Monday, January 25, 2010

The need to raise Catholic awareness on torture

One of the objections I've heard so far from Catholics regarding the torture debate is this one: abortion is a much graver evil. Innocent unborn children lose their lives to abortion in alarming numbers. More than fifty million children have been killed by abortion since the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down by the Supreme Court. So why discuss torture?

The glib answer is that pro-lifers can do more than one thing. The question, after all, isn't unlike the question which asks why pro-lifers pray outside clinics instead of fighting poverty through community or political activism--the assumption is made that it's not possible to be really pro-life and truly concerned about poverty or injustice at the same time. It's a silly assumption, and I don't wonder that many people brush such assumptions aside with a glib response.

The reality is that many, if not most, Catholics who are against torture are also very pro-life. Speaking for myself, I don't see why concern and care for the unborn, the soul of the woman contemplating abortion, or the souls of those who participate in or condone it is in any way in opposition to or competition with concern and care for the victim of torture, the soul of his abuser(s), or the souls of those who participate in or condone torture on political or any other grounds.

So why focus on torture? I think there's a compelling reason, and it is this: no one can seriously claim to be confused about what the Church teaches about abortion. No one, not even groups like "Catholics for a Free Choice," can pretend that there's a lot of gray area, and that the Church actually means to approve of abortion in some circumstances, etc. What they can do, and proudly claim to do, is dissent from Church teaching. They say, in effect, that they know perfectly well that the Church calls abortion a grave moral evil--they just disagree with that teaching.

However, the same is not true when we're speaking about torture. Many Catholics claim to be confused about what the Church teaches about torture. Many have never seen the passage from Pope John Paul II's encyclical "Veritatis Splendor" which discusses intrinsic evil and lists torture as being among such evils. Many have not seen the passage from the Catechism of the Catholic Church which mentions torture, or any other documents or writings about it.

The lack of education on this particular moral issue has had some grave results. Consider, for instance, this Pew Forum survey of attitudes toward torture by people of various faiths. The question asked was this: "Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?"

Catholics answered this way: 19% replied "often justified," 32% said "sometimes justified," 27% said "rarely justified," and only 20% said "never justified." Think about this--over half of the Catholics asked the question said that torture could often or sometimes be justified if it were being used against suspected terrorists to gain important information--and only 20% said it was never justified, the position the Church takes.

We need to talk about the Church's teaching on torture not to draw attention away from the innocent unborn whose lives must be protected, but to raise awareness among Catholics about this issue. In our understandable zeal to protect the unborn, we shouldn't become complaisant about other moral ills.


  1. It is sad to see someone like Sean P. Daily insulting people on the internet like Mark Shea does. Isn't he the editor of the Gilbert Magazine with Dale Ahlquist? Does Dale also endorse using profanity on the internet? I thought those guys were supposed to be scholarly, not belligerent.

  2. You really need to be careful with issues like these. You are not the Magisterium of the Church. It takes real moral theologians to address the finepoints of moral issues like this one. Real scholars would not handle a moral issue like this one in this fashion. Quoting a few statements from encyclicals or the Catechism does not not give people with no real theological background the tools examine this issue at a serious, mature level.

    These statments give us a general principal as to the immorality of torture. These methods include, extracting confession, punishment, frightneing others or satisfying hatred, etc. But the issue of torture also include some general moral principlas such as the condition of the person involved and the subject who is going to carry out the act. So, if a violent criminal for example, is brought into custody and admits that he has another victim who is still alive detained someplace but he will not give the information to stop the violent crime currently in progress, then according to most Thomostic theologians, the state would have the authority to carry out a reasonable act of force to stop the violent crime in progress. The violent criminal no longer has the right to be treated as an innocent person, but now a confessed guilty person. The state, according to Thomas has the divine right to carry out a proportionate act to stop the violent act which is endangering an innocent person.

    This issue a bit more complicated than this "Coalition" is making it out to be. Yes, the general prinicpal of torture is wrong, and when you quote Pope Benedit, you must realize that he has a working definition of what torure is, probably similar to that defined in the Catechism, which would not address situations like I have given above. Making statements like, "Always remember: saying things like "It all depends on how you define "torture" marks you as a moral imbecile", doesn't cut the mustard among real scholars who debate moral theology within the theological principals well laid out by the Church. I must say, I am not impressed by this mess presented here on this blog. You people are not the clearing house for Catholic theology or for the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Know your place, stick to the basics like Jesus' Real Presence in the Eucharist and things of that nature, and leave the real thologians to defining the fine points of moral theology.

    The Anonymous Thomistic

  3. To Thomistic:

    But our government is no just torturing "self-confessed criminals" into saving the life of a hostage. We are torturing people to get information. People who are in fact innocent.

    It is the duty of lay people to bring moral principles into the public sphere. Also support for torture discredits us when we say that we are pro-life.


  4. Thank you, Vickie. The Anonymous Thomistic doesn't want lay Catholics to speak out on moral issues because in his words, "You are not the Magisterium of the Church. It takes real moral theologians to address the finepoints of moral issues like this one." But then when authoritative pronouncements against torture are made, The Anonymous Thomistic won't listen anyway because *gosh* "it's a bit more complicated than this."

  5. Anonymous Thomistic is essentially right, so far as I understand it, about the approach of St. Thomas and his followers. (My degree is in Philosophy rather than Theology, so I'm open to correction.)

    However, Vickie is also right that he/she misrepresents the situation we are most strongly opposed to. We are talking about a policy of torturing prisoners whose guilt has not been established and whose threat is (at best) remote.

    I would note, also, that professors of theology are no more the magisterium than the laity in the pews. Their authority is based, not on divine revelation, but on personal study and virtue.

    In short, this all seems to reinforce Red's post that real conversation on this topic is useful and necessary.

  6. Anonymous Thomistic is essentially right, so far as I understand it, about the approach of St. Thomas and his followers.

    I don't know about his followers, but St. Thomas would never have held himself up as an authority greater than the Church. And the Church has rejected his teachings on, among other things, the treatment of prisoners.

    Moreover, the Anonymous Thomistic is entirely wrong to suggest that the "general principle as to the immorality of torture" yields to other "general principles" regarding the circumstances. This inverts St. Thomas's teaching (which the Church has adopted as her own) on the primacy of object in determining the moral character of an act.

    "I reiterate that the prohibition against torture 'cannot be contravened under any circumstances.'" -- Pope Benedict XVI

  7. While I'm at it, "Shut up, you," isn't a Thomistic argument, either.

  8. Anonymous Thomist, all due respect, of course, but we're not really debating the finer points of moral theology on torture here, any more than a Catholic pro-life blog is generally going to spend a lot of time discussing the moral options for the removal of an ectopic pregnancy.

    What we're saying is that the Church says to us ordinary layfolk: "Torture is evil. Don't do it. Don't approve of it. Don't consider Jack Bauer a hero, or argue that there's a 'Good guy Americans/enhanced interrogation' exception to the principle that torture is evil."

    Why are we saying this? Because so far a lot of Catholics (esp. here in America) don't accept that much when it comes to torture. Forget scenarios in which a confessed guilty person in the hands of legitimate authority admits that a crime is in progress and refuses to help stop that crime even though it involves significant harm to the innocent etc. as you outline above; we're talking about situations in which agents of dubious authority employ methods of torture against people whose guilt or innocence is completely unknown for the sole purpose of extracting information about which they cannot know the following: whether the victim has this information and whether the information involves some proportionately serious threat of imminent harm to the innocent.

    Would you not agree, from the standpoint of a moral theologian, that such an example clearly involves torture which the Church has defined as evil?

    I'm sorry you see this blog as a mess, but what I see as a mess is the tendency of the laity to use the finer points of moral theology (to the extent they understand them) to provide them with excuses for grave violations of the moral law, ranging from contraception and abortion to torture to whole categories of sexual immorality. Some basic catechesis in these areas on the difference between right and wrong is needed before the average lay person would be able to appreciate an esoteric discussion among moral theologians about, say, whether a milkshake counts as food and thus breaks Ash Wednesday fasting, which according to the priest/theologian who brought it up in a homily, seems to depend on whether a spoon can stand up in the shake, and how thick the spoon has to be...

  9. I never said that my scenario be used to endorse torture as the government carries it out today, did I? The problem I have is that in your other posts, you do not recognize the fact that there are some situations that do not fall under these categories. My point is that you have to be careful how you word things when you deal with serious moral issues like these.

    I also do not care for the insults that you endorse on this blog. Sean. P. Daily going around telling people that they are imbeciles for examining this moral issue closely, is not a demonstration of Catholic piety. We don't need another belligerent Mark Shea going around calling people idiots,imbeciles, and telling people they are giving the Church the finger when they analyze situations like the one I gave above regarding torture. There is no place in serous apologetics for this type of trash talk. It is for this reason that I and many others have completely dismissed Mark Shea and those like him, and will never endorse or invite him to any Catholic parish.

    Anonymous Thomist

  10. Well, I like both Sean and Mark, and am thus far not overwhelmed with fellow-feeling for you; isn't it great that God made so many different personality types? :)

    Seriously, though, plenty of rather holy people have not minced words when talking about evil. Where do we get the idea that our highest priority is to be nice (in the original meaning of the word) in our speech when discussing the kinds of things that can send people to Hell for eternity, I wonder?

    Just curious--are you one of the people who complained about Sean's quote on the Facebook page, too?

  11. The problem I have is that in your other posts, you do not recognize the fact that there are some situations that do not fall under these categories.

    The problem you have is that you do not recognize the fact that the Catholic Church teaches that torture is evil.

    The Church does not teach that some torture is evil and some isn't.

    She doesn't teach that torture is sometimes evil and sometimes not.

    She teaches that all torture is always evil.

  12. Anonymous Thomist:

    Just so's you know: Sean and I are not joined at the hip.

    I expect what Sean had in mind are the people Tom Kreitzberg has in mind here. If you are not the sort of person who still can't figure out whether "torture" means anything after six years, then I would not say you were a moral imbecile.

    If, on the other hand, you find yourself still utterly baffled by the insoluble problem of defining torture (yet are still certain you *know* that waterboarding is not torture even though you are powerless to define torture), then don't expect me to be too choked up by the fact that you are mad at me for pointing out that you are a moral imbecile. Feel free--you and your shadowy regiment of the disaffected--to use your awesome clout at your parishes to persuade the pastor, "Shea is against torture. We don't want one of *those* speaking to our parish."

    Me: I'd give anything to be a mouse in the corner while you fulminate at your priest in that vein. Five'll get you ten that as you do, he's wondering "Who the hell is Mark Shea?" followed closely "Who the hell is this kook who is jabbering about the moral glories of waterboarding? How do I get myself into these things?"

  13. Tom: Indeed, the Angelic Doctor would never put himself at odds with the magisterium. For that matter, the idea of "The State" today bears faint resemblance to that which St. Thomas knew and described.

    In other words, St. Thomas is a great resource for provoking thought, but he is far from the last word - as he himself knew and said.

    Thanks for clarifying.