Firstly, the good (Cath)news:
Apparently His Eminence Cardinal Pell had some involvement in the A.L.P.’s abandonment of its policy unambiguously in favour of a Bill of Rights. This is a most welcome development, and one that invites some reflection on the notion of ‘human rights’.
The Christian acknowledges that everything he has is from God, and recognises that God is entitled, therefore, to impose such duties as might please Him. From these duties we can infer corresponding ‘rights’, e.g., ‘thou shalt not kill’ implies a right to life (with certain qualifications, as I shall examine shortly). But the basis for ‘human rights’ is rather shaky in the secularist world-view. It seems that for the secularist, ‘rights’ are not ‘rights’ as a Christian conceives of them, but that the term in fact has no absolute foundation but is just a convention for referring to some of the agreed implications of the principle that we should all be able to seek pleasure, constrained only by the pain that obtaining our pleasure might inflict on other pleasure-seekers (the harm principle). This, of course, is basically preference utilitarianism, and seems to me to be the only internally coherent (though nonetheless false) atheistic world-view, since humanism, for instance, asserts things like the uniqueness of mankind and ‘man as the end of all things’, which have no basis in the (false) evolutionary world-view, since man is just one species among many, and many of these other species can feel pain too (speaking of pain, that’s why it’s call ‘preference’ utilitarianism, since some people, namely sadists, quite enjoy pain, thankyou very much). Now the harm principle is nonetheless every bit as arbitrary as any humanist principle, but as an ordering principle for society, it has proven quite good (in the U.S.A.) at preventing complete anarchy, by enshrining rights in law. But nonetheless, it is a completely inadequate way to order a Christian society, since some who cannot feel pain enjoy, nonetheless, a right to life (as well as all the rights that the fully sentient enjoy) because of their innate capacity for God—their ontological dignity.
Now for the bad (Cath)news:
We see that Rev. Fr. Frank Brennan S.J. has reiterated his universal, in-principle stand against the death penalty. This goes by the name of the 'seamless garment approach', the idea that abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty and unjust wars are all to be rejected for being anti-life (ignoring the fact that only innocent life has a right to life). It would be regrettable if any readers inferred from this that the Catholic Church has somehow changed Her ancient teaching on the matter, especially if an alleged change were part of a compromise ('we'll oppose the death penalty if you'll oppose abortion') with secularism, meeting it on secularism's terms as so many clerics are keen to do. See Dr. Peter Chojnowski’s essay at the American S.S.P.X. home-page (in the ‘against the sound bites' section, as I recall) for the timeless truth. Now let me be clear that I do not support the death penalty being applied to ‘drug-running’, since it is not in the worst category of crimes and since, as practised in some South-East Asian countries, it treats the destruction of human life as a means to an end, namely deterrence, when it can only ever be taken in this manner as an end in itself, i.e. for justice’s sake.
Now some (many, I suspect) will object that it is not licit to impose the death penalty except when it is impossible for the offender to be prevented from doing more harm. They base this on the relevant section of Evangelium Vitæ. But when one thinks through the situation that His late Holiness John Paul II envisioned, it becomes clear that he made a category mistake. Think about it: we have a criminal who is, purportedly, so psychopathic and violent that it is impossible to restrain him safely, and so he must be executed. So evidence is gathered, the trial is convened, a jury empanelled, witnesses gathered, the jurors have their deliberations and give their verdict, and the judge considers and hands down his sentence. But the criminal was restrained the whole time! All John Paul II was really doing was reiterating the liceity of using lethal force against an unjust aggressor. Capital punishment is not self-defence; it’s a category mistake. The death penalty is to be applied whenever no other combination of imprisonment, corporal punishment and financial penalty can balance the scales of justices. At the very least, then, murderers must receive the death penalty. To deprive a man of his liberty for life (life imprisonment) is an inadequate substitute for depriving him of life itself. To which one might object: that’s an eye for an eye! We’re more civilized than that! But ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ is true in principle, it’s just that if one, say, puts someone else’s eye out intentionally, justice can be satisfied through some combination of imprisonment, corporal punishment and financial penalty; it is not necessary literally to put the offender’s eye out in order to satisfy justice. But no such combination of other non-lethal punishments can ever compensate for the injustice of murder.
One might raise an even more fundamental objection, though: the very conception of justice involved. Many in the legal fraternity will argue that we have ‘outgrown’ retributive justice in favour of the presently-fashionable ‘restorative justice’, in which punishment is only ever a means (and one of a range of means) to one or another of a range of ends (rehabilitation for offenders, closure for victims, deterrence for potential offenders). But the essence of justice is giving to someone what he is owed. If the situation of the ‘scales of justice’ being balanced means a situation where good deeds are properly rewarded and bad deeds are properly punished, then as far as the ‘bad deeds’ side of the ledger is concerned, justice is retribution. Rehabilitation for offenders, closure for victims, deterrence for potential offenders, among others, are all worthy ends, but they are subordinate to justice.