Monday, December 22, 2014

Torture: some clarity in an overheated debate

Boniface has a wonderfully thorough and clear-headed analysis of this hot-button issue in his article, "Torture: Historical and Ethical Perspectives" (Unam Sanctam Catholicam, December 2014).

As always comprehensive, Boniface makes numerous indispensable distinctions to understanding what is at issue in this debate. I'll leave you with his table of contents to entice you to read his essay:
I. Definition of Torture
II. A Necessary Distinction
III. Extraction Torture: The Patristic Era
IV. Extraction Torture: Early Medieval
V. The Rediscovery of Roman Law
VI. St. Thomas Aquinas
VII. Extraction Torture: To the Modern Period
VIII. Punitive Torture
IX. The Post-Conciliar Problem
X: Extrajudicial Torture
XI. Conclusion


Jeff Kantor


Jeff Kantor [on Facebook, writes): Not a bad job, though he relies heavily on Harrison. Harrison is the only theologian I know who has attempted to treat this subject thoroughly. But he seemed to feel "silenced" by some statements of Benedict.

Many--and I include myself--feel this to be a problematic issue in several ways.

1. One tends to react with instinctual revulsion to torments deliberately inflicted and it does seem as if that is in some sense a reaction of conscience.

2. There is no magisterial or authoritative definition of torture and any proposed definition of torture would seem to involve the question of DEGREE, which invites a consideration of whether that degree might change from person to person or circumstance to circumstance.

3. Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium--as well as the opinions of moral theologians through the ages provide substantial support for some sorts of deliberately caused physical pain under some circumstances.

4. Modern Magisterial teaching on the subject gives no definition, makes no distinctions, and appeals to nothing as its source. And its authority seems limited.

And of course, there is the delightful fact that a conscience troubled about these issues or an intellect unsatisfied is usually treated to the epithet "torture apologist".

James Guinivan has a great anti-torture Chesterton quotation which should be included more often in discussions of the topic.

Scott Belhorn has had some thought provoking if tendentious posts on this issue recently and he treats his interlocutors for the most part as befits a gentleman.

[Posted for Kantor by Site Manager]



At last, a sane post on torture, one that does not sound like it was written by some tortured ninny.



I would add that condemnations of state actors like Vice President Cheney seem to omit all consideration of the fact that however much recent Magisterial statements may bind Catholics, they certainly can't be said to bind NON Catholics.

Putting aside present discussions, saints and highly regarded moral theologians for generations allowed for torture for centuries and could have done so with no reasonable censure from those who now presume to hold them in contempt.

Why should Vice President Cheney or President Bush be any more censurable for allowing waterboarding when any Catholic theologian in 1960 could have sanctioned far worse and many did?



I relied on Harrison for the outline but I drew totally different conclusions that he did.

Christopher Blosser


Good article, and IMHO, goes a little deeper than Harrison in arriving at a conclusion regarding the present. This especially resonated:

In the 20th century and beyond we deal not with judicial torture but with extrajudicial torture. Extrajudicial torture is defined as torture inflicted by the state or some other official authority, but carried out without legal process or supervision from a court or tribunal through a legal proceeding, often in private or secretly. The Soviet Union and National Socialist regimes made free and frequent use of torture; and yet one will search in vain for any statute regarding torture in the penal codes of Nazi Germany or the U.S.S.R. Usually extrajudicial torture is implemented as a form of political repression but is kept off the official books in the attempt to maintain legitimacy. All modern communist or dictatorial regimes that have used torture have done so in an extrajudicial manner. Torture was never the "law" in Mubarak's Egypt, Saddam's Iraq, Mao's China, Pol Pot's Cambodia, or Chile under Pinochet. But in all these cases it was ubiquitous as an extrajudicial reality. Indeed, its extrajudiciality is what made it such an effective tool of repression; when something occurs outside of a publicly recognized legal framework, then there is no possibility of appeal or redress. Legally, it never happened.

Of course, this is the current form of torture preferred by the United States via the practice of extraordinary rendition or the use of extraterritorial torture facilities.

Recall the objections of Augustine and Nicholas I; their main concern was not the "dignity of the human person", but that the legal procedures of the Christian commonwealth were just. They believed torture, as it existed in late Roman Empire, was unjust, but only per accidens. Aquinas, Innocent IV and the men of the 13th century believed it was possible to change those accidental qualities of the torture procedure to safeguard its justice. But neither Aquinas, nor Augustine nor any Catholic canonist, theologian, or saint would approve of torture occurring outside of any legal framework. The overriding concern of every Catholic who ever wrote on this before Vatican II was preserving justice; justice cannot be preserved in situation where torture is being carried out in the shadows with no public oversight and outside of legal procedure.

I appreciate the way the article

1) demonstrates how certain forms of torture could be lawfully condoned in the past;

2) how contemporary condemnations of torture within Catholic tradition could be made with a specific understanding of torture in mind ("extrajudicial" and consequently unmitigated, unrestrained -- "The exercise of torture outside of the framework of the legal process is inherently unjust and hence is intrinsically evil")];

3) how bloviations against torture by certain "Catholic apologists" which ignore the nuances of Catholic history and tradition could do more harm than good, muddying the discussion.

4) how one could both acknowledge the nuanced treatment and permission of torture within Catholic tradition and yet condemn its abuse at present