Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Torturesome Debate on Torture

A reader emailed me the following question, and I cringed when I read it:
As a member of a military family I'm concerned about the issue of torturing enemy combatants, could you please tell me whether it is a sin or not.
Allow me to explain. I used to think that this was an open-and-shut case: torture is wrong. After all, the Church seems rather clear on this point:
  • CCC 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."
  • 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."
  • Veritatis Splendour: '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'.132
But, after diving into the extensive debate that took place in the Catholic blogosphere about the legitimacy of torture a couple of years back, I see now that it is oh-so-much more complicated than that. I tried today to come to my own conclusion on this matter and I simply was not able to. Maybe I need more time to read and digest all of the arguments. Maybe I don't know enough about moral theology to ever figure this one out. I don't know. The only thing I know right now is that I don't know. So, that's my answer.

I don't know.

And that is why I cringe. I would like to be of more help here, but I simply can't. The best I can do is provide the posts that comprised the debate. Start first with two articles: this one by Fr. Brian Harrison, which concludes that torture may be acceptible in some circumstances, and this one by Mark Shea, which concludes that torture is always morally objectionable.

Next, see the following posts from Against the Grain that attempt to compile all of the arguments that were made in the debate. Read them in this order:
  1. On Torture, "Aggressive Interrogation" and the Military Commissions Act of 2006
  2. The Torture Debate: Part II
  3. The Torture Debate: Part III
  4. The Torture Debate: Part IV
  5. So What Do I Think about Torture?
  6. Mark Shea, Jimmy Akin, Fr. Harrison and the "Torture Debate"
That outlines the extent of the debate up to Nov. 14, 2006.

For posts in the debate after that time, see the following from Jimmy Akin, Mark Shea, and Zippy Catholic:

Jimmy Akin:
  1. Nov. 27: Torture Day
  2. Nov. 27: Defining Torture: Two Parameters
  3. Nov. 27: Defining Torture: An Initial Exploration
  4. Nov. 27: Defining Torture: Proposing a Definition
  5. Nov. 27: Defining Torture: One More Thought
  6. Nov. 29: Tormenta Corpori Mentive Inflicta
  7. Dec. 2: All Is Forgiven!
  8. Dec. 6: Making Torture Discussions Less Torturous
It doesn't appear that he has posted anything more about it.

Mark Shea:
  1. Nov. 28: Jimmy Akin and Torture
  2. Nov. 30: Argh! No Time!
  3. Dec. 2: You Said It, Brother!
  4. Dec 13: Why I've Spent So Much Time on Bush's (and Defenders) Atrocious Attempts to Justify Prisoner Abuse
Mark Shea doesn't seem to have written anything more about it either.

Zippy Catholic:
  1. Nov. 14: Outsourcing Torture
  2. Nov. 17: Content=Object, Motivation=Intent
  3. Nov. 18: Choosing that Another Person Will Suffer
  4. Dec. 1: Differences in Kind
  5. Dec. 3: Another Heuristic
  6. Dec. 5: The Object of an Act of Torture
  7. Dec. 6: Proportionalism's Lex Orandi
  8. Dec. 7: The Lesser of One Evil
As far as I can tell, Zippy's posts on this topic stop there. Zippy and Mark hold that torture is intrinsically evil (thus in no circumstance is it permissible) while Jimmy and Christopher Blosser (from Against the Grain) hold that it is not intrinsically evil, thus permitted in some circumstances, however limited those may be.

I hope that all of this will be of help to someone.

Pax Christi,


  1. It's so simple, just ask. Would Jesus torture? No, he would love and try to change peoples arguments and actions with words of love.

    Spread love & beauty,
    La Milagrossa

  2. Have you read Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose"? An interesting (and chilling) presentation of torture at the hands of an Inquisitor (written by a faithful Catholic, too).

  3. Rebecca, welcome to my blog! I haven't read that yet. Sounds interesting indeed.


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