Many people today (Catholics included) are against Capital Punishment in principle. They say that no-one has the right to take anyone’s life, no matter what they have done. This means that they consider that every human being has the right to life simply because they are a human being. Full stop. Is this correct? Is this Catholic?
If this were true, then it would never be justifiable for anyone to kill another human being. Is this the case? Obviously not; a soldier can kill in a just war; I can kill someone who points a gun at me and threatens to shoot me etc. Therefore, if it is sometimes allowed to kill another human being, the right to life must be limited in some way or other. The problem is: how do we decide when someone no longer has the right to life?
In order to decide this, we have to understand what our human rights are based on. The answer is: human dignity. But, what is human dignity? Human dignity consists in the ability to reach our goal in life by intelligently following God’s Law, natural and supernatural. If we follow the Law, we are faithful to our dignity. If we don’t, we fall away from it, and lose the rights that accompany it. An innocent person is never worthy of punishment; a guilty person is always worthy of punishment.
Imagine a man goes on the rampage with a machine-gun and shoots a coach-load of school-children. Now, imagine that instead a tree falls on the coach and the same number of children are killed. Will we demand that the tree be punished for these deaths? Of course not! But we will demand that the man be punished for them. Why? Because the man is responsible for his actions; the tree is not!
How will we punish this man? Everyone will agree that he should be deprived of his freedom, at least. But, the right to freedom (like the right to life) is a right which is based on human dignity, isn’t it? So, why can we deprive the criminal of it? Because by his crime he has fallen from this dignity and has therefore forfeited his right to freedom. But, if the right to freedom can be forfeited by committing a crime, why can the right to life not also be forfeited for a more serious crime?
The Church teaches that the State has the right to execute criminals for certain very serious crimes because by his crime the criminal has deprived himself of his right to life. However, the Church does not teach that the State always has to exercise this right, but only when it judges that it is necessary to protect the common good of society.
So, Catholics can argue that they don’t think that the death penalty is appropriate in particular circumstances. They cannot, however, argue that the State has no right to inflict the death penalty in any circumstances.