Thoughts in Solitude - Thomas Merton

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” † † †
-Thoughts in Solitude
© Abbey of Gethsemani
"Your way of acting should be different from the world's way"...Rule of St. Benedict.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Torture - The Catholic Response

The following is a posting from Vox Nova - a Catholic Blog. It raises some interesting points concerning torture that need our attention.

Recently, a comment showed up on Vox Nova signed by Judie Brown, linking to the American Life League. We have no reason to doubt that she left the comment, though we did attempt to contact her to verify. She did not return our emails. The comment is regarding M.Z.’s post on EWTN’s cowardice in not condemning torture and not affirming the clear teaching of the Catholic Church.

I am posting Brown’s comment in full along with my own interpolations:

Dear Friends and Foes, Torture of prisoners can be approved in some cases when there are specific reasons for doing so, but my belief is that in the case of torture, we have to examine first and foremost the case of the innocent preborn child. His limbs can be ripped off and noone calls that torture. His head can be crused with forceps and noone calls that torture.

I am not sure who Judie Brown’s foes are at Vox Nova or why she feels compelled to presume that there are, indeed, persons inimical toward her here. In fact, we have had a link to the American Life League since the Vox Nova was first initiated, and we certainly have made no effort to conceal it (it occupies the top place in our alphabetical list of Catholic Organizations, Institutes and Ministries in the right sidebar).

More apropos of the matter at hand, I want to direct your attention to the very first line of Brown’s comment. She affirms unequivocally that torture of prisoners (i)can be approved in (ii)some cases when there are (iii)specific reasons for doing so.

As to (i), whose approval is needed? Brown doesn’t say. We know, obviously, that the act of government-sponsored torture, which is the sort we have been discussing at length at Vox Nova, needs only the approval of the Executive Branch of government without the consent of the legislature or the American people in order to be performed. But Brown seems to want to say more than that since, after all, she left her comment on a post that discusses the moral legitimacy of torture from the Catholic prospective. Is Brown suggesting that torture of prisoners may be approved of according to the magisterium of the Catholic Church? If she is, she is dead wrong. This is well-traveled terrain at Vox Nova, but it bears repeating that the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II, whose teaching authority unquestionably extends to morals, both condemned torture as intrinsically evil without qualification (i.e., under no conditions is an act of torture morally licit). For those teachings, see Gaudium et spes 27 and Veritatis Splendor 80.

As to (ii), we have already ruled out from the Catholic stance any circumstances in which an act of torture may be morally licit. So Brown’s suggestions that there are “some cases” where torture can be approved are well outside Catholic boundaries. What is less astonishing, but no less irresponsible, is that Brown blithely mentions “some cases,” but leaves us only with an indeterminate idea. To which cases is she referring? It seems to me the Brown herself does not know.

As to (iii), once more Brown short-changes her friends and foes by neglecting to indicate which and whose reasons may be supplied to justify morally an act of torture. Such vagueness is reprehensible, especially in discussions about what the Church considers a grave human rights violation. It seems to me that, in her haste to justify torture, Brown has not thought about the matter in any depth. In the absence of reasons, we can only desire that something be true. Does Brown desire torture to be legitimate and morally acceptable in some way? If so, her belief stems from an inordinate will, not from responsible, pro-life reasoning.

Brown continues her thought:

…but my belief is that in the case of torture, we have to examine first and foremost the case of the innocent preborn child. His limbs can be ripped off and noone calls that torture. His head can be crused with forceps and noone calls that torture.

Indeed, the description of certain methods of abortion that Brown provides is horrific and accurate. And, indeed, I do acknowledge that the pain inflicted on the child is indescribably cruel and abominable. But all Brown is suggesting is that in common parlance we extend our talk of torture to the pain and suffering inflicted on a human fetus. This in no way advances a case for torture.

There are many other examples I could provide but I think you get the picture.

I do.

When you write about torturing someone guilty of murdering innocent soldiers, civilians and the like and you compare that with what is being done to preborn babies under cover of law, I have to say … no contest.

The safeguarding of human rights and the condemnation of an intrinsic evil is never a contest. We are not in the business as Catholics of cashing out intrinsic evils in some sort of comparative or competitive enterprise.

In this one line, Brown shows her true colors. She submits that the pain inflicted upon a “guilty” person through torture is not in the same moral realm as the pain inflicted on the unborn through abortion. First, from a logical point of view, this a red herring (fallacy of relevance). The introduction of the pain inflicted on aborted children does not change the reality or status of any other intrinsic evil, be it torture or euthanasia. Furthermore, noting the pain and suffering involved in abortion does not establish Brown’s previous point about torture being morally licit in “some cases” for “specific reasons.” In other words, Brown is not making any sort of point here, but is instead distracting from the relevant discussion. Again, in the absence of reasons, Brown’s case is just a matter of hand-waving.

Also telling is Brown’s assumption (unsubstantiated and empirically false) that those who are torture are “guilty” of murdering innocent soldiers and civilians (can we really talk about the innocence of soldiers in the same way as we do the innocence of civilians?). First, torture can be done (and has been done) on human persons who have not been judged guilty by any tribunal or court. Second, torture can be done (and has been done) on human persons who have not murdered innocent persons. So the concept of torture in no way contains the idea of “guilt” as one of its essential features. Rather, torture is defined without respect to guilt or retribution. Now, torture can, indeed, be done on those who are found guilty of murder or other crimes, but this is only a contingent connection, not a necessary one. One of the hallmarks of Catholic teaching on morals specifically, and logical analysis generally, is precision in analytic description. We are able to conduct ourselves morally in view of Catholic teaching because we understand its moral concepts. That’s what makes morality, according to Aquinas, reasonable. The prohibition on torture extends to all cases without respect to specific reasons to torture, no matter if the human person who is to be tortured is innocent or guilty.

In her last gasp to make a cogent argument, Brown turns to the Catechism:

As for the Catechism, this might interest those of you with a logical thought process:

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 sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.

Brown wants us to utilize our “logical thought process.” She then quotes the Catechism, which paraphrases the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II. This passage condemns torture as contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity. The “logical thought process” is not Brown’s. She contradicts her earlier comments about torturing being legitimate in “some cases” and for “specific reasons” by citing this passage, which in turn draws from the teachings of Vatican II and John Paul II. The truth of the matter is, Brown has no argument from morality and no argument from the Church’s teaching to support her claim. She is right, however, to put a premium on logical thought process, and she would do well to employ it herself.

To close, allow me to post the paragraph in the Catechism that immediately follows the paragraph Brown quotes, which she conveniently omitted:

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. (CCC 2298)

The Catechism itself states that the practices of torture that were overlooked or permitted by clerics in the past were cruel and out of conformity with the rights of the human person. Furthermore, we are to work for the abolition of torture (notice the Catechism switches from a reference to the past to a present imperative).

I do not doubt the sincerity of people like Judie Brown, David Carlin, and Deal Hudson in promoting respect for the unborn. But they have shown themselves to be in deep need of catechesis and moral formation on the issue of torture. And as long as they continue to try to find loopholes in the Church’s doctrine (such as Brown’s emphasizing that the victims of torture are guilty or Hudson’s outrageous claim that torture can be permissible when subsumed as a measure of a just war), they remain at odds with the Church. They very well may be the “foes” of certain Catholic moral principles that Brown acknowledged in her comment.

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