The Dignity of Man and the Indignity of Torture

Just a few years ago, no one seriously discussed torture. The Soviet Union, one of the world’s last practitioners, had fallen, and only a handful of countries (Iraq notably among them) were still using it. But then 9/11 happened, and the world changed. Within two short years, accused Islamic militants filled Guantanamo Bay, and the United States invaded Iraq. In 2004, stories about Abu Ghraib filled the media, damaging the military’s honor, while many thought it curious that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did not take responsibility and step down.
Perhaps now we know the reason why. The United States has been carrying out an official policy of torture — or, as they call it, “enhanced interrogation techniques” — for several years now. This year, torture was a political issue in the Republican primary. It is worth noting, and to the credit of the GOP, that the three Republican candidates still in the running (Mike Huckabee, John McCain, and Ron Paul) are the only three that opposed torture. But for the first time in over a century, the issue seemed debatable.
Catholics should not be silent viewers of this debate, but should instead stand up for the dignity of man.

Defining Torture

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “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” (2297). In our post-9/11 world, torture is apparently being used by the U.S. government to obtain information from suspects — a goal not literally included in the Catechism‘s definition, except perhaps to “frighten opponents” into giving up information.
On the “pro” side of the argument, a few passages in Leviticus seem to speak in favor of harsh punishments, such as stoning. Some people take the inclusion of these verses as assurance that torture does not violate the moral law. However, that’s an inaccurate interpretation of Scripture, as the Vatican’s document “On the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” (III.D.3) makes clear:
It is not sufficient . . . that the Old Testament should indicate a certain moral position (e.g. the practice of slavery or of divorce, or that of extermination in the case of war) for this position to continue to have validity. One has to undertake a process of discernment. This will review the issue in the light of the progress in moral understanding and sensitivity that has occurred over the years.
The writings of the Old Testament contain certain “imperfect and provisional” elements (“Dei Verbum,” 15), which the divine pedagogy could not eliminate right away . . . .
Through the revelation of God’s love that comes in Christ, the New Testament sheds the fullest light upon these principles and values.
So what does the New Testament teach about torture? Nothing by name, but the Lord’s moral principles are in effect at all times: Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Whatsoever you do to the least of My people, that you do unto Me.
In point of fact, there is nothing to support torture in the entire New Testament. Instead, the moral framework of the gospel compels us to mercy and compassion, seeing Jesus even in those who spit upon us and wish us dead.

Church History

According to historian Rev. Brian W. Harrison, Tertullian and St. Augustine both opposed torture, both without censure by any pope or council. If they had violated Church teaching in their statements, the censure would have arrived by now. {mospagebreak}
On November 13, 866, Pope St. Nicholas wrote in Ad Consulta Vestra:
If a [supposed] thief or bandit is apprehended and denies the charges against him, you tell me your custom is for a judge to beat him with blows to the head and tear the sides of his body with other sharp iron goads until he confesses the truth. Such a procedure is totally unacceptable under both divine and human law (quam rem nec divina lex nec humana prorsus admittit), since a confession should be spontaneous, not forced. It should be proffered voluntarily, not violently extorted.
After this firm rejection of the practice, no other statement about torture was written for hundreds of years. Then, in 1252, while trends in Italy included returning to the Roman law (part of which included torture), a papal bull by Pope Innocent rejected over a millennium’s continuity by authorizing torture in Italy during the Inquisition.
Some say that this bull legitimized torture as doctrine. However, this papal bull was not a teaching document but a temporal policy directive, limited to a particular geographical area. And while the Church cannot err in teaching faith and morals, its members can sin, and its bishops, even the bishop of Rome, may err in prudential, temporal matters.
The mindset of Roman law continued for several centuries, but it is important to note that during this time, not a single document of the Church taught that torture was licit. Especially notable is the lack of censure for anti-torture advocate Louis Vives, who was active at the same time as Galileo, and who certainly would have been called to account if his advocacy violated doctrine. Instead, the Vatican was silent. In fact, it remained nearly universally silent on the issue until the 1900s. Father Harrison adds:
The fact is that in the course of nearly two millennia, no infallible teaching either for or against torture (for any purpose whatever) had ever been laid down by the Church in either her ordinary or extraordinary magisterium. What we have seen is a disappointing magisterial silence during the patristic period, followed by a merely authentic magisterial teaching (cf. B1) against confession-extracting torture which prevailed in the late first and early second.
Recent Teaching
The first formal moral teaching on torture came from the Vatican in Pope Paul VI’s Gaudium et Spes:
They [i.e., acts of murder, torture, kidnapping, and terrorism] poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury (27.3).
Pope John Paul II, speaking to the Red Cross in 1982, echoed parts of Gaudium et Spes, but added stronger language:
The disciple of Christ rejects everyrecourse to such methods [torture], which nothingcould justify, and by which the dignity of man is as much debased in the torturer as in his victim (Geneva, 1982).
The mercy expressed in their statements, and their concern for what happens to the soul of the torturer, is a beautiful reminder that a person cannot progress in one’s relationship with God through torturing others — and in the spiritual life, if you aren’t ascending, you’re descending.
Also, note the words that John Paul II used: “rejects every recourse to [torture] . . . nothing could justify” torture. Recently, the Magesterium elevated this statement to a formal part of the Church’s social doctrine when they included it in The Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church (404).
The Catechism, as noted earlier, states that torture is “contrary to respect for the person and human dignity.” More recently, a December 2005 article in USA Today discusses a press conference held by Renato Cardinal Martino, head of the Vatican’s pontifical council on peace and justice. Asked if one could torture a terror detainee to gain information about future terrorist activities, the cardinal “replied that there was no justification for using torture, which is the ‘humiliation of the human person, whoever he is. The church does not allow torture as a means to extract the truth.'”
Torture violates the dignity of the tortured as well as the torturer. Minds like Cardinal Martino and John Paul II oppose torture categorically. It’s time for Catholics to follow suit.


Eric Pavlat is a convert from Unitarian Universalism who entered the Church in 1996. He lives in Maryland with his wife and six children. He is also a perpetually professed Lay Dominican in St. Pius V Pro-Chapter, located in Catonsville, MD. He founded Democrats for Life of Maryland, Inc., in 2004, served one term as president, and stayed on the board of directors until 2010. He now considers himself more a Distributist than anything else. Eric teaches 10th grade honors and special education students in English literature, composition, and grammar at his alma mater, Parkdale High School.

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