A reader wonders about "forfeiting the right to life"

I wanted to get your opinion on something I encountered recently.  I teach High School Faith Formation at my parish in NC.  Great group of kids & great conversations.  All of these kids have received Confirmation, so attendance is purely voluntary which makes for some great conversations on Sunday morning.  We have an alternating book cycle (we use the Didache series) and are currently on Christian Morality.  Presently, the topic has been capital punishment.

As I understand the Church’s position on capital punishment, bearing in mind that no person can ever be stripped of their dignity as a human person, capital punishment can only be permitted in cases where there is absolutely no other option in order to keep the rest of society safe from the guilty.  It would seem difficult to justify the act in 2013 United States considering our rule of law & prison system (as broken as it may be).

That said, one of the kids referenced – and then brought in – one of their homeschooling text books addressing capital punishment.  It is a notable curriculum and one of a classical background – I would generally be inclined to trust it without question.  That said, it has some comments on capital punishment that I take issue with.  Below is the specific excerpt:

”The state has the right to execute criminals for serious crimes because it must protect the common good.  The right of capital punishment is based on the same principles as the right to a just war or self-defense.  In this case, the government is protecting society from an unjust aggressor.  The argument is sometimes made that if the Catholic Church is to consistently defend the right to life, it must oppose capital punishment.  But the moral issues I the defense of innocent life.  A criminal who has committed a serious crime has forfeited his right to life.  By supporting society’s right to use capital punishment in those cases, the Church is actually continuing its defense of innocent life, protecting it from attack by dangerous criminals.  Of course, the decision to use capital punishment is serious and must not be lightly made.  But society does have the right to use the ultimate punishment.”

My issue is primarily w/ the line “A criminal who has committed a serious crime has forfeited his right to life.”  I have problems with this on a number of levels.

First, is it even possible for a person to forfeit their right to life?  That seems inseparable with the dignity of the human person.  Either way, even the founding fathers of the US recognized that the right to life is granted only God – not the state.  It would seem rather inconsistent to suggest that the state (or any other arbiter) could make the determination that someone officially made this concession – to give up their right to life.  And even if the right to life could be removed (not even sure God himself would do this), how can we judge that.  Doesn’t it seem that the judgment of someone being a danger to society could much more objective (though possibly still tough to decide) than to judge whether someone has forfeited their right to life?

Second issue is “a criminal who has committed a serious crime.”  That’s it?  Other wording in the excerpt suggests that the safety of innocent life should be factored in – I’ll grant that.  But this bold statement seems to be significantly more focused on justice than on mercy.  Likewise, what is a “serious crime?”  Murder?  Rape?  Not serious enough?  How about murdering 2 people?  Still not “serious enough?”  How about 10 people?  What are the rules that determine what crime is serious enough to warrant someone forfeiting their right to life?  I go back to my same point at the end of the previous objection – it seems a much better defined judgment to go based on a guilty man’s danger to society than to try to determine if their crime is serious enough to justify killing them.

So what’s your take?  I always enjoy reading your blog posts on the Register.  Hoping you can find time to give me something good to use in my next Faith Formation class.

I’m no moral theologian, but I think you have pinned down the two key problems with that statement.  I’m skeptical that we can speak of “forfeiting the right to life”.  I’m even more skeptical of the vagueness of “serious crime”.  And I am even more skeptical of entrusting to the lawless postmodern state the power to say, "You have forfeited the right to life" and giving it the power to kill people.

At this point, this argument is, I think, moot.  The Church will not ratchet back its view of the death penalty, any more than it is going to go back to hesitating about the moral acceptability of chattel slavery. With Evangelium Vitae, the Church has made up its mind: the death penalty is an absolute last ditch approach to protecting innocent human life.  It should not be inflicted except to protect innocent human life.  The notion that, apart from this urgent need, we should take it upon ourselves to kill even the guilty is subordinate to the dignity of the human person—even the human person guilty of grave crimes.

Of course, there remain in our country many moral allies of the governments of such nations as Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia (which still practices  such enlightened forms of capital punishment as crucifixion), North Korea, and the People's Republic off China.  These death penalty champions continue to argue that we ignore the plain teaching of Holy Church on this question.  But the Magisterium is clear: Three popes and virtually all the bishops of the world--including those of the United States--urge the abolition of the death penalty.  We should listen.

And before anybody says it:  no, the death penalty is not intrinsically immoral.  But so what?  Neither is playing in traffic.  Still, it's a bad idea and the Church is right to oppose it.  As Catholics, we are to listen to the Magisterium, not to the ideologies of Right and Left.

So bravo for questioning this text.  My guess is that it was drafted before Evangelium Vitae, though I could be wrong.

God bless your work in the Vineyard.