The Catholic magisterium and torture

Vatican II ranked torture with genocide and abortion; the Chilean Bishops threatened to excommunicate Pinochet’s torturers.

Two facts I hadn’t known about the position and record of the Catholic Church on torture, mentioned in two letters by Catholic priests published in Thursday’s New York Times:

1. Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World produced at the Second Vatican Council, calls “torments inflicted on body or mind” and “attempts to coerce the will itself” both “infamies” and “supreme dishonor to the Creator.” They are mentioned in parallel to abortion and genocide. In the Catholic tradition, the solemn declaration of an Ecumenical Council carries enormous authority; conciliar decrees were considered infallible long before Vatican I decided that some papal decrees had that status.

2. The Catholic Bishops of Chile threatened Pinochet’s torturers with excommunication.

If the American bishops can be distracted from their current project of helping their right-wing allies destroy health care reform, perhaps they might consider a similar declaration. It is (let’s hope) not necessary right now, but it would put the current torture debate in a clearer perspective.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

16 thoughts on “The Catholic magisterium and torture”

  1. Disputations, one of the most interesting and essential Catholic blogs, has covered the torture debate extensively over the years, consistently advocating for the clear fact that the Church forbids torture in any and all circumstances. This post provides tons of documentary examples of the Church broadly, the last two Popes and the U.S. Bishops condeming torture in no uncertain terms:

    http://disputations.blogspot.com/2010_01_01_archi

    Catholic defenders of torture go to great lengths to split hairs in their reading of specific Vatican documents, all the while ignoring the fact that anyone who listens to the Church with the tiniest grain of common sense will see that she teaches that torture is always wrong. They should be ashamed of themselves.

    As a Catholic, I do not feel that I can be a formal member of either major American political party, as both advocate for grave evil. As a practical matter, I tend to vote for Republicans, because when confronted with a choice of two evils it is appropriate to make a prudential judgment between the two. So 1 to 1.5 million abortions annually trumps the torture of a limited number of prisoners. But the lesser of two evils is still evil, and one should always call a spade a spade.

    P.S. Mark, you've pulled this kind of shit before: "If the American bishops can be distracted from their current project of helping their right-wing allies destroy health care reform, perhaps they might consider a similar declaration." You assert that "if party X really cared about issue Y then they would do Z," when in fact X has already done Z, you just don't know about it because its outside of your swim lane and you're too busy snarking to Google the answer.

    The U.S. Bishops are (as the post linked above shows) on record decrying torture, and individual Bishops have been stepping up their public statements on this issue dramatically in the last few years as this debate has raged in the U.S. The media loves to spin the meme that "The Catholic Church only cares about regulating sex," when in fact the Catholic Church cares about hundreds of issues, from promoting peace and racial justice to poverty relief to torture. Its just that the media only finds the Church newsworthy when it talks about sex.

  2. sd, I didn't make myself clear. What the American bishops haven't done, as far as I know, is to threaten to excommunicate torturers and those who order torture.

    As to the confusion about what the Church cares about, I'll leave it to others to determine whether that's more my fault than it is the fault of the Bishops (not all of them, to be sure) who told John Kerry that he wasn't welcome at the Communion table because of his position on abortion but don't seem to place the same priority on torture. Like you the Bishops "tend to vote for Republicans," who agree with them about sex and disagree with them about nearly everything else.

  3. Oh come on, the parallel with the abortion situation is weak.

    First of all, the Church teaches that anyone who commits grave evil (be that procuring an abortion, murdering someone, or performing torture) excommunicates themselves from the Church. That is, they separate their sould from the mystical Body of Christ unless and until they repent of their sin – whether anyone knows about it or not. If a Catholic is among those who committed torture, then he or she has, according to Church teaching, put their own soul at the risk of eternal damnation. The same with a Catholic offical who orders torture or a Catholic legislator who votes to authorize torture.

    The debate over "excommunication" is really a debate over _public_ excommunication – in other words a formal public statement by the Church that someone is outside of the Church. Public excommunication is very rare and is almost always declared in the case of public figures (i.e. the CIA drones who actually carried out waterboarding would be exceptionally unlikely to be publicly excommunicated). And the driver is generally not even the underlying sin, but the associated sin of "scandal." Scandal is defined as a act which leads another person into sin (from the Greek – "skandalon" meaning "stumbling block"). When a public figure publicly commits a grave evil, and then continues to go through the motions of being a practicing Catholic, then he or she can lead others to believe (mistakenly) that their previous conduct is not sinful. Public excommunoication is a statement by the Church that its not OK to do certain things and still be a Catholic. Its a teaching act directed only partially at the excommunicated person.

    In that light, its remarkable that there has been, to my knowledge, no public excommunication of any U.S. politican for their support of legal abortion. It has been crystal clear that the Church considers the actions of pro-choice politicans to be objectively sinful. But there is tremendous reluctance to take public action at the risk of appearing to interfere with electoral politics. There were scattered comments from individual Church officials in 2004 suggesting that John Kerry should be denied communion. But was he ever denied communion? No he was not. This despite the fact that he falunted Church teaching while pausing every 2 minutes to inform his audiences of how "devout" he was.

    The Democrats could have 80%, hell maybe 95%, of the U.S. Bishops strongly and publically behind health care reform if the bill had maintained the absolute and firm restriction on using public money to fund abortion that had been in place for decades. The bill would have already passed, and you would have had your precious health care reform. Millions of Americans would have been better off. But no, the Democrats, feeling bold after the 2008 election results, decided to use the occasion of health care reform to poke the sleeping tiger. And they got bit. Anyone who is surprised by this is a fool.

    The Bishops may well "agree with them (The Republicans) about sex and disagree with them about nearly everything else." But so what? The Church teaches that human persons, fully possessed of human rights, come into being at the moment of conception. Therefore if there are 1 million abortions in the U.S. per year, then there are 1 million mudrers of innocent human beings. Its really, really hard to make a prudential argument that advocating a $9.00 minimunm wage instead of a $7.00 minimum wage outweighs 1 million violent deaths of the innocent every single year.

    Imagine its 1855, and you believe in the abolition of slavery, but also the end of tarrifs aimed at protecting manufacturers and a weak central government. Would you side with the South in the Civil War, because you agree with them about "nearly everything else" besides slavery? Or would you say that some evils are so monstrous that they outweigh damn near every other issue. Well guess what, that's how the Bishops feel. Liberals often express consternation about how "conservative" U.S. Bishops are, compared to their supposedly more enlightened fore-runners in the 1950s and 1960s who stood up against Jom Crow and for unions. And they invent conspiracy theories about how its all the fault of mean old John Paul II who stocked the episcopacy with right wing culture warriros. But what changed wasn't the Church. What changed was that in 1960 neither party advocated for legal abortion. It was unthinkable.

  4. Mark,

    During the Pinochet dictatorship the Church in Chile did much more than just condemn Pinochet's torture. Cardinal Silva established the Vicaria de la Solidaridad, a constant thorn in Pinochet's side. Every time someone was arrested and they got wind of it, theysent lawyers to file habeas corpus motions. By so doing they prevented thousands more from disappearing.

  5. sd: ¨The Church teaches that human persons, fully possessed of human rights, come into being at the moment of conception. Therefore if there are 1 million abortions in the U.S. per year, then there are 1 million murders of innocent human beings.¨

    It is quite impossible for non-Catholics to accept that Catholics (or the vast majority of other right-to-lifers) really believe this. Where are the draft bills making the penalty for abortion life imprisonment for the mother and the doctor? Are the thousands of Catholic women who have abortions against the teaching of their church excommunicated? The value map revealed by behaviour indicates very strongly that Catholics do believe abortion to be wrong but not nearly equivalent to murder, more like child abuse.

  6. sd — The problem is that you proceed on the assumption that 1) the Republican Party really wants to outlaw abortion and 2) governmental action is the least costly, most effective means to your end. Given that John Roberts referred to Roe v. Wade as a "super precedent" rather than outline an argument why such precedent is weak and should be ignored, the first is questionable. The second is a question that really needs to be answered by the Republican Party, but it makes no effort to do so. Abortion is too useful as a means of energizing the base for them. I agree with you regarding the morality of abortion, but it's quite unlikely that your vote for a given "pro-life" candidate saves any more lives than if you voted for his/her "pro-choice" opponent.

  7. "The Catholic Bishops of Chile threatened Pinochet’s torturers with excommunication."

    That honestly impresses me – I hadn't known that.

    SD, perhaps this restatement – in the USA there have been people threatened with excommunication and/or the witholding of sacraments for several sexuality-related offenses against Church teachings, starting with abortion and working down to distributing condoms.

    I have not heard of anybody similarly threatened for commiting torture and mass murder. That says something – the point where one is willing to stand up in public and denounce specific individuals is a critical point.

  8. Barry – can you name anyone publicaly excommunicated by the Church in the U.S. in the last 10 years?

    Luckily, torture has been a non-issue in the U.S. as well as the rest of the Western world for decades. It is indeed a tragedy that we now have to deal with the fallout of abandoning the core civilized avoidance of sanctioned torture, but such is where we are. To sat that the Catholic Bishops haven't publicaly excommunicated anyone for participation in torture is unfair. Its not like this issue has been live for a very long time, and most of the people involved are not public figures (i.e. to you have any idea if any of the people who committeed torture are even Catholic).

  9. SD wrote:

    There were scattered comments from individual Church officials in 2004 suggesting that John Kerry should be denied communion. But was he ever denied communion? No he was not.

    This appears to be incorrect.

    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/04/06/politic

    "St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke forbade Kerry from taking communion while campaigning in the area due to Kerry's stance on abortion and possibly stem cell research."

    The Bishops call both abortion and torture "intrinsic evil." But they made it clear that Kerry's opposition to a legal ban on abortion made him a bad Catholic. They have never done the same to any politician for supporting torture. Nor, for that matter, have they demanded that suicide be re-criminalized, though suicide and abortion are both, theologically, murder.

    And Ratzinger, who in a just world would be doing prison time for his role in the cover-up of child molestation, gave the Torturer-in-Chief a special private audience, a warmer welcome than the usual protocal when the Pope meets a head of state.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northam

    Actions speak louder than words.

  10. Two comments.

    (1) When Gaudium et Spes spoke out against torture, how did they address the long and glorious tradition of the use of torture by the Church itself, for example during the treatment of jews, crypto-jews and imagined-to-be-jews during the Spanish Inquisition? This is not entirely relevant to the discussion, I am just curious as to how this went down.

    Certainly when it comes to more recent times, the beatification of known torturer Gabino Olaso Zabala (in 2007 no less) makes this non-christian more than a little skeptical of the moral worth of these claims. The church's argument in this case was no doubt something along the lines of confession and repentance wipe away sins, and the guy really really did believe in god; but that basically reveals, in a nutshell, does it not, precisely why non-catholics have reason to see less than meets the eye here. In my moral universe, something like torture is a stain you do not get to wipe away, no matter how much you believe in god, especially if you never (as far as I know) publicly or even privately show remorse for your behavior. Whereas for the church, at the end of the day, it is the church that matters more than petty morality — Zabala died because he was a member of the church, and that's good enough to make him a saint, regardless of how vile some of his actions were. And this sort of loophole is PRECISELY the sort of thing that torture apologists rely upon — "when we are defending ourselves/our society/our way of life/ (which shades into defending our religion from the islamic infidel) then everything is acceptable as long as you keep your eye on the higher cause".

    (2) The catholic church's stance on abortion is well-known to anyone, catholic or otherwise. I find sd's arguments to be weak tea, because the church has put nothing like as much effort into making its stance on abortion known — and not even to catholics themselves, who, of the various religious and non-religious groups in the US are, by a small margin, the most enthusiastic supporters of torture. http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/poll_catho
    It doesn't help matters when the church itself is not willing to call a spade a spade. Let's review the tape:

    2006 Pope Benedict makes the fairly weak statement " "Not everything automatically becomes permissible between hostile parties once war has regrettably commenced."

    Then, when asked by reporters if the pope was condemning American torture, Cardinal Martino offered up this rousing denunciation: The pope "was not condemning anyone", and was simply asking that all countries abide by the Geneva Convention.

    Man, that's some powerful moral authority there. Can you imagine Amnesty International having the courage to condemn torture "in general" while not wanting to upset any partyicular countries or individuals by pointing out that they engage in the practice?

    Once again let's contrast with the church's rather more vigorous, let's call it, stand on abortion and gay rights.

  11. The statement “St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke forbade Kerry from taking communion while campaigning in the area due to Kerry’s stance on abortion and possibly stem cell research.” is murky.

    What we know is that Raymond Burke said the following things during the 2004 campaign period:

    1) That he personally would refuse to give Kerry Communion

    2) That individual priests are authorized to refuse to give Kerry Communion

    3) That Kerry should refrain from presenting himself for Communion in the Dioscece of St. Louis

    None of these statement is "forbidding" per se, though they clearly indicate that Burke thinks Kerry shouldn't receive Communion. And of course Kerry never presented himself for Communion and was denied. But fair enough, you found one American Bishops (out of hundreds) who publicly stated that Kerry, a professed Catholic running for President who got a lot of "mileage" on the campaign trail about "how important his Faith is to him" should be denied Communion.

    The torture issue is legally identical though pastorally different. The Catholic Church has campaigned vigorously against legal abortion for decades. It is absolutely no secret to any sentient being that this is the case. While the Church also teaches that torture is always wrong, until very recently (fortunately) its not been an issue that gets a lot of airtime. Thus one can argue that a particular Catholic might be in ignorance of Church teaching on this matter, and thus to deny him or her Communion is a pastorally unwise act (as opposed to say, privately informing them of the relevant matters of Doctrine)

    But let's grant for the sake of argument that the pastoral differences are moot. Who then should be denied Communion? In other words, name a public official who is Catholic who voted, specifically, to allow torture. The decision to use torture came from the executive branch. I'm aware of nobody in the "chain of command" who is Catholic and a public figure. Remember that the Church almost never publicly excommunicates or denies the sacraments to people who are not public officials.

    So what do you want the Church to do? Deny non-Catholics Communion?

  12. Public excommunoication is a statement by the Church that its not OK to do certain things and still be a Catholic. Its a teaching act directed only partially at the excommunicated person.

    How many Nazis were excommunicated (after the war ended?). How many Nazi priests defrocked?

  13. It would be perfectly proper for the Catholic church to excommunicate a politician in our society who voted to compel someone to have an abortion (no such vote ever having been taken or offered in the real world), just as it would be proper for the church to excommunicate someone who had or who performed an abortion (though it does not generally do so).

    It is not perfectly proper to excommunicate (or threaten to excommunicate, or even to treat as a bad Catholic) a politician who does not chooose to impose his or her own moral beliefs on everyone in the jurisdiction (country, state, city, whatever). Criminal law (which is what the ban on abortion generally is) is a matter of wide consensus; if it is not, it is very hard to enforce. (Witness laws against soft drugs or against gun possession, separately entirely from the Second Amendment arguments.) One may find abortion reprehensible without voting to criminalize people who do not share one's religion and do not share one's moral code.

  14. i have no memory of the catholic bishops speaking out in favor of expanding health insurance coverage or in making health insurance small businesses and individuals more affordable

    i have no memory of the catholic bishops speaking out against the torture policies of the bush administration or the torture policies advocated by conservatives

  15. Matnard handley:

    ¨…the long and glorious tradition of the use of torture by the Church itself, for example during the treatment of jews, crypto-jews and imagined-to-be-jews during the Spanish Inquisition..¨

    Your general point holds, though th eSpanish Inquisition did not target Jews but (as you rightly somply) conversos. The much smaller population of Spanish Jews was simply expelled in toto. You will find some sources in my little essay here: http://www.jameswimberley.es/Articles/Inquisition

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