talk with people behind bars, he became a death penalty abolitionist and forgave his mother's killers.

"I agree with him that life should be protected at all costs, but I believe that all life should be protected at all costs," Castillo told the American Independent Foundation. "I don't agree with his view on the death penalty, and I think that he's not following the edict of the Catholic Church."

Castillo said it pains him to watch Abbott condemn people to death, and added that Texas' spate of executions — four more of which are scheduled for 2021 — only works to continue a destructive cycle of hatred and violence.

"We all make mistakes, and I believe God gives us a second chance, and the establishment should give us a second chance as well," Castillo said. "We should be in a rehabilitative state, not in a retribution state."

Since becoming governor in 2015, Abbott has only granted clemency to one inmate facing the death penalty. In 2018, Abbott decided to spare the life of Thomas "Bart" Whitaker, who was convicted of killing his mother and brother in 2003, after the state parole board recommended clemency. Whitaker's father, who survived the shooting, pleaded for his son's life.

In 2011, Abbott barred the state forensic board from investigating evidence that advocates believe could have exonerated Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for arson.

After the 2019 El Paso shooting that left 23 people dead, Abbott said he was working on a legislative package — not to limit potential mass shooters' access to deadly weapons, but to speed up their executions after the fact.

"Expedited executions for mass murderers would be a nice addition," he tweeted at the time.

Abbott is a practicing Roman Catholic and has defended his views even though they are out of step with present-day Catholic beliefs.

"Catholic doctrine is not against the death penalty, and so there is no conflict there," Abbott told the San Antonio Express-News Editorial Board in 2014.

He added, "The difference, of course, is one between innocent life and those who have taken innocent lives."

Pope Francis himself has rejected this line of argument. In 2018, he called the death penalty "inadmissible" and said the "dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.