Obedience, Orthodoxy, and Torture

People are worried about me. One reader writes:

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You don’t give enough credit to the system we have in America. It is the closest thing to idealistic conditions as humanly possible (City of God, Augustine).

That’s bad enough, of course. But in addition to my failure to identify America with the City of God, I am in peril of making shipwreck of my faith, as another reader warned darkly last week after I dangerously insisted that we should heed the Church on other matters in addition to abortion:

This article is a compound, complex mix of various topics and it makes sense in only one level. The pseudo attack on “conservative Catholics” vs. the quasi support for liberal Catholics; tied to the topic of just/unjust war and abortion, and offering direction to . . . well no where.

This is the kind of writing that comes from the “I” and not the works of the Holy Spirit. The works of Marc [sic] Shea have had the inspired attributes of the Holy Spirit in the past; this article is clearly NOT ONE OF THEM!

Marc, please take a short rest, pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance . . . and in all humility, listen; lest you end up another dissident ex-Catholic.

And yet another reader at the Free Republic site summed up the growing consensus of many conservative readers:

[Mark Shea is] a tool of the left wing.

That is really a shame, too. He used to be very, very orthodox and a good commentator. But around the time that the waterboarding stuff hit the news, something seems to have snapped.

These and a number other diagnoses of the state of my soul illustrate quite nicely the confusion that many conservative Catholics seem to have between “commitment to the talking points of Mainstream Talk Radio Conservatism” and what some of us still call “Catholic teaching.”

For, of course, what the reader means by “He used to be very, very orthodox” is not what the Catholic faith means by “orthodox.” I have never, so far as I know, said anything against the teaching of the Catholic Church. If, in some opinion of mine, I have accidently expressed an idea contrary to the teaching of Holy Church, I do repent me in sackcloth and ashes, abjure that opinion, and humbly submit my body, soul, and spirit to the teaching of Holy Church as to the very word of Jesus Christ, who alone can save my soul. But, so far as I know, I have tried with might and main to say that we should hew as closely as possible to the teaching of Holy Church — and that is what my reader means by “used to be very, very orthodox.”


Here’s how my Luciferian fall happened: When it became evident that the George W. Bush administration made torture and abuse of prisoners policy (and then set out to defend this policy via its various representatives in both political and media circles), I became critical and remained so throughout President Bush’s tenure. But the former president has been gone for some time now, and I had sincerely hoped that the Rubber Hose Right would quietly back down from this stunning lapse into un-American, un-Catholic, and immoral consequentialism. But, as the former President Bush and former Vice-President Dick Cheney have made clear, torture is now a core value of the Thing that Used to Be Conservatism; and so the Right is continuing to defend it and gives every indication that, as soon as possible, they will reinstitute this shameful legacy (which President Barack Obama, in any case, has only tepidly opposed). So I’m forced (now and then, when the subject comes up courtesy of some ripple in the news like, “Bush defends torture in new book”) to point out that the torture and abuse of prisoners is still contrary to the moral law, which, is, you know, what the Church teaches:

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 exist 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 labourers 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 honour due to the Creator.” (Veritatis Splendor, 80)

Now, it is customary at this juncture to initiate an entire host of failed arguments to get around the bleedin’ obvious truth (summed up by Pope Benedict XVI, when he said, “I reiterate that the prohibition against torture ‘cannot be contravened under any circumstances’”). What these failed arguments have in common is a) failure and b) an iron determination to find some way of saying torture is okay such that the failed arguments succeed one another with the restless fertility of bewilderment. What is obvious from this is that the conclusion has already been arrived at before the argument has been assembled — and that if one argument fails, then it is tossed away and another grasped in desperation. Often, after cycling through the whole assortment of crappy arguments, the torture defender will simply end up where he started and do the whole round again. What the ideologue bent on defending torture never stops to do is consider the possibility that Catholic teaching cannot be squared with the defense of torture, and that he needs to repent of trying to make it do so and just take Church teaching for what it obviously means.

If he did that, he would be freed, for instance, of playing the “Definition Game” and feigning puzzlement over whether inflicting torture like this really “rises to the level” of torture. He would not have to say ridiculous stuff like, “Next you’ll be saying sending somebody to bed without dinner is torture,” while studiously leaving undiscussed such forms of torture as leaving a man to freeze in the Afghanistan winter night. (Oh, by the way, the guy who murdered that particular victim is still employed by the CIA, so your tax dollars are hard at work.)

Also, the person who gives up trying to avoid obvious Church teaching about torture can address, rather than avoid, the question of whether renditioning a perfectly innocent man to be tortured in Syria for ten months is torture. He can also face the fact that torturing somebody will not cause the regime that tortures him to get good intel but rather to just plain lie in order to cover up the fact that we torture innocent people. Likewise, the person who tries to make sense rather than nonsense of Church teaching can be free to consider the reality that, when you approve of torture and other war crimes in the name of “But it works!” you throw open the door to other forms of efficiency you didn’t think about, such as threatening to kill the children and rape the mothers of detainees.

Indeed, somebody who listens to Church teaching, rather than attempting to nuance it out of existence, need never again ponder whether there could be some fine shade of argument for suffocating a prisoner and sheilding his murderer from prosecution. Nor does he have to worry his pretty head about the gossamer thin threads of logic that might legitimate beating an innocent cabby to death for the crime of being in the wrong place during a police roundup in a third-world country. All of this fruitless mental exertion calculated to avoid the plain truth staring him in the face can be avoided, and he can simply capitulate to the clear and obvious truth evident to anyone with common sense.

Or, alternatively, people who mistake Mainstream Conservative Talking Points for “orthodoxy” can continue making excuses for all these filthy things in percentages larger than the general American population. If so, then odds are we shall never discuss these other forms of torture. For in the blogosphere and in the media, it’s always and only “enhanced interrogation” that is under discussion. And “enhanced interrogation” is always and only a euphemism for “waterboarding,” which is in turn a euphemism for “simulated drowning” — which is a species of torture that everybody wants to pretend is not torture, but which we have court-martialed troops for doing in the past. That, and only that, is what everybody in the blogosphere means by torture — or rather “torture,” for the scare quote is the essential best friend of the torture defender.


And so the discussion in cyberspace and at the usual conservative watering holes in other media proceeds based on the theory that the core moral issue at stake is, “How close can we get to committing torture without quite doing it?” When court prophets for the Catholic Defense of Torture get involved, it is generally demanded that, until the Church gives a complete and detailed list of every permutation on every torture technique that might ever be conceived of by the ingenuity of man, there is simply no way at all to even know what torture is. And so, relying on the increasingly popular conservative doctrine that “Opposition to abortion taketh away the sins of the world,” we arrive at formulations like this, calculated to herd Catholics of troubled conscience back on to the reservation of the party of Bush and Cheney:

While the Church infallibly teaches that torture is an intrinsic evil, she does not infallibly teach that waterboarding is torture. But Holy Mother Church DOES teach infallibly that abortion is intrinsic evil.

This ingenious fallacy manages to combine the Appeal to Finer Detail with Omitting Facts in an Analogy. It’s great for bamboozling suckers (and especially suckers who long to be bamboozled). But, still and all, the correct parallelism here is actually this:

“While the Church infallibly teaches that torture is an intrinsic evil, she does not infallibly teach that waterboarding is torture.”


“While the Church infallibly teaches that abortion is an intrinsic evil, she does not infallibly teach that suction aspiration is abortion.”

Strangely, the people who are so baffled by the Church’s silence when it comes to defining each and every possible permutation of what techniques constitute torture have no trouble figuring out what constitutes abortion, even when the Church neglects to play “Simon Peter Says.” It’s as though they recognize that the Church expects us to have the sense God gave a goose, able to perform these elementary bits of moral calculus when they really want to. And, indeed, I think the Church’s moral tradition gives us plenty of guidance on how to proceed here, whether the question has to do with Pelvic Issues or War.

Perhaps an analogy will help. When somebody starts asking questions like, “How close can I get to committing adultery with my hot secretary without quite doing it?” I suspect most people would suggest that the person asking this question is already speaking out of a deeply corrupt motive. The Church’s counsel to such a person is not, “Go ahead and rent the motel room and share the bed with her, just don’t actually quite have sex.” Rather, the Church says, “Why are you framing the question this way? Avoid the near occasion of sin.”

It’s the same with the ridiculous attempts to search for fine shades of distinction between drowning a man versus pulling out his fingernails. The Church doesn’t merely say “don’t torture” and leave us without a clue as to what we should do instead. Rather, it offers us a positive command as well:

Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely. (Catechism 2313)

If we are serious about treating prisoners humanely (as the Church, you know, commands), we won’t be asking ourselves how close we can get to torturing them without drowning them — just as, if we love our spouse, we won’t be asking how far we can go with the secretary or the milkman without it quite being adultery.


Now, all this is called “being obedient to Holy Church,” not “unorthodox” (except by people who confuse Mainstream Conservative Talking Points with the Catechism of the Catholic Church). It is, in fact, a call to come away from the world’s wisdom and listen to the common teaching of the Church — a teaching that was in place and unremarkable until the United States made it controversial by choosing to exempt itself from normal rules of war after 9/11. Up until that point, nobody was asking insane questions like, “If we can’t torture, how can we possibly interrogate prisoners?” because we had already interrogated such pantywaists as Nazis and Commies by conventional means — with great success. Indeed, as real interrogators have labored to point out to those laptop bombardiers who denounce critics of torture as “unrealistic” (based on their deep knowledge of 24 and Bruce Willis movies), conventional means still work best  — making torture not only evil but stupid, since it ruins intel, destroys the possibility of putting real terrorists away, gets innocent people killed or profoundly injured, and endangers our troops.

My principal concern, as somebody interested in Catholic teaching, has been the first point: It’s evil and will send you to hell. And for that simple reason, I continue to bang away at the point. That should be enough. But since it’s not, let me add this:

Secondary to the fact that it’s evil and will send you to hell is the fact that it is fantastically stupid for Christians in a rapidly de-Christianizing culture to urge the instruments of torture into the hands of a pagan Caesar who is coming to hate them. Some fools will continue to harp on the claim, “But it works!” Yes. Sometimes. And the prophecy of the Weird Sisters to Macbeth worked, too. Still and all, as Macbeth discovered late in the game, something that is profoundly evil winds up hurting you in the long run, even if it “works” in the short run. And so the spectacle of Catholics shouting down Holy Church with, “It works! Let us have torture!” is like some grim version of an old vaudeville routine with Caesar looking at the audience and saying, “They asked for it. Shall I give it to them?” It’s a classic example of the Two Phases of History (Phase 1: “What could it possibly hurt?” Phase 2: “How were we supposed to know?”). So, for moral as well as purely selfish reasons, I think the Christians who imagine that this bargain with the devil will turn out well for themselves and keep them safe should remember: God is not mocked.

Which brings me back to my diagnosticians and the astounding charge of a lapse in orthodoxy when I allegedly “snapped” over torture. What fascinates me is that, judging from both my mail and feedback around the Web, there still seems to be, even at this late date, quite a number of Catholics who cannot for the life of them see any connection whatever between my views on this matter and my faith as a Catholic in the obvious teaching of the Church. Again and again I’m told (to quote a typical reader at random), “Shea needs to stay out of politics, and focus on what he does best: apologetics.” What, after all, could a purely political matter like torture (whatever that cloud cuckoo thing might be) have to do with the rational defense of faith in a man who was beaten within an inch of his life and then spiked to a cross and left to suffocate on the say-so of a state body whose press release regarding the matter read simply, “If this man were not an evildoer, we would not have handed him over” (Jn 18:30)? Why can’t I stick to spiritual things? The gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to saying dangerous liberal stuff like, “Be docile to the Church, not only about abortion but even about matters highly unpopular with your own political tribe.” But the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to brave defenses of torture, and those who find it are few.

  • 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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