Debate over the death penalty and a proposal to reinstate a firing squad in Utah "seems to suggest growing recognition among legislators of the precarious place any state occupies when it tries to take on a role best left to God," said Bishop John C. Wester.
"At its core, the death penalty is repugnant to us because of our firmly held belief that only God can give life and, consequently, only God can rightly take it away," the Salt Lake City bishop wrote in the Intermountain Catholic, the diocesan newspaper.
He made the comments in the Feb. 27 issue of the paper. On March 10, the state Senate passed a measure to reinstate execution by firing squad for those convicted of capital crimes. The state House passed it in February.
Utah's lawmakers argued they needed a backup method of capital punishment if the drugs used in lethal injection are not available. There is a shortage of lethal drugs for executions and their use in carrying out the death penalty has become more controversial after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma; he writhed in pain for 40 minutes before dying of apparent heart failure.
In April, the U.S. Supreme Court will heard oral arguments in Glossip v. Gross, a case brought by four death-row inmates in Oklahoma. On March 9, the court said it would take a Florida case challenging the state's protocol for handing down a death penalty sentence.
Currently, the 32 states that have the death penalty use lethal injections and many are looking at new methods for carrying it out. Utah would become the only state to allow firing squads if Republican Gov. Gary Herbert signs the measure into law. He has not said if he will sign it.
"The death penalty in any form is abhorrent," Bishop Wester said, but with regard to the firing squad method, "strapping a person to a chair with a hood over his head and a bull's eye on his heart creates a disturbing image of the individual as little more than a target at a shooting range."
"Our Catholic faith rests on a belief that every life is a gift, and every moment of life is an opportunity for God to work within each of us," he said.
But if the state can choose to take life, "we give the state the power to shut down God's acts of grace within an individual," he continued. "God does not abandon even the most violent criminal. He offers salvation to everyone at all times, but when the state carries out an execution it terminates the convicted person's opportunity to return to a right relationship with God against God's wishes, thus aborting any chance the person may have had to repent and be forgiven for his or her crime."
Bishop Wester said there is no justification the state can offer "for its continued practice of interfering with God's merciful judgment in order to impose the death penalty for capital crimes."
Writing before the state Senate voted on the firing squad bill, he had expressed hope that given the floor debate over it, it seemed an "opportune time for legislators to discuss the sanctity of life and how it is denigrated by the current state policy of sanctioning the killing of people as retribution."
He called for the lawmakers to abandon the bill and choose to commission an in-depth study of the death penalty in Utah.
"With a little grace, a close look at the penalty will reveal its many flaws and result in the eventual abolition of the death penalty, returning Utah to the reverence for creation that God intended," Bishop Wester said.