Friday, May 8, 2009

More on Torture and the Bumbling Catholic Right

Since my colleague Mason has gotten us going on torture, and since the Catholic journalistic world has seen some interesting commentary as of late on the topic, I can't resist summarizing for you a bit what is being said.

First of all, you can't really continue your life without reading what Policraticus has to say in response to the astoundingly absurd article written by David Carlin at Inside Catholic. As long as this passes for argument, Catholic America is surely doomed. I'll offer a too brief summary below of some of Carlin's "arguments:"
Cicero was faced with a choice: Do I break the law, or do I let Catiline and his friends make a coup d’etat? When he saved the republic by breaking the law, he had every reason to believe that he would never face prosecution for his deed. The traditional Roman attitude had been to look the other way when some savior of the city cut legal corners.

Keep in mind, however, that Cicero was a man of high ethical standards. He was one of the most notable moralists of the ancient world: see, for example, his work De Oficiis (On Duties). It is one thing for a good man to feel that he has a license to break the rules; it is something else for a bad man to feel he has that license.
I wish that I could tell you that there is much more to Carlin's argument, but sadly, there isn't. It bears all the marks of the thoughtless and frantic ideology for which he accuses the Left. Policraticus does well to shred this him. Who could actually take seriously such a position in a court of law: "But your honor, I'm a good man, so it's okay." Right. That sounds a lot more like the philosopher Nietzsche than Cicero, and very little like the 2000 years of Catholic moral philosophy influenced, not by Cicero, but by Christ. I'm not sure Carlin wants to go to bed with Raskolnikov on this one.

So leaving that frantic argument aside, why has the Right taken such a relaxed attitude toward torture? I wish that I could say that Carlin is the only one to sound so stupid and offensive. But sadly, it gets worse over at EWTN. If you have not listened to Raymond Arroyo's interview of Father Robert Sirico, you had better go and do so. Try not to choke. Here for example are a few quotes from the interview:

ARROYO: Many people will then come in and say, “Wait a minute, but they’re against torture, and they’re for immigration…” These are all prudential judgments, as opposed to this abortion question…

SIRICO: Which is intrinsically…

ARROYO: …Which is always gravely evil.

SIRICO [simultaneously]: …intrinsically evil.

ARROYO: And how is it defined by the Church?

SIRICO: There’s a difference between something that is intrinsically, by its nature, evil and something that may be problematic, depending on certain circumstances, that requires prudential judgment.

It is astounding to note that apparently both Arroyo and Sirico appear to believe what they say, which is that torture is simply a matter of prudential judgment while abortion is an intrinsically evil action. They speak as if the Church has never spoken on such an issue. One hardly knows what to think. Are they intentionally lying? Are there purposely obfuscating the truth? I can't help but believe that this is the case to some degree.

SIRICO: Waterboarding, which doesn’t sound like very plea– I know that I was threatened with that earlier in the evening… [laughs]
ARROYO: No, I said I wouldn’t waterboard you!
SIRICO: Well, actually I’m from Brooklyn.
SIRICO: Um… My understanding is that a lot of intelligence officers have been through this, if you’ve ever known anybody who’s been in the SEALs, as I have, they have been through sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and other things. So I think you have to make those distinctions. You also have to make a distinction with regard to ethics and morality, and a distinction with regard to legality and effectiveness. You know what I think would be very helpful, is if we took and adapted some principles of the just war theory and applied it to aggressive interrogation techniques. So it would be a matter of the competent authority; it would be a matter of the proportion. I would also add immediacy, because what makes it urgent to resort to real physical agression is whether there’s a ticking bomb, or there’s a kid in storage who’s going to suffocate.
Just to fill you in, yes, they are joking around about waterboarding. And no, that last answer by Sirico is not supposed to make any sense. I challenge anyone to dig a single coherent thought out of there. So again, what is going on? Do we again need to quote Vatican II, the Catechism, and Veritatis Splendor on torture in order to convince Catholics that torture is an intrinsically evil act? Is the fact that the Bishops have themselves said so not enough? We seem happy to listen to them when they talk about Obama at Notre Dame, but not so happy when what they say contradicts a position coming from the Republican party.

Mason already quoted in an earlier post from Vatican II. The Catechism states it in this way:
2297 Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures. They are morally wrong.Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity. 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. Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizationsperformed on innocent persons are against the moral law.
2298 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.

And Veritatis Splendor, paragraph 80 puts it this way:
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 exists acts whichper 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 laborers 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 honor due to the Creator.
Not very ambiguous I would think. Yet many Catholics want to waffle on this issue. Mark Shea writes a good article on why he thinks this to be the case. Based upon an apparent hypothetical postulated by Fr. Harrison about the Catechism and the Geneva Conventions, many Catholics are going around claiming that the use of torture in order to obtain life saving information is a matter of prudential judgment, or is at least an open theological question. And they twist themselves into all kinds of shapes in order to make this argument.

Again, notice the paradox here. When the Bishops say something about Obama going to Notre Dame -- not by any means an intrinsically evil action -- right wing Catholics all agree. When they something very strongly in Faithful Citizenship about torture, another pertinent moral question, these same people turn the other way and argue that this is a matter of prudential judgment and discussion.

This is what the Bishops say about torture:

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.

Why is Obama going to Notre Dame an issue on which many Catholics will listen to their Bishops, but torture is simply a matter for each to decide? Why the double standard? That I don't understand at all. If one is open for discussion, then certainly is the other. If one is not, then certainly the other is not either. Torture is an intrinsically evil action. For all that Fr. Sirico may say about Just War and prudential judgment, an intrinsically evil action can never be justified. Just War theory employs Double Effect, among other principles. But these can never apply to an intrinsically evil action. There is no comparison, and he is just being a bumbling idiot for no reason. Rather, he should clearly and succinctly defend the position of the Church on this issue as I'm sure he does very well on others. Sadly, I can't help but think that partisanship plays too large a part in this debate.

The place of true Catholics then, of those who do not want to become modern day Donatists but want to remain faithful to true Catholic teaching in an increasingly complex American Catholic culture, is to become even more educated about their faith and less closely allied to political parties. This does not mean disengaging from the political sphere. But it means, like Dorothy Day, engaging politics without political affiliations. These affiliations have become bankrupt, and they are getting us nowhere. The only place they are getting us is to a form of Catholicism that we cannot deem acceptable, a Catholicism that smacks of Americanism. Following the directives of the universal Church and walking more deliberately in the footsteps of our Pope and the Bishops in union with him is the only authentic way. And this means reading and hearing what our Pope says above the din of the Republican party and its Catholic cheerleaders:
In this regard, I reiterate that the prohibition against torture “cannot be contravened under any circumstances”
Nathan O'Halloran, SJ


BCatholic said...


Bobadilla said...

Certainly torture is not a prudential judgment: it's evil.

However, what constitutes torture certainly is a matter of prudential judgment. The infamous "Torture Memos" do not say 'go ahead and torture.' They specifically say not to torture, but to engage in aggressive interrogation for the purpose of gaining intelligence and saving lives (not, as the Catechism defines torture, "to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred").

It is clear that some think those techniques constitute torture, but I don't think that therefore they do. But I also don't think they are clearly acceptable either. This is a difficult area where precise distinctions are called for.

Is there any room for aggressive interrogations, or must we treat them all like criminal suspects or perhaps all like POWs? It is fine if that is your view (I would be open to such a claim) but it needs to be argued.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ / Mason Slidell said...


The question of what constitutes torture is of course a very important one. I think many of us would agree that many activities which the CIA engaged in do indeed constitute torture: waterboarding frequently, long term stress positions while forced to stand for days on end. But does sleep deprivation? etc.

I don't think that some guidelines that we have from the Church are as obscure as you indicate though. You try to separate "gaining intelligence and saving lives" as somehow different from "to extract confessions" as Fr. Harrison does. I'm not sure they are so different. How do we know that "to extract confessions" refers only to the narrow idea of pleading guilty to a crime, and not also include the giving of information? To extract a confession just means to confession information, taken broadly. I could be wrong on this.

Also, Vatican II describes "physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit." Again, this is rather broad, and at least on some level seems to include many forms of aggressive techniques. Indeed, if Vatican II is including coercion of the human spirit under torture, which it sort of seems to do here by not separating them by a comma, then the use of coercive methods to extract information at all would be considered torture. Now, we can be petty and say that spanking a child is to "coerce the spirit." So is sending him to the corner till he behaves. But I don't think the Council Fathers intend for this statement to be read separately from "physical and mental torture," or else it does sound silly. Rather, they are describing what constitutes torture on a minimal level. We can decide exactly how much force constitutes torture, but I do think that obtaining information even to save lives could fall under torture, since it is still coercion of the spirit.

Finally, remember what the Compendium says:
"The regulation against the use of torture, even in the case of serious crimes, must be strictly observed. International juridical instructions concerning human rights correctly indicate a prohibition against torture as a principle which cannot be contravened under any circumstances."
It refers us to "international juridical instructions" which I do believe include in the definition of torture the extracting of information to save lives by using painful physical, moral, or psychological techniques.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ