The debate about torture seems to be the hot topic amongst Catholics these days, at least Catholics who have a somewhat large following at their internet sites. All of this is brought to the fore, of course, because of the various acts of torture, or flirtations therewith, that have come out of the United-States’ war in Iraq. Unfortunately, the debate to date has been very heated, with relatively little light being shed on the subject. And I don’t presume to have much light to shed myself. I am simply framing my thoughts on the matter. And really, when it comes to it, the debate seems to be framed around two separate fronts: 1) ecclesiastical, and 2) practical. Of course, those two terms are not really separate, but they constitute two words from which a discussion of the issue may proceed.

From the ecclesiastical perspective, the main scope of the debate circles around the tension that is felt between the Church’s current unambiguous teaching on the intrinsic immorality of torture and the Church’s past sanctioning of torture. The Church’s current teaching about the immorality of torture is quite clear:

Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object”.131 The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: “Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator”.

This paragraph, Veritatis Splendor 80, makes very clear what the Church’s current teaching is. Namely, “physical and mental torture” is “always” “intrinsically evil”. Period. End of story. There is no getting around it. However, this teaching quite rightly raises some difficult questions, given the fact that the Church has at various times in her past, sanctioned the use of torture to (e.g.) extract confessions from certain persons. It seems that there are two possible solutions to this problem for the faithful Catholic. The first is that in sanctioning these acts, the Church past was not definitively teaching the liceity of acts of torture, but rather prudentially endorsing the practice of torture as means of defending the common good. In this view, the Church past was guilty of a heinous misjudgment, and over time, came to better understand the intrinsically evil nature of the acts she had previously sanctioned, and thus came to repudiate those sanctions. The second possible solution to the tension between the Church’s current and past positions is that those acts that the Church has previously sanctioned somehow fall outside of the scope of the acts of torture defined by Veritatis Splendor as being “intrinsically evil”. Of these two possible options, it would seem that Church, in her catechism, favors the first one:

In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors. (CCC 2298)

From the above paragraph from the catechism, it would appear that the Church interprets her past actions as a misplaced attempt to protect the common good, which, in time, she has come to repudiate. In any case, in neither of the two proposed answers to the tension is the Church’s doctrine of infallibility called into question. And this, I think, is the point to remember. The Church’s Magisterium is certainly more aware than anyone else of her teachings on infallibility and also of her past and present positions on torture. It is, I think, pure condescension to think that we, the Vocal Comboxers of the Catholic Internet, have a better grasp of the tension than the Magisterium. We may not have a detailed outline of how the Magisterium herself reconciles past actions and present teachings, and it is, in fact, possible that the Magisterium herself hasn’t yet worked out the finer details, leaving that to the work of theologians. But, we can be sure that the Magisterium is as aware of the basic facts as we are, and is quite content that she has not in any way vitiated her teaching on infallibility.

I will add one further note on the ecclesiastical side of this discussion, on the issue of whether the teaching in Veritatis Splendor is infallible. And my hope is to thereby, completely take it out of the discussion. Because, in reality, it is a non-issue. Whether or not the teaching is infallible is of no consequence to the “docility” (cf. CCC 87, 2037) that Holy Mother Church is owed by her children when teaching on faith and morals. The current teaching of the Church on torture is crystal clear, and is owed our docility. The only thing that is murky about it how the Church’s past actions are then to be understood. Questions about the infallibility of the current teaching on torture are a canard.

So far, then, we have established that the Church clearly teaches that torture is intrinsically evil. And furthermore, we have seen that the Church’s teaching, whatever explanation you choose, does not in any way vitiate her teaching on infallibility. So far so good. We can all take a deep breath and relax. The real question then becomes, how is the Church’s teaching that torture is intrinsically evil to be applied to the current situation involving the United States. More succinctly, the question is, what is torture? Here the Church doesn’t say all that much:

Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity. (CCC 2297)

Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely. (CCC 2313)

It may be that, as the need arises (and maybe we are now seeing the tip of the iceberg of that need), the Church will more clearly define what specifically constitutes torture. In doing so, she would no doubt rely a great deal on the expertise of those who have traditionally prohibited certain acts with regards to prisoners. So, in the meantime, those types of Army Field Manuals etc. may be a good place to start to get an idea of the types of actions that have traditionally been considered torture, and thus intrinsically evil, and thus never to be carried out under any “circumstance”. Remembering, though, that such lists can never be exhaustive. The human heart has a manifold capacity for devising acts of inhumanity, as the 20th century quite obviously attests. This is one more reason that the Church may not, in fact, more clearly define what is and what is not torture, for fear of creating a list of actions that can quite easily be circumvented. In fact, the Church’s injunction against “physical or moral violence” may be the wisest thing she can say on the subject, effectively communicating reason to those who have ears to hear. It’s not about a list of things you can or can’t do. Rather, it’s about loving your neighbor.

And that’s where the Church’s plea that prisoners be “respected and treated humanely” comes in. That is the standard. Do unto others as you would have done to you. Don’t try to come up with a list of what interrogators can and cannot get away with. Rather show them respect and treat them humanely. This is what the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to.


~ by Rob on October 26, 2006.

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