Pointing out the obvious (again) about torture

Pointing out the obvious (again) about torture September 3, 2009

You still encounter from time to time the absurd claim that the Roman Catholic Church has not taught “definitively” whether or not torture is “intrinsically evil,” that is, whether or not it can ever be justified. I encountered that claim tonight in the comboxes of an up and coming right-wing Catholic blog. There was no attempt by the bloggers there to correct that untruth. It’s a baffling claim, as the intrinsic evil of torture has been affirmed both at the level of the “universal” church as well as in the teaching of the u.s. Catholic Bishops. I believe these teachings have been covered and discussed here at Vox Nova before. But it is worth reminding ourselves of the clear teaching on this matter.

The latest version of the u.s. Bishops’ Faithful Citizenship document (PDF) reads:

22. There are some things we must never do, as individuals or as a society, because they are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor. Such actions are so deeply flawed that they are always opposed to the authentic good of persons. These are called “intrinsically evil” actions. They must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned. A prime example is the intentional taking of innocent human life, as in abortion and euthanasia. In our nation, “abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others” (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 5). It is a mistake with grave moral consequences to treat the destruction of innocent human life merely as a matter of individual choice. A legal system that violates the basic right to life on the grounds of choice is fundamentally flawed.

23. Similarly, direct threats to the sanctity and dignity of human life, such as human cloning and destructive research on human embryos, are also intrinsically evil. These must always be opposed. Other direct assaults on innocent human life and violations of human dignity, such as genocide, torture, racism, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, can never be justified.

“But that’s just the u.s. Bishops. Episcopal conferences have no teaching authority.” Not so fast. First of all, they do have teaching authority. Second, this teaching of the u.s. Bishops reflects the teaching of the “universal” Church. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church also states that torture can never be justified, which is precisely the definition of the term “intrinsically evil”:

404. The activity of offices charged with establishing criminal responsibility, which is always personal in character, must strive to be a meticulous search for truth and must be conducted in full respect for the dignity and rights of the human person; this means guaranteeing the rights of the guilty as well as those of the innocent. The juridical principle by which punishment cannot be inflicted if a crime has not first been proven must be borne in mind.

In carrying out investigations, the regulation against the use of torture, even in the case of serious crimes, must be strictly observed: “Christ’s disciple refuses every recourse to such methods, which nothing could justify and in which the dignity of man is as much debased in his torturer as in the torturer’s victim”. International juridical instruments concerning human rights correctly indicate a prohibition against torture as a principle which cannot be contravened under any circumstances.

Likewise ruled out is “the use of detention for the sole purpose of trying to obtain significant information for the trial”. Moreover, it must be ensured that “trials are conducted swiftly: their excessive length is becoming intolerable for citizens and results in a real injustice”.

I’m not saying that we can’t talk about the accuracy of various church teachings. But to claim that the church doesn’t teach that torture is intrinsically evil is simply not true.

__________

UPDATE: Matt Talbot reminded us in the combox that Veritatis Splendor, which in turn cites Gaudium et Spes, also cites torture as intrinsically evil:

80. 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”. 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”.

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  • I for one have never said that the Church has waffled on torture.

    As I’ve seen/read the debate on right-of-center political websites, the debate is what about constitutes torture, not whether torture is moral or not.

    But of course there are some Machiavellians on both sides of the aisle who make everyone look bad. I see no reason to restrict your criticism to Catholics whose politics are right-of-center.

  • Michael
    What your opposition at different sites might mean is that the condemnation of torture is not infallible.
    The word “definitive” is often used in CDF and other documents to mean extremely authoritative (the CDF used it concerning birth control…but neither they nor any Pope has used the word “infallible” about birth control matters even though others…like theologians in their own view have as an opinion not having jurisdiction). Abortion is a moral issue that is infallibly settled as Lawrence Welch pointed out in “Theological Studies” since in Evangelium Vitae, John Paul had polled all the world’s bishops on it and euthanasia….and such unanimity allows a Pope to declare infallibly without using ex cathedra. So infallibility has been used on abortion and euthanasia but not on torture which as Brian Harrison has shown was once condemned in the 9th century by one Pope and then brought back in 1252 by another and used in eccleisatical courts for centuries. Currently Vatican II and section 80 of “Splendor of the Truth” condemn it but neither with infallibility.
    Both both also condemned slavery as intrinsically evil and God enjoins it in its chattel form on the Jews vis a vis foreigners in Leviticus 25:44-46. Ergo John Paul erred in using “intrinsically evil” when it is contextually evil when modern economies provide alternatives. I believe he also erred on torture but regardless….he was not using infallibility though the word “definitive” might be used by some documents since it is less than infallible. The Old Testament says: “Evil is driven out with bloody lashes and a scourging to the inmost being”…unless this is only and simply a veiled prediction of Christ, then it is more probably some type of torture endorsement of some degree. But against taking it simply as veiled prophecy is the OT also saying: Pro 19:29 “Judgments are prepared for scorners, and stripes for the back of fools.”….Pro 26:3 “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool’s back.”

  • As I’ve seen/read the debate on right-of-center political websites, the debate is what about constitutes torture, not whether torture is moral or not.

    That may very well be the case but what I saw yesterday, and have seen many times, is the claim that the Church has not taught definitely that torture is intrinsically evil.

    I see no reason to restrict your criticism to Catholics whose politics are right-of-center.

    I don’t restrict my criticism to those on the right. Bear in mind though that in this post I am discussing a specific issue. That should be obvious. Maybe it’s not.

  • phosphorious

    As I’ve seen/read the debate on right-of-center political websites, the debate is what about constitutes torture, not whether torture is moral or not.

    Because the true catholic debate concerns how much pain you can inflict and still go to heaven.

  • Because the true catholic debate concerns how much pain you can inflict and still go to heaven.

    That’s exactly what it seems like. What-Can-I-Get-Away-With Catholicism.

  • phosphorious

    So infallibility has been used on abortion and euthanasia but not on torture

    That’s a relief, because last I heard a majority of Catholics were in favor of torture. Good to know they’re not seriously wrong.

  • Phosphorious,
    If a relative of mine lay dying in the woods and the captured kidnapper would not disclose where that relative of mine was dying slowly, I would hope the police would close the door and torture it out of him with pain not damage at first…since one is using pain which is temporary to save a life. The Catholic magisterium including every Pope in the past 4 decades has not proved to be masters of protecting its own boys and teens…finally the secular press did that. My relatives’ lives will never depend on any statement from Rome unless it is done with infallibility…expecially such statements that seem to not even know the scriptures involved on the topic.

  • Great post, Michael.

  • This seems to be a pertinent passage on torture from Gaudium et Spes:

    “Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.”

    Perhaps the core meaning of torture is:

    ” … whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself;”

  • David Gamaliel

    Bill Bannon: “I would hope the police would close the door and torture it out of him with pain not damage at first…since one is using pain which is temporary to save a life.”

    It might be more informative for us to understand your position, Bill, if you could say whether you would be willing to “torture it out of him with pain not damage at first,” yourself? Why leave it to the police to do your dirty work?

    Frankly, I’m horrified by your utilitarian ends-justifies-the-torture thinking.

  • Frankly, I’m horrified by your utilitarian ends-justifies-the-torture thinking.

    Yes.

  • Matt Talbot

    Bill –

    1. Traditional interrogation methods are more effective than torture methods at extracting useful information;

    2. Even if “1” weren’t true (but it has been pretty conclusively demonstrated that it is), you still can’t torture people, because it is never licit to use evil means to achieve good ends.

  • Matt Talbot

    Bill –

    1. Traditional interrogation methods are more effective than torture methods at extracting useful information;

    2. Even if “1” weren’t true (but it has been pretty conclusively demonstrated that it is), you still can’t torture people, because it is never licit to use evil means to achieve good ends.

  • David,
    So in the identical case, you would demand that the police not hurt the man and you would accept your relative…let’s say little daughter… dying so that the felon would not have the same pain some of us home chefs had when we sliced part of our finger tip off with a kitchen mandolin (which by the way hurts for several weeks…and yet I lived to cook again)?

  • So in the identical case, you would demand that the police not hurt the man and you would accept your relative…let’s say little daughter… dying so that the felon would not have the same pain some of us home chefs had when we sliced part of our finger tip off with a kitchen mandolin (which by the way hurts for several weeks…and yet I lived to cook again)?

    Hypotheticals are always fun (and usually stupid), but need it be pointed out to you that just because you would feel like taking a particular course of action to deal with a situation does not make what you would “feel like” doing right? How old are you?

  • Michael
    Answer the question. Would you let your daughter die rather than the felon feel pain equal to some kitchen accidents….but maybe several times? I’ll answer David’s question: if the police let me, I would do the action needed.

  • Ah – The point at which the hypothetical becomes stupid has arrived. Thanks for not disappointing me.

  • Michael
    You are avoiding giving an answer because your common sense agrees with me. You’d have to be insane to prefer a felon’s avoiding temporary pain rather than your daughter living the entire life she was meant to. The Church used light torture for centuries….suddenly one generation and one Pope implies that the Church was thus using intrinsic evil for centuries and no one sees the problem around the issue of the Holy Spirit being very absent for those centuries.

  • Bill –

    1) I gave you an answer.

    2) If evidence of the presence of sinfulness on the level of the Church’s hierarchy means that the Holy Spirit has been absent at those times, then we’re screwed, no?

  • Matt Talbot

    Bill – Using a non-torture example: If Cindy Crawford materialized naked in my bed at home, I can’t say with 100% certainty that I would not commit fornication. Me saying that doesn’t undermine any case against fornication I might make. People – me, for example – are weak and sinful.

  • Matt Talbot

    Bill – Using a non-torture example: If Cindy Crawford materialized naked in my bed at home, I can’t say with 100% certainty that I would not commit fornication. Me saying that doesn’t undermine any case against fornication I might make. People – me, for example – are weak and sinful.

  • Michael
    You did not commit yourself to the specific question about your daughter dying so that a felon might have painless fingers and mind.
    What you and many good people are really worried about is not him but innocent soldiers from either side being tortured in war. My hypothetical threw you off because my felon is guilty and has told the police that he won’t tell where my or your daughter is dying. The Pope should have thought of more hypotheticals before sharing his thoughts on this which the Church used for longer than his encyclical will be remembered. He expressed disgust for some of the violence in the Old Testament in section 40 of Evangelium Vitae. That’s not a good sign and he would have looked down on this: Pro 26:3 “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool’s back.”….were he consistent and asked about it.

  • Matt
    That’s an excellent point about fornication but the reason it does not apply here is that there is scripture and tradition backing a certain time and place for limited torture which may not ever be in war situations by the way wherein soldiers are most often innocent. But in cases of terrorism and criminality where innocence is not present, there is a place at times.

  • Your hypothetical did not throw me off.

    I think guilty people deserve mercy. You do not. That’s a fundamental difference.

  • bill – It has become clear that you are not a very serious person. Thank you for participating.

  • Michael
    Guilty people do not deserve physical mercy at the moment in which they are letting your daughter die in the woods. They deserve our spiritual mercy even then as to willing their salvation but at that moment that your daughter is dying, they do not deserve physical mercy or ease until they divulge where your daughter is.

  • phosphorious

    I love hypotheticals! Here’s my favorite:

    The kidnapper knows where your daughter is, and the only way you’ll get him to talk is to threaten to abort his own child; his pregant wife has been detained for this purpose.

    The clock is ticking. . . your daughter is dying. . . what do you do. . . ?

  • Hypotheticals are mere abstractions. Prudential judgments are concrete.

    It seems the only value to hypotheticals is to get people to own up to their assumptions, which are also abstract.

  • Matt Talbot

    Bill – torture is intrinsically evil, and can’t be justified; the Church is clear on this.

    Gaudium et Spes:

    Furthermore . . . whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as . . . torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself . . . all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.

    John Paul II, in Veritatis Splendor (80) described torture as one of a number of “intrinsically evil acts.”

    One is morally obligated to use moral means to achieve moral ends, no matter how tempted one is by circumstances.

  • Matt Talbot

    Bill – torture is intrinsically evil, and can’t be justified; the Church is clear on this.

    Gaudium et Spes:

    Furthermore . . . whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as . . . torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself . . . all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.

    John Paul II, in Veritatis Splendor (80) described torture as one of a number of “intrinsically evil acts.”

    One is morally obligated to use moral means to achieve moral ends, no matter how tempted one is by circumstances.

  • Matt
    Read my initial post which addressed both your sources.

  • I forgot about Veritatis Splendor. Thanks!

  • Matt Talbot

    Bill – you seem determined to justify torture. Nowhere in Sacred Tradition is the proposition “torture is ok” or anything within a hundred miles of that solemnly defined as correct.

  • Matt Talbot

    Bill – you seem determined to justify torture. Nowhere in Sacred Tradition is the proposition “torture is ok” or anything within a hundred miles of that solemnly defined as correct.

  • Liam

    The tradition not only has a proscription against torture but a prescription of humane treatment of prisoners. Too many people conveniently forget that.

  • Liam,
    For actual tradition rather than what you are imagining with good will but no knowledge, google “Brian Harrison Roman Forum Torture”.

  • Matt
    As my first post stated: it is not the subject of a solemn definition either way…for or against. And there are Scriptures that support some form of it which I have given twice now.

  • Bill – No one has ever argued here that torture has been the subject of a “solemn definition,” i.e. an infallible statement.

    The scriptures also tell you to love your enemies. How does that give with your hypothetical and your own willingness of torture a person with your own hands? Ah, right, the pernicious dualism of “spiritual” and “physical” mercy. You can “love” someone by torturing them. I think it would be better to be an atheist than to adhere to that kind of religion.

  • Michael
    Jerome noted that the Bible has antilogies…apparent contradictions which are only apparent and you are incorrectly interpreting at least one if you see them as really contradicting each other.

    Christ said to shun the person you warn three times….Mat 18:17 “And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell [it] unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.”
    Yet he wills us always to love that same person as intercessors for their salvation or to help them in dire straits…and yet shun them in some sense.

  • Matt Talbot

    Bill, as Mark Shea has said:

    One of the functions of the Magisterium in developing the Tradition is to help us distinguish the deposit of faith from old sin. Hostility to Jews is very ancient, but not part of the deposit of faith. Acceptance of torture and slavery are similar. The Church put up with it while laboring to destroy it.

  • Matt Talbot

    Bill, as Mark Shea has said:

    One of the functions of the Magisterium in developing the Tradition is to help us distinguish the deposit of faith from old sin. Hostility to Jews is very ancient, but not part of the deposit of faith. Acceptance of torture and slavery are similar. The Church put up with it while laboring to destroy it.

  • Liam

    Bill

    I’ve read Fr Harrison’s work on the subject. It’s too clever by half and not trustworthy.

  • Matt
    Slavery though is not intrinsically evil but contextally evil when there are alternatives; and God gave chattel perpetual slavery in a nomadic period to the Jews in Leviticus 25:44-46 over foreigners and I leave it to you after you leave this earth to correct Him on that. I don’t envy your task at that point. Here is His words: Leviticus 25:44
    “Slaves, male and female, you may indeed possess, provided you buy them from among the neighboring nations.
    45
    You may also buy them from among the aliens who reside with you and from their children who are born and reared in your land. Such slaves you may own as chattels,
    46
    and leave to your sons as their hereditary property, making them perpetual slaves. But you shall not lord it harshly over any of the Israelites, your kinsmen.”

    Good luck instructing God on development away from what He gave the Jews… as He is in the process of judging you. Apparently John Paul was not into Leviticus either.

    Development is a positive reality (like overcoming contextually evil slavery recently) unless Scripture is being contradicted which it is in this case of torture which Proverbs affirms in some nascent sense while not speaking of dismemberment etc. And thus God does affirm it too unless one has a very secular understanding of inspiration that has God absent from His verses in detail which is refuted by the Vatican II which you honor (see Dei Verbum…”both testaments in all their parts have God as their author”).
    The Reformers were incorrect on so many doctrines and they spread divorce over all the Western world to their great shame. But they were correct on being suspicious of our neglect of Scripture (a typical Catholic at death will have read thousands of pages of novels and newspapers etc and not have read the Bible cover to cover). The Papal interpretation of the two swords of the disciples in “Unam Sanctam” is ludicrous and led to a lot of things that would make you sick like the slavery and theft license to Portugal in “Romanus Pontifex” of 1454 and of “Dum Diversus” of 1452. Noonan in his most recent book has shown that one Pope’s take on Luke (“lend, hoping nothing in return”) helped to lead to centuries of mistakes on simple interest on a loan with Catholics denouncing other Catholics (e.g. St. Bernadine versus Siena’s laity: man woman and child) as mortal sinners for something that is now done by all and done by the Church.

    Cut to the chase: John Paul, eminently a failure in security matters regarding our own children (his first ten years had roughly the 500 allegations from the US that the ten years prior to him ascending the papacy had) is not the person to evade the torture passages of Proverbs and be trusted in doing so. Frankly, I don’t think he even knew them nor did he mention once in “Evangelium Vitae” Romans 13:3-4 when he spoke of the death penalty which centuries of Popes prior to him affirmed as late as 1952 by Pius XII whose generation had modern penology which is supposed to make it unnecessary. Catholic countries are actually in the forefront of murder rate countries with 5 Latin American countries in the top 12 or 11….and we are lecturing the world on the death penalty…literally unbelievable.

  • Matt Talbot

    Where in Proverbs is torture affirmed?

  • Matt Talbot

    Where in Proverbs is torture affirmed?

  • Liam

    Matt

    One might also note that Israel was not a secular modern state, nor were Christian states in pre-modern times; both were theocratic in degrees. No one can even pretend that the various levels of governments of the United States are an arm of God in any way, shape or form the way Israel, Judah and pre-modern Christian states once had color of claim.

  • Slavery is “contextually evil when there are alternatives”? You mean sometimes we have no choice but to own slaves? Really?

  • phosphorious

    You mean sometimes we have no choice but to own slaves? Really?

    There’s a ticking time bomb. . . the terrorist who set it is the only one who knows where it is. . . he will only tell you if you buy one of his slaves. . . what do you do. . . ?

  • Hah!