Tonight We’re Gonna Party Like It’s 1984

Last week, we started looking at the broad movement among some conservatives (including Catholics) over the past several years to excuse, minimize, defend, and champion the use of torture by the U.S. government in the “War on Terror.” Among Catholics, in particular, the conversation has taken place at multiple levels, since the Catholic torture defender has to address it not only as a crime but as a sin. Church teaching, which describes torture as gravely and intrinsically immoral (cf. Veritatis Splendor 80), makes this a particularly difficult project, given the plain language:

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 which per 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.”

Plenty have tried to find a way around the language, and the Catholics who do have more often taken their cues from secular sources than from Catholic ones. Indeed, Catholics support torture by a greater percentage than does the ordinary population.

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The most extensive attempt by a theologian to probe whether Pope John Paul II really meant it when he said that torture was intrinsically immoral was that undertaken by Rev. Brian Harrison (here and here). What is remarkable is the distinction between what Father Harrison actually concluded and the ways in which his conclusions have been ignored, garbled, misconstrued, and, well, tortured by Catholic torture defenders (a typical and broad cross section of whom can be heard in the comboxes on my previous article).

The key point Father Harrison makes is this:

Thirdly, there remains the question — nowadays a very practical and much-discussed one — of torture inflicted not for any of the above purposes, but for extracting life-saving information from, say, a captured terrorist known to be participating in an attack that may take thousands of lives (the now-famous “ticking bomb” scenario). As we have noted above, this possible use of torture is not mentioned in the Catechism. If, as I have argued, the infliction of severe pain is not intrinsically evil, its use in that type of scenario would not seem to be excluded by the arguments and authorities we have considered so far. (John Paul II’s statement about the “intrinsic evil” of a list of ugly things including torture in VS #80 does not seem to me decisive, even at the level of authentic, non-infallible, magisterium, for the reasons I have already given in commenting above on that text.) My understanding would be that, given the present status questionis, the moral legitimacy of torture under the aforesaid desperate circumstances, while certainly not affirmed by the magisterium, remains open at present to legitimate discussion by Catholic theologians.

Father Harrison’s argument is summed up here, where he compares the UN “Convention against Torture” with the 1992 Catechism on the subject of what specific actions qualify as torture. He suggests that the drafters of the Catechism, “while generally following the Convention’s proscriptions, deliberately decided not to do so on [the] particular point” of torture for obtaining information. Because it looks to Father Harrison “like a deliberate decision on the part of church authorities, rather than a mere oversight or coincidence,” he regards the morality of torture for obtaining information to be an open theological question.

Now, in a purely abstract universe, Father Harrison’s slender thread of speculation might make for a fascinating theoretical discussion (bearing in mind that it is predicated on a fantasy scenario). But we don’t live in a purely abstract universe. We live in a universe in which Father Harrison’s conclusion that torture might not be intrinsically immoral (given an incredibly remote hypothetical situation) was instantly pressed into service by Catholic torture defenders to mean “John Paul II didn’t really mean torture is intrinsically and gravely immoral. In fact, torture is basically okay, as long as it’s done to bad guys to get information and not to be sadistic.”

All over the Catholic blogosphere, Father Harrison’s speculative opinions (seconded by no magisterial authority of which I am aware) were instantly elevated by torture defenders to something like an official response to a dubium from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Result: While Rome was reiterating its opposition to the torture being inflicted in the real world, and archbishops were pointing out obvious truths like the fact that the use of torture by Americans was “a more serious blow to the United States than Sept. 11” because “the blow was not inflicted by terrorists but by Americans against themselves,” American conservative Catholics were continuing the project of trying to square the circle and declare, not remote hypothetical ticking time bombs, but the real tortures authorized by the Bush Administration to be compatible with Catholic teaching.

Given that, two things are worth noting:First, it could well be argued that, instead of asking, “What do we do if we are an action hero in a ticking time bomb fantasy?” Father Harrison’s pastoral energies might have been more wisely expended asking, “Is it right or good for conservative Catholics to whip themselves into a frenzy of fear over remote hypothetical time bombs instead of attending to the very real fact that Caesar is, at this hour, engaging in acts that may very well be described as war crimes, as well as gravely and intrinsically evil? Why encourage a near occasion of grave sin by cultivating fantasies that tempt us to ignore the clear and obvious teaching of the Council and the last two popes on the sinfulness of torture?”

The second thing worth noting about the popular distortion of Father Harrison’s conjectures is this: Let us grant Father Harrison’s remote speculation that torture to obtain urgent life-saving information is okay (some Catholics dilate on this speculation to claim that it cannot be torture at all if it is inflicted against terrorists, and carefully replace the word with “enhanced interrogation”). What then?

Following Father Harrison’s lead, the average Catholic torture defender grants that it is wrong to use torture to “punish the guilty” or “satisfy hatred” (since the Catechism actually spells that out). We are then usually told that the only thing legitimating torture is “obtaining life-saving information.” Similarly, defenders of torture in secular conservative media constantly remind us that they are not themselves motivated by some thirst for vengeance, but are simply arguing in favor of “doing what it takes” to get the information necessary from extremists who want to kill us and disrupt the fabric of society. In the words of Charles Krauthammer:

Let’s take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He’s not talking. Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it? Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.

Krauthammer later modifies his scenario from torturing to save a million people to torturing to save one person. What he does not modify is his conviction that “if you have the slightest belief” that torture will get you the information to save lives, you have a moral duty to torture.

“I completely agree!” says the post-Christian efficiency expert in the Ministry of Safety of the not-too-far-off Security State. “Therefore, we will be rounding up the wives and children of all extremists suspected of possessing life-saving information and subjecting them to waterboarding, cold cells, and stress positions in front of the suspects. Bless my soul, even the most dangerous extremist sings like a canary when his little girl starts screaming and begging for mercy.” 

At this point, the Catholic torture defender — who has been laboring to assure us thatwaterboarding, cold cells, and stress positions are not torture, that the extreme demands of war mean we should look the other way even if they are, and that doing it “purely to obtain life-saving information” is okay — is taken aback. He stammers, “But the wife and children are innocent!”

To which the post-Christian efficiency expert replies calmly, “So what? This isn’t about punishing anybody, as you yourself say. It’s about getting necessary life-saving information in the most efficient way possible. It’s a known fact that men who would otherwise die as martyrs will tell you everything they know to save those they love. Why do you think John Yoo said all those years ago that the president could, if he thought it best,authorize crushing a nine-year-old boy’s testicles?”Here the efficiency expert smiles a warm and reassuring smile: “And we’re not even talking about crushing testicles, of course. We aren’t barbarians. We’re just talking about a little harmless ‘dunking,’ as Vice President Cheney once called it. It’s safe, legal, and rare.”

“Oh! And by the way,” he finishes, “I thought you should know that the newest directives have placed your brother and his family on our Extremist Watch List, since he is on record as having criticized abortion providers, the Transportation Safety Administration, and the president. Given the history of endangerment to human life from domestic terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh, abortion-clinic shooters like Eric Rudolph, and various other clear and present threats to national security, I’m sure you’ll understand.”


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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