Sunday, January 31, 2010

Torturing the grammar

In the comments thread below this post at Creative Minority Report, an argument developed that hinged on a particular point of English grammar.

Specifically, some were objecting that because the Catechism says, "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..." that we have to accept that torture which is not done for these reasons is not necessarily contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity. In other words, torture as interrogation might be fine, because the word "which" restricts "torture" to something which uses physical or moral violence for the specific ends listed, and interrogation isn't one of them.

But, of course, the definitive edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is not written in English; it is written in Latin. Specifically, it says,
"Cruciatus, qui physica vel morali utitur violentia ad confessiones extorquendas, ad culpabiles puniendos, ad adversarios terrendos, ad odium satiandum, observantiae personae et dignitati humanae est contrarius."

Since I am in no way a Latin scholar, I turned to someone who is: my friend Magister Chrisitianus, who writes the supremely excellent blog Bedlam or Parnassus. His wonderfully clear explanation of what we are to make of the Latin word "qui" and its punctuation follows:

First of all, the Latin relative pronoun "qui" can be translated either "which" or "that," or even "who." In other words, it can be translated using any of the English relative pronouns. The distinction between "which" and "that" in English is twofold. First of all, "which" can only apply to things, whereas "that" can apply to both people and things. Example:

The man whom I saw is the president.
The man that I saw is the president.
The rock that I saw is pretty.
The rock which I saw is pretty.

Secondly, although it is a distinction not made much any more, "which" used to be reserved for non-essential information, and "that" for essential information. Example:

Scenario A: There were rocks and pebbles scattered all over the kitchen. They were on the floor, on the chairs, and on the counter. The rock that was on the table, however, Billy had decided was the shiniest, and it was this that he was carefully wrapping as present for Mommy.

Scenario B: The room was empty, save for a table. There was no other furniture and no sign that anyone has been in the apartment in a long time. A gleam suddenly caught the detective's eye. A shiny rock, which was on the table, had caught the beam of his flashlight.

In Scenario A, there are rocks all over the place, so the information about one rock being on the table is essential. It distinguishes the rock from all others, thus I used the pronoun "that" and no commas. In Scenario B, it is not necessary to distinguish the rock as being on the table, for it was already established that there was nothing else in the room. The information is interesting, but not necessary, hence the use of "which" and the comma.

Now, such distinctions are not present in the Latin relative pronoun. In translating either of the above scenarios, I would have used a form of "qui." What Latin does do, however, is indicate whether something is a fact or whether it is a general characteristic by the mood of the verb in the relative clause. Example:

A: Publius est vir qui canes verberat. Publius is the man who beats dogs.
B: Publius est vir qui canes verberet. Publius is the sort of man who would beat dogs.

In the first sentence, the verb of the relative clause, "verberat," is indicative. This sentence is saying, "We know there is someone who has been beating dogs in the neighborhood, and now we know who it is. It is, in fact, Publius." The indicative mood is used for stating facts.

In the second sentence, the verb of the relative clause, "verberet," is subjunctive. This sentence is saying, "Publius may in fact be an animal lover and would never lift a finger against anyone or anything, but he seems suspicious. There is just something about him that makes us think he would be the kind of guy to beat a dog." The subjunctive does not state facts, but suggests possibilities.

In the Latin you cite, the verb in the relative clause is "utitur," and is indicative. It is saying, "Torture, which does in fact do X, Y, and Z, is contrary...."

What I find interesting is that in the Latin you cite, a comma is used before the pronoun "qui." The ancient Romans used no punctuation, so I am assuming that the rules guiding punctuation of this modern Latin are similar to what we find in English. If so, then the relative clause is non-essential. It is saying, "Torture is contrary to human dignity. Period. Now if you are being deliberately obtuse and claim not to know what this means, we will tell you. It is that which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, etc." I notice, however, that there is no comma before the "which" in the English translation. So, here is what I see:

1. If the Latin is punctuated correctly and is indicating that all torture is contrary to human dignity, while generously but not of necessity describing what torture can include, then the English should have used a comma with its translation "which."

2. If the interpretation is that only certain types of torture, such as those listed in the Latin, are contrary to human dignity, then the English should have used "that" and no comma.

So the question then becomes: does the English version merely lack a comma, or has "that" been mistranslated as "which?" Given the indicative verb which Magister Christianus points out, it seems far more likely that the English version simply forgot to include the comma. If the sentence is really supposed to mean "Torture that does x, y, and z, and only torture of that kind, is contrary to human dignity etc." then we immediately run into other problems, one of them being that an approved English-language compendium to the Catechism clearly takes the meaning of this sentence to be that all torture is evil.

And if the sentence is supposed to mean, "Torture of type x, y, and z is evil, but not necessarily all torture," then why does the official Latin use the comma after "qui"? At the very least, we have to note the discrepancy between the Latin, which is the official Catechism text, and the English, which is merely a translation.


  1. This was interesting. However, the party you are referring to appears now almost to have reverted to the age-old question whether waterboarding is torture or not - which, as that person says, is not decidable by paragraph 2297.

  2. Well you could always write to the CDF and ask which interpretation is correct. And while you're at it, you could ask about whether water boarding is torture and settle this whole blogging debate.

    My best translation: Torture, which uses physical or moral violence for the purpose of extorting confessions, for the purpose of punishing those culpable, for the purpose of terrifying adversaries, for the purpose of satisfying hatred, is contrary to respect of the person and of human dignity.

  3. What is moral violence, and what is it's distinction from physical violence?

  4. For what it's worth, the French translation doesn't have commas and the German translation does.

  5. Thanks, Tom.

    Alex, moral violence to me is like what was done at Abu Ghraib, where prisoners were placed in degrading and dehumanizing poses/situations etc.; they may not have been physically harmed, but the intent was to violate their dignity and their moral code.

    I'm no moral theologian, though, so I would defer to one in defining that term.

  6. RE: Force and Violence

    Back in the Dark Ages IIRC the Police Academy definition was that violence was the illegal and unethical use of power while force was the legal and ethical use of power.

    If for instance I walked into a Bar and got popped I could, under certain circumstances, pull out the 30-inch oak baton and (with certain estraints) go to work - use of force.

    If on the other hand I walked into a Bar and saw a patron with a New York Yankees jersey I could not pull out the 30-inch oak baton; (understandably provoked as I might be), and if I did that would be use of violence.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford