CLARIFICATION BY FR. BRIAN HARRISON, O.S.

Fr. Harrison asks that I post the following:

On this website and elsewhere, my obedience to the Holy Father and overall fidelity to the Church’s magisterium was angrily and extensively called in question last week, following some telephoned comments I gave to the New York Times (February 27, 2010, p. A15). I am therefore very appreciative of the Christian and gentlemanly spirit Mark Shea has now shown in deleting those attacks and posting instead an apology and partial retraction. That struck me as especially fitting in this Lenten season in which we are exhorted to strive for humility, forgiveness and reconciliation.

In my brief response to the Times I expressed support for fellow-Catholic Marc Thiessen’s analysis and evaluation of the carefully defined and limited waterboarding procedure which, some years ago, was approved by US government authorities and applied by the CIA in the interrogation of three confessed Al Qaeda terrorists. In his new book, Courting Disaster, Thiessen argues at length that this precise type of waterboarding (as distinct from other much harsher procedures like those highlighted in the far-from-impartial Wikipedia entry on this topic) does not legally or ethically constitute torture. I did not tell the Times reporter I supported everything Thiessen says in his book; in fact, I had already previously advised the latter in emails that I thought his references to “pacifism” were mistaken, as was the way he used the double effect principle. I also told him I thought his analysis confuses the object and the intention of a given act, as defined in our Catechism, ##1751-1752. Nevertheless, I regard as manifestly unjust the accusation that Thiessen is guilty of “consequentialism” in a sense that would involve dissent from any teachings of the Church’s magisterium.

The central point of my present statement is as follows. A friend has pointed out to me today that in a speech of 6 September 2007 on Catholic prisons ministry, Pope Benedict XVI personally endorsed a statement against torture found in the 2005 Vatican Compendium of the Church’s Social Teaching. Citing article 404 of this document, the Holy Father said, “In this regard, I reiterate that the prohibition against torture ‘cannot be contravened under any circumstances’”.

In my 2005 Living Tradition article on the development of Church teaching regarding torture and corporal punishment (cf. www.rtforum/lt/lt118.html) I had cited and discussed, in my section A13 and footnote 27, this article 404 of the Compendium, which is a publication of the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace. I pointed out then that this and other statements authored by the Commission itself – as distinct from the statements of Popes and Councils which it cites abundantly throughout the Compendium – does not possess magisterial authority; for the various Vatican commissions, unlike the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, are not in themselves arms of the Church’s magisterium (teaching authority).

However, having now become aware that Pope Benedict himself has personally reiterated this particular statement of the Compendium, I wish to state that I accept the Holy Father’s judgement on this matter, and so would not defend any proposal, under any circumstances, to use torture for any purpose whatsoever – not even to gain potentially life-saving information from known terrorists.
As a matter of fact, I never have expressed any positive personal approval of torture for that last-mentioned purpose (and much less for any other purpose). However, Mr. Shea has informed me that on this website many Catholics have attributed this to me in recent years, seeking to support their own willingness to justify the use of torture in the current war against terrorism. No, all I ever said is this: “My understanding would be that, given the present status quaestionis, the moral legitimacy of torture under the aforesaid desperate circumstances, while certainly not affirmed by the magisterium, remains open at present to legitimate discssusion by Catholic theologians.” (That’s the last sentence of the aforesaid Living Tradition essay). As readers can see, I thus abstained from saying which side, if any, I would myself take in any such “legitimate discussion”. (Frankly, I myself was uncertain about that.)

Nobody disputes that the CIA-approved waterboarding was a thoroughly nasty and frightening experience. However, I submit that whether or not it reached the point of torture does remain a seriously disputed question among reasonable and well-informed people. I think anyone who carefully studies with an open mind the available documentation and arguments on both sides, in regard to both the CIA and Navy SERE versions of waterboarding, will admit that ths is true, regardless of which side they personally come down on. Thiessen is not out on a limb of his own here: he can point, for instance, to the carefully considered witness of expert and independent (non-partisan) Justice Department lawyers to back up his contention that the CIA interrogators were not torturers (cf. p. 352). I will add no further comments on the waterboarding question now, except that I certainly intend to devote more study to this and related issues. However this will be my only statement on the matter in this forum. Indeed, I do not normally read this (or any other) blog, mainly because I think disputes in the blogosphere tend to generate more heat than light – especially since they so often involve intemperate, unsubstantiated, anonymous – and therefore cowardly – attacks on persons and reputations. Also, heat is often accompanied by smoke; so I hope that this present clarification of my own position at least clears the air somewhat.

Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D.
Oblates of Wisdom Study Center
Saint Louis, Missouri
March 11, 2010

I will, when I can come up for air on the sundry projects I am drowning in, reply to Fr. Harrison’s note. But for now I want to thank him for clarifying his position and, in particular, for making his views on Pope Benedict’s remarks abundantly clear to all who would dismiss them.

I now re-submerge myself in work. Glub!


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