“Forfeiting the Right to Life”

…is under discussion here.  Among End to Evil types eager to export democracywhiskeysexy to the world at gunpoint, as well as among Death Penalty Maximalists, there is a cherished notion that people they want to kill have “forfeited the right to life”.  The Church’s attitude toward killing is extremely minimalist.  It is legit, when  protecting innocent life, to use deadly force when absolutely necessary.  But it really is  “Only kill if  you absolutely have to.”  What a lot of people in our culture ask is not, “When do I have to kill?” but “When do I get to kill?”  It is to these  latter that the Church is speaking when it discourages war and the death  penalty, while still permitting them under very strict circumstances.  Our attitude to killing should be like our attitude toward amputating our own gangrenous leg with a rusty knife.  In our culture, it is often more like a trembling greyhound, cooped up in the starting pen, itching for a chance at release.  And not a few Catholics bitterly resent the Church putting so many obstacles in the way of our eager lust for death “for the right sort of people, people who have forfeited their right to live.”

Last week on Facebook, I had a reader fantasizing to me about taking abusive priests out back and dispatching them with a single shot to the back of the skull “if I was running things”.  The thought that Christ had died for such men did not even occur to him at first.  When a horrified pall fell over the FB discussion and a number of people shifted awkwardly in their seat and cleared their throats at this naked display of vigilante fantasy violence, it was then suggested that this was, you know, a naked display of vigilante fantasy violence.  The guy quickly tried to patch it up with civil and religious legalism.  “If was running things” was, you see, a way of saying that the vigilante violence would be “legal” since he would be “running things” as an elected official who had changed the laws to *allow* him to take people he really wanted to murder out back and put a bullet through their skull.  And, being a good Catholic, he assured us that the priest would have access to the sacraments before he took him out back and put a bullet through his skull.

You could practically *feel* the gentle mercy of Christ crackling with electric zeal to start rounding up and shooting People We Can Do Without, Who Never Would be Missed.  And golly, when you think about it, there are a lot of people besides that priest who just need killin’.  Our world would be so much better off without them.  And who better than a good Christian to decide–unilaterally–who they should be?  It’s not like the bullets through the skull are being put there for some ignoble purpose like vengeance.  We’re talking about justice here. They’ve forfeited their right to life.

It’s that mindset the Church is addressing.  We are a species with a genius for finding rationales for killing people “for a good purpose.”

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  • Dave G.

    “It is to these latter that the Church is speaking when it discourages war and the death penalty, while still permitting them under very strict circumstances.”

    And when I said that’s the teaching I came to accept, rather than my former pre-Catholic view that the death penalty should never be used no matter what, I was asked why I didn’t care about what the Church taught. Hmmm. Interesting.

  • http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius12/P12PSYCH.HTM


    “Even when it is a question of the execution of a condemned man, the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of the of life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already disposed himself of his right to live.” (33)

    So yes, one can indeed forfeit the right to his own life.

    • Imp the Vladaler

      CCC 2266: “Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.”

      So it’s not inconsistent to say that someone has forfeited his right to life, and that punishment must be ordered towards rehabilitation. The murderer doesn’t deserve to keep his life, but we’re supposed to try to rehabilitate him anyway.

      Because, you know, none of us would want to live in a world where we each got what we deserved, and nothing more.

      Also, that was the funniest attempted use of HTML tags I have ever seen.

      • Andy, Bad Person

        So, what you’re saying is that you got enjoyment out of particular phrase of his comment? Sounds like it worked!

      • It wasn’t an attempt; I was quoting EWTN directly and I guess the disqus software attempted to close the (non-)tag 😉

        The primary end of punishment is not rehabilitation but retribution. That is what punishment must be ordered toward.

        • Andy, Bad Person

          It sounds like you disagree with the Catechism as quoted above.

          • I don’t … I’m disagreeing with Imp’s interpretation of it. “Redressing the disorder” and “correct[ing] the guilty party” refer to retribution, not to rehabilitation.

            • Imp the Vladaler

              I don’t think you’re reading CCC 2266 fairly. Let’s take it apart, shall we?

              “Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. Punishment then…

              That last part, (“punishment then”) is explaining a consequence of the “primary aim” of punishment.

              “…in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.”

              So “correction of the guilty party” flows from the “primary aim” of punishment. Rehabilitation is not secondary. It’s primary.

              • Wrong, the primary end of punishment is retribution. [Indeed, of all the ends of punishment (deterrence, rehabilitation, etc.) retribution is the only one that is guaranteed to occur.] That is what “redressing the disorder” means; it is not referring to the *criminal’s* disorder but the disorder introduced into (a) the universal moral order and (b) *society* as a result of the crime. Now the common good is greater than any private good so retribution must take precedence over rehabilitation.

        • Newp Ort

          No theologian myself, but…

          God’s justice is retribution for sin, I thought. The justice of humans is not God’s, as we don’t have the same perfect knowledge of, means or ends to Justice as He does.

          I could be all wrong, I guess.

        • I keep seeing people asserting retribution as a primary goal of justice or punishment. Where does that idea/tradition come from?

          • Retribution no, repentance yes. But perfect justice *does* require some form of reparation to victims, one way or another. The key is to keep it from being vengeful- or worse yet, vendetta.

    • Dan C

      The teaching now differs and this may suggest the pope is in error. This quote, in the context of a larger work discussing medical experimentation and the limits of rights of the individual and the rights of the government.

      Conservatives, who fear fear fear the State when it is a matter of 1) taxation, 2) gun regulation, 3) industry regulation, 4) limits on economic freedom have no problem ascribing certain powers to the State with a twinkle in their eye and glee in their voice. They manage to dig out the supposedly important statement that is made by a pope in the context of an entirely different argument to support the State sanctioning of the killing.

      I think the unconnected comment of a pope does not provide evidence or perhaps even the Truth of the matter.

      The State cannot remove someone”s right to life.

      • That’s right … the condemned removes his own right to life.

        • Dan C

          No. That is not what is stated and ignores what is the enormously obvious default stance of the magisterium: the State has a lot of authority. It is the State that is supported. Not the individual. Such a role is a unique and libertarianesque view of matters that only the American Catholic makes. The Euro-centric Church, from its days of support of monarchies and now supportive of highly socialized existences (by comparison to American standards) is defaulting to the State taking this away.

          It will be a Herculean effort to cherry pick another quote out of papal writings to suggest the individual has that authority, instead of the State.

          On this you err tremendously.

          • Then Pius XII also erred tremendously in 1952. The condemned does not remove his right to life by conscious choice but by his crime.

            • It is possible. Indeed, when comparing a side-comment in a minor address to repeated explicit magisterial teachings in encyclicals and catechisms, I give more credence to the latter than the former.

  • UAWildcatx2

    Sorry for a relatively wordy post, but I thought I’d bring the Catechism into this discussion.

    “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been
    fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not
    exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way
    of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

    If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect
    people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such
    means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the
    common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.

    Today […]the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” CCC 2267.

    • Dave G.

      That […] is an issue though. Because in that is the following statement:

      Today, [in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself] – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

      • UAWildcatx2

        But see, it really isn’t. But thanks for expanding the ellipses. I probably shouldn’t have used them in the first place. The issue at question is whether the person incarcerated can do any more harm to innocents. With a life sentence, they cannot. What the CCC says is that if the state has the ability to keep the offender from committing any further harm without resorting to the death penalty, then that is the recourse that should be taken.Blessed John Paul II’s “Evangelium Vitae” (ss 56) affirms this when he says, “If bloodless means are sufficient
        to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the
        safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because
        they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are
        more in conformity to the dignity of the human person”

        • Dave G.

          Unless they break out, get out on some fluke, or in some other way kill another inmate (which has happened twice recently in the Toledo pen down the road, and assumes the lives of inmates are also important to us). That’s the issue. I’m not sure there’s any evidence at all that the State is any better at preventing crime than it was 50 years ago. Crime rates might go down, but that’s different than preventing. Saying ‘As long as it’s use when only necessary and someday if the State can prevent crime some other way, we can ban it’, is fine. I’m good with it. But calling for bans now, on the basis of the State being able to prevent crime now, when it’s obvious that it can’t, is an issue. Certainly if we can prevent crime some other way, that way is better. But for me, mercy unless no other way to protect the innocent is the way to go, and the way that impressed me with the Church’s approach to the topic way back when.

          • Imp the Vladaler

            ” But calling for bans now, on the basis of the State being able to prevent crime now, when it’s obvious that it can’t, is an issue.”


            • Dave G.

              Don’t know what that means. Two inmates in the Toledo Correctional institute just in recent months. And a couple years ago, in a small town down from where I live, two escaped inmates went on a crime spree that included killing a local businessman. One eventually confessed to the crime. So again, in light of that, define ‘the State being able to prevent crime now’.

              • Imp the Vladaler

                ADX Florence is the Federal Supermax. Notable inmates include Robert Hanssen, Richard Reid, Zacarias Moussaoui, and Eric Rudolph. No one has escaped from this prison or killed anyone while there.

                The technology exists – and is in use – to prevent inmates from killing again. There’s no longer any reason to resort to capital punishment.

                • Dave G.

                  Explain that to the families of the three I just mentioned. When we get there, of course, then it will make sense. But we’re clearly not there (kudos to ADX by the way) if that’s the reason being given. .

                  • Imp the Vladaler

                    I will gladly explain that had those inmates been imprisoned under supermax conditions, their relatives would still be alive.

                    People can kill in prison. People can kill outside prison. We’re never going to eliminate murder. However, we’re concerned not about the general prison population or society at large. We’re concerned about people who have committed crimes serious enough to put capital punishment on the table. If someone has committed a capital crime, we can render him harmless if we have the will. And the Catechism says that we have to.

                    • Dave G.

                      And someday, when all prisons everywhere have supermax conditions that are proven to prevent all crime, then it’s time to use that logic to ban the DP. Fine. The Church has said, in the Catechism, that it’s because of the State’s new-found ability to prevent crime that we can move to ban the DP altogether. I submit that once the State has demonstrated it’s ability to prevent crime, then we can ban the DP altogether. Until then, we’ll have to either maintain the use, however limited, of the DP, or find a different reason to call for its ban right now.

                    • Imp the Vladaler

                      The number of people who are sentenced to die is already small. Rather than paying the costs of litigating their endless appeals, we could use that money to render them harmless.

                      I submit that once the State has demonstrated it’s ability to prevent crime, then we can ban the DP altogether.

                      This demonstration has been made. If we’re not doing it, it’s because we lack the political will. That’s not an excuse.

                    • Dave G.

                      Again, once we’ve done it in the real and not the theoretical, then we can say ‘the State can now prevent crime’, and move onto the next step. Right now, the most we can say is that our system is so upside down, it hasn’t done what it should, which suggests that same upside down system isn’t ready or able to prevent crime. Someday, maybe. Then, hey, let’s go for it. But as of now, times being what they are, there’s no reason to say the State is any more able to actually prevent crime than it was, until the State is actually preventing it. If the argument is ‘hey, we’ll never be able to stop people from killing’, then the statement about preventing crime, which is the basis for overturning about 2000 years of consistent teaching, is no longer valid. That’s the rub. Find a different reason, or wait until the reason given is actually true in the world we live in, not should be true if everyone does it right.

                    • Imp the Vladaler

                      It’s not theoretical. It’s very real. It’s being done in Supermax prisons.
                      Can you spot the flaws in this argument? “Because the State refuses to do what it’s capable of doing and prevent inmates from murdering, the State can continue to execute prisoners”

                      Do you have children? Suppose you took them to a store with breakables and let them loose. When they inevitably smashed something, and the shopkeeper came to you expecting payment, would it be a defense to say “I theoretically can control them, but I don’t want to put the effort in. Therefore this is not my responsibility.”?

                    • Dave G.

                      And if we weren’t talking about innocent people, or inmates for that matter, who could be killed, then that would work. As it is, the ‘State can really prevent it now all it has to do is get this system in place in all the prisons’ is great news. And as soon as it happens, then we can move to eliminating once and for all the DP, if the reason that we don’t need it is because its only worth is protection and that’s no longer needed. But since we’re talking about innocent life, and we have to figure people killed being more valuable than store items broken, it’s still something we have to maintain until the time that this new approach is implemented across the board. Once it’s in place, great. But again, the life of the not-so-theoretical businessman killed by convicts from a still flawed system is front and center, and means we’re not there yet, and we’re going to have to wait if being there is the main reason we can eliminate the death penalty in the first place.

                    • Rochelle Odom

                      ‘The WHOLE arguement–right there!

                • Do you truly think that keeping inmates in supermax prisons for the rest of their lives is in keeping with human dignity? I fail to see how this is supposed to rehabilitate people.

                  • Imp the Vladaler

                    If it’s the only way to prevent them from murdering guards or other inmates, yes.

                    That doesn’t mean that their cells have to be tiny, that they can’t be given access to educational and entertainment materials, and that they can’t interact with anyone. But absolutely, if someone can only be kept from killing by holding him in severely restricted conditions, that’s what we have to do.

                    • But it isn’t the only way to prevent them … they can be executed. In fact St. Thomas cites this as a reason why the death penalty might be used — it stops the sinner from sinning.

                      Do you really want State or federal governments to be in charge of the entertainment materials given to prisoners? Would allowing a prisoner to view porn really be a mercy? How might that contribute to rehabilitation? (Indeed, if rehabilitation is primary, to what degree can we say that keeping a man imprisoned for the remainder of his life rehabilitates him? If a particular punishment does not rehabilitate, then rehabilitation cannot be primary.)

                    • Imp the Vladaler

                      Would allowing a prisoner to view porn really be a mercy?

                      So our choices for murderers are (a) kill them, or (b) give them as much pornography as they want?

                      Do you consider yourself to be a serious person who thinks ideas out carefully?

                      In fact St. Thomas cites this as a reason why the death penalty might be used — it stops the sinner from sinning.


                    • No, St. Thomas is not infallible — but he is authoritative. Ignore me all you want; ignore St. Thomas at your peril.

                      What type of “entertainment” do you think our secular State will provide to prisoners?

                • entonces_99

                  If the living death of a Supermax prison is the way we can be “effectively defend[] human lives against the unjust aggressor” without resorting to capital punishment, then the cure is truly worse that the disease. Caging someone in a place like that for decades is far more cruel, far more disrespectful of human dignity, than simply hanging him.

                  • chezami

                    Fascinating to hear the rhetoric of euthanasia being trotted out in defense of capital punishment.

                    • entonces_99

                      That might be a valid analogy if the institutions administering euthanasia had themselves caused their patients’ diseases and infirmities.

                  • Imp the Vladaler

                    And yet these prisoners prefer a life sentence in ADX Florence to death. What do they know that you don’t?

                    Anyway, I see no reason why cells have to be tiny or entertainment and education options have to be limited. I’m not saying we have to continue to do Supermax confinement exactly in its present state. My point is that we have the ability to render inmates harmless.

              • Dan C

                That is a matter of competency, diligence, and just how much effort and money one is putting into the penal system.

            • Paul Druce

              Supermax prisons, however, have been condemned by the UN as “inhumane and degrading,” by the NY Bar as “torture under international law” and “cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution.” ADX-Florence is currently subject to a Federal lawsuit complaining of torture and abuse by jailers along with neglect of basic medical and mental health care. Personally, I don’t know how anyone can not only accept but gleefully support prolonged periods of solitary confinement such as Supermax prisons require as just and in keeping with Catholic moral teaching given the tremendous harm to mental health, including suicides, which it causes and which is completely inimical to any idea of rehabilitation.

              • Imp the Vladaler

                As I said below, I’m not convinced that we have to replicate Florence in every way. There’s no reason, for example, that we couldn’t give prisoners bigger cells with more natural light, better food, and more entertainment and educational options. But it does demonstrate that we have the technology to render even the most dangerous criminals harmless.

                • Paul Druce

                  None of those address the issues resulting in severe psychological harm from removing man, a social creature, from all society. It is, perhaps, barbaric to suggest that a man is so dangerous that he must be kept away from all of society, yet claim that it is merciful to keep him lingering for decades in conditions which are guaranteed to produce severe mental illness, starting within just a few days.

                  • Imp the Vladaler

                    I’m sorry, but if you commit certain heinous crimes, you don’t get a chance to rejoin society. But we can try to provide social opportunities within prison, even if that’s necessarily through a fence..

  • Harry

    You mentioned slavery in your column – would you give that as an example of something the Church has reluctantly tolerated but eventually came to see as inherently wrong?

    • Dan C

      It is not clear that the Church reluctantly tolerated slavery at all times. Sometimes it hated it. Sometimes it supported it to its shame. And when it did so, it was in error.

      The Church has supported unjust wars, and the Crusades may be these.

    • Scott W.

      Not all slavery is the same. What is described in the Old Testament was better described as indentures where someone had a just title to someone else’s labor. When it came to chattel slavery–raiding a village and rounding up innocent people and selling them as property, the Church consistently condemned it.

  • Marthe Lépine

    At the risk of being shot (luckily I live in another country), I would hazard to say, after that NRA convention where it has been decided that gun enthusiasts in the US are akin to “freedom fighters”… May I suggest that this thirst for blood and the death penalty could perhaps be linked to the popularity of guns as consumer goods in the US? After all, the US are one of the rare 1st world countries where both these issues remain very hot…

  • CaliKate

    I have a libertarian friend who recently said something similar to this, but it was about meting out swift vigilante justice (i.e., instant death) to the college accomplices of the Boston bomber. (Recall that three college accomplices have been accused of obstructing justice in the Boston bombing case.) I argued that even they deserve a fair trial to determine if the charges are true or false.

    This libertarian friend is not religious as he admits (he leans atheist/agnostic). His thoughts make me wonder if the desire for vigilante justice (i.e., swift death for those we deem guilty) shows our society’s lack of faith in a just Supreme Being and our society’s subsequent lack of belief in an afterlife. As our society becomes more atheistic, it seems the only “justice” left would be instant death/capital punishment.

    Could this also hold true for those who are religious? If someone says they’re christian, yet wants to see swift earthly retribution for those deemed guilty of various crimes, doesn’t that show a lack of faith in God’s divine justice and His power of redemption? (I’m not accusing here, just wondering out loud.)

    • CaliKate

      One additional thought: As our society becomes more atheistic, our Rule of Law breaks down. Our Rule of Law came from a long history of Western thought based on a belief in a Supreme Being and natural law/divine justice.

      • To be exact, Dei Lex became Rex Lex became Lex Rex- and at each stage, we lost more belief in the Supreme Being and in Natural Law. Dei Lex- that law comes from God, was the most religious stage. Rex Lex- that law comes from the King, was significantly less religious, and caused the Protestant Rebellion. Lex Rex- that Law is the King, our modern Rule of Law, is very much separated from either belief in a Supreme Being or natural law/divine justice.

        And it is getting worse, as we are now moving into Judicex Lex- Law enacted by the courts.

        • CaliKate

          Very interesting. Thank you for this explanation.

    • Imp the Vladaler

      I have a libertarian friend who recently said something similar to this


      • CaliKate

        “On the other hand, libertarians believe in the right and occasional necessity to resort to violence for police purposes; to them, if an outright criminal cannot be otherwise made to stop engaging in criminal behavior, then they might justifiably be killed.”


        • Imp the Vladaler

          ,…which is the position of the Church.

        • I still want to know how a society that is able to weld steel and has a million man police force, is unable to stop a criminal whose crime has been proven in a court of law to the point he is unable to reoffend to the end of his natural life.

          Reducing the liberty of the criminal seems entirely sufficient to me, and the ability to weld steel means you can build a completely escape proof cell.

  • Marthe Lépine

    A question just came to mind: What about those poor people who are asking (and even going to the courts for this purpose) for the right to end their own lives (or their “right to death”) because of illness? Ii know that they are wrong and that they really need to be helped to see the value of their lives and their suffering, but could they be considered as having chosen to give up their “right to life”? As: If I give you permission to kill me, am I just choosing to forfeit my right to live? Of course this does not mean that anyone should take them up on it, but I have read that there is at least one clinic in Switzerland that specializes in that. I am asking because there is a chance that a similar argument will eventually rise its ugly head…