Tortured Theology

Abu GhraibIf Catholics for a Free Choice put out a T-shirt with Leonardo’s Last Supper on it reading, “This is MY BODY: Support Choice!” Christians would very rightly regard it as sacrilege.

But when Sarah Palin ginned up the (largely “pro-life” Christian) troops at a recent NRA rally with calls for torture, neatly wrapped in a linkage to the sacrament of baptism . . .

She also derided those who she said place an emphasis on political correctness in handling the country’s adversaries “instead of putting the fear of God in our enemies.”

She said later in her address that if “I were in charge”—a line that drew applause from the crowd—“they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”

. . . a great many conservative Catholics and other Christians had no problem cheering for this repulsive confection of mortal sin and blasphemy.

To be sure, her remarks drew fire from a number of pundits in the conservative blogosphere. Voices such as Rod Dreher, Joe Carter, Mollie Hemingway, and Patrick Brennan spoke out against what Brennan succinctly called Palin’s “barbarism.”

However, such voices are a distinct minority among postmodern “conservatives.” There’s a reason Palin’s unerring lowest-common-denominator populist instincts knew that line would get a roar of approval from her audience: research clearly shows that the more someone self-identifies as a “pro-life” and “devout” Catholic or Evangelical, the more surely they will applaud the use of torture in war.

And so while a few small voices in the blogosphere made noise, the real response of the postmodern “conservative” culture was seen in the millions Sean Hannity represents and in the comboxes of the pro-Palin bloggers that swelled up and burst with cheers for torture.

Hannity—fresh from championing a guy who, had he been a Muslim, would have fit precisely Palin’s definition of a terrorist (hiding behind women and children human shields and mustering a private army against his country because he lost a court case)—threw red meat to Palin’s huge audience of “pro-life” Christians by saying of her calls for torture, “That’s how America rolls.” And just to make sure he was not misinterpreted, good Catholic Hannity likewise committed sacrilege by noting: “I think I’d baptize them [terrorists] again and again and again.”

The visceral, prerational appeal here is not hard to grasp. It boils down to Palin’s primitive moral calculus: “Would I take decisive action to stop terrorists who given the chance would annihilate America and delight in massacring our children? Darn right! I’d do whatever it takes to foil their murderous jihadist plots—including waterboarding.” The appeal here is entirely to the gut and not to the mind. It is a kind of “shut your eyes and just lunge” rhetoric that is heedless of the disastrous consequences that even a few moments’ thought can easily foresee.

“Whatever it takes” means, for fallen man, much more than waterboarding and applies to many more than terrorists. Regimes that embrace “whatever it takes” ethics tend also to torture innocents and commit other kinds of war crimes. The dilemma, of course, is that the reason you torture somebody is that you don’t know what they know, and for all you know the victim will turn out to know nothing, as was the case with cabbie Dilawar. So you torture (and kill) an innocent person as often as not. Regimes that get in the habit of this don’t stop torturing. They stop admitting that the victim of torture was innocent, as Maher Arar can testify. Moreover, it soon occurs to torture regimes that you can more easily manipulate your victim if you torture, not him, but his family members, including his children. Not long after that, such regimes recognize that if they can do it to foreign threats, they can do it to domestic ones, including citizens. One would think that the champions of Cliven Bundy and his militia band in Nevada would reflect on the very real possibility that they might get a lot more than they bargain for in their calls to torture terrorists. After all, Obama is still outsourcing torture and has made it clear that he arrogates to himself the power to indefinitely detain and even murder anybody on earth, American citizen or not, he deems to be a national security threat. And if the victim turns out to be innocent, Obama simply declares him to be a terrorist after the fact. All it would take would be a serious bloodbath from a trigger-happy militia group or a Timothy McVeigh, and people like Bundy, Palin, Hannity, and their supporters might find that the state deems them to be worthy of torture—a thought that never seems to cross their minds.

Torture (which, yeah, includes waterboarding, as the Japanese we executed for it can attest) is what the Church calls “gravely and intrinsically evil,” just like abortion. That is, it can never under any circumstances be justified, not only because it is an assault on the human dignity of the victim, but also because it is an assault on the human dignity of the torturer and his supporters.

The evidence of this is seen in the way that apologetics for torture degrades the apologist. Ten years ago, people like Charles Krauthammer insisted that torture was only a last resort in a desperate situation: the Ticking Time Bomb Fantasy so beloved by fans of 24. Now Palin has corrupted the conversation to the point that torture should be a first resort, used to “put the fear of God” into our enemies.

And, as a final mark of corruption, Palin then couples this with baptism, turning a sacrament by which God gives life and love to sinners into an instrument of torture—to the thunderous applause of Christians. It is every bit as sacrilegious as linking the Eucharist to abortion, and it is a peculiarly dark and sinister thing that Christians who make a special boast of being “devout” should so darken their humanity as to defend this ugly baptism-torture link.

Such sacrilege demonstrates that, in addition to being evil, torture and the defenses of it also darken the intellect. For what goes completely unexamined in this primitive celebration of the salvific power of violence is the question of whether torture even achieves its alleged goal. Palin accuses her critics of being “wusses” who want the terrorists to win and our troops to die. But she never undertakes the elementary act of finding out what our troops think.

When you do, you discover that actual Army interrogators loathe the zeal for torture by Know Nothing civilians and politicians who get all their information from TV. That’s because it yields lousy intel that sends law enforcement on wild goose chases because the victims say anything to make the torture stop. It reduces, not enhances, national security. It also renders real criminals immune from conviction because evidence obtained under torture is inadmissible. It is what Communists, not Americans, do. And it places our troops in grave danger because it is they who will be subject to rape and torture themselves if captured, and it is they will be left to hang for carrying out the orders of politicians like Palin who command them to torture. There’s a reason the Army Field Manual forbids it.

And last but certainly not least, it places Christians who cheer for this filth and use sacrilege to do it in danger of losing their souls, for they, of all people, ought to know better. That’s why Pope Benedict XVI said, “The prohibition against torture cannot be contravened under any circumstances.” Period. That’s it. That’s all. Torture is not a courageous virtue. It is not even a “necessary evil.” It is an unnecessary evil that fulfils the Screwtapean dream of losing your soul and getting nothing in return.

The simple reality is this: our generation, with its characteristic narcissism, imagines that evil entered the world on 9/11 and that the Just War teaching of the Church has somehow become null and void because we allegedly face An Enemy Like No Other. News flash: somehow our parents and grandparents managed to defeat the monstrous Axis Powers while not embracing torture as policy to do it, nor committing sacrilege to justify it. Christians are called to lead and transform the culture, not be led and transformed by it. We must do better than be known as the single largest demographic in American culture in favor of war crimes. And conservatives must never lose sight of exactly what it is they are trying to conserve, or we will all become what we say we hate.

Mark Shea is a popular blogger at the Patheos Catholic Channel and the author of several books, including By What Authority? and Salt and Light: The Commandments, the Beatitudes, and a Joyful Life.


  • Zmirak

    I am profoundly glad that the Church has reversed its centuries-old embrace of torture–for instance, as applied to imprisoned “heretics,” and in the course of their execution via burning at the stake. As Vatican II taught, the restriction by the state of religious freedom violates the natural law, just like sodomy or perjury. It is a positive development of doctrine for the Church to admit that torture ALSO violates the natural law. I wonder if Illiberal Catholics who pine for intolerant Catholic states will dissent on this teaching, as they dissent from Vatican II.

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  • stephanie wilson

    hypocrisy of the left, including the loon who wrote this. we tortured nobody!!! WATERBOARDING AINT TORTURE! these pics were from abu garaib. what those soldiers did were NOT us policy!! bush NEVER condoned it! in fact, he condemned it! this is nothing but left wing propaganda! the left sure are hypocrites! they donyt give a rats a** about unborn babies. they seem to worship the god of abortion tho! btw, palin was mocking the left. she was joking. duh!

    • Heather

      Sadly, this only reinforces to me that the coherence of a statement is inversely proportional to the number of exclamation points. There isn’t actually a point being made here, but it sure is being made loudly.

      Mr. Shea is anything but left wing and considers abortion to be appalling. Is it really so surprising that someone who thinks that killing babies is appalling might also think that causing a helpless captive to experience drowning (albeit under carefully controlled conditions) is also appalling? Depriving someone of the necessities of life is considered a form of torture, and last I checked an unimpeded air supply was a necessity of life.

      Even if for some reason you cannot be convinced that it is actually “technically” torture, it is still no joking matter and not something to be publically bragging about. Such ugly bragging about something that may or may not constitute torture (and by pretty much any definition it does) only puts soldiers and others in dangerous areas at higher risk of having such treatment used on them should they fall into enemy hands. (But I guess if it’s not “really” torture then that doesn’t matter, does it?)

      • stephanie wilson

        tell that to the navy seals. its part of their trainning

  • byrneb

    Abstract, broad statements condemning any and all forms of torture for any reason whatsoever beg for specificity and I think quite naturally provoke consideration of scenarios where, perhaps in weakness, many might find torture an acceptable practice.

    As a father of five children under ten, I can say without hesitation or equivocation, I will readily commit brutal acts of torture under certain narrow circumstances around securing the safety of my family under imminent threat. And further, as a matter of proportional self preservation and defense of others from immediate harm, in my duty as a father, by my prudential judgement, considering the teachings of the Church, even in light of CCC 2297-2298, I would feel justified in the act. To be clear, extreme emphasis is placed on the word narrow, above and the very particular circumstances leading up to the act.

    From my perspective, more precise and specific consideration is needed to separate out intrinsically evil, sinful acts of torture from potentially justified acts of brutality.

    Pax et bonum

  • byrneb

    The issue I would address is whether or not torture, categorically, is rightly determined to be intrinsically evil in any and all cases. It seems to me that depends on the precise definition of torture; it must be clearly and narrowly defined. But also, I wonder, even with a very acceptable definition, would not other factors weigh in the determination, or perhaps this is only the case if the definition is in some way flawed.

    Common use of the term torture finds many applications and degrees of brutality. Torture may include depravation of the senses or the abuse of them. It may be purely psychological or also include physical abuse. Damage inflicted may range from temporary and minor to permanent and severe.

    Clearly, in the natural and moral law, subjective, relative, and dynamic definitions based on individual perspective are not helpful in the search for truth. Nor can they be the basis for categorical statements declaring an act to be, in and of itself, intrinsically evil if the definition of the act itself is unclear. And it would seem clear to me, if some forms of the act are not intrinsically evil, there exists some modifier, distinction, or caveat that must be applied; otherwise it is simply not the case.

    Dissecting torture is unpleasant and for all intents and purposes, possibly unwise as in the discrimination between licit and illicit application one may unintentionally leave open a door that should be closed. Perhaps this is why, in the Catechism, we do not see the statement that any and all forms of torture are, in and of themselves, intrinsically evil, nor do we see an attempt to explicitly define torture. What we do see proscribed is specifically, quite rightly in my perspective, forms of torture.

    That it is necessary to dissect torture and extract different species from it appears to perfectly make the case that indeed, not all forms or acts of torture are, in and of themselves, intrinsically evil.

    Complimentary to the examination of the precise definition of torture and the specific kinds of torture we can reasonably conclude are, in fact, evil, there is also the need to address justification for those that are not and their licit application.

    In your example, a father whose children are being held against their will by an evil actor who has knowledge of their whereabouts and their continued bondage is quite reasonably considered a circumstance of danger to life or health, I believe the father can licitly inflict even severe injury upon the evil actor to ascertain the location of their continued captivity. Yes, indeed, I find him completely justified. The remainder of your hypothetical is immaterial.

    Where are the distinctions? There we find the answers.

    Pax et bonum

    • byrneb

      I would add a further note of context to the quote from Pope Benedict XVI and the Compendium on torture:

      “The prohibition against torture cannot be contravened under any circumstances.”

      In context, the Holy Father is addressing the treatment of prisoners in judicial and penal institutions when he quotes the Compendium:

      “By their very nature, therefore, these institutions must contribute to the rehabilitation of offenders, facilitating their transition from despair to hope and from unreliability to dependability. When conditions within jails and prisons are not conducive to the process of regaining a sense of a worth and accepting its related duties, these institutions fail to achieve one of their essential ends. Public authorities must be ever vigilant in this task, eschewing any means of punishment or correction that either undermine or debase the human dignity of prisoners. In this regard, I reiterate that the prohibition against torture “cannot be contravened under any circumstances” (Ibid., 404).”

      The Compendium, likewise, is addressing the actions of the state in performing criminal investigations:

      “The activity of offices charged with establishing criminal responsibility, which is always personal in character, must strive to be a meticulous search for truth and must be conducted in full respect for the dignity and rights of the human person; this means guaranteeing the rights of the guilty as well as those of the innocent. The juridical principle by which punishment cannot be inflicted if a crime has not first been proven must be borne in mind.

      In carrying out investigations, the regulation against the use of torture, even in the case of serious crimes, must be strictly observed: “Christ’s disciple refuses every recourse to such methods, which nothing could justify and in which the dignity of man is as much debased in his torturer as in the torturer’s victim”.[830] International juridical instruments concerning human rights correctly indicate a prohibition against torture as a principle which cannot be contravened under any circumstances.”

      In both cases, a very real, immediate, and preventable threat to life by a proved guilty party is not considered, as, in my reading of it, the context is considering the practice of torture after the fact of the crime, employed punitively or to ascertain facts surrounding the crime committed for the purposes of the state in prosecution.

      Again, neither explicitly defines torture or that torture which is always and everywhere in every circumstance, wrong. And it cannot possibly be any and all all torture, by common use of the term.

      Pax et bonum

      • byrneb

        More context. As it happens the Compendium quotes from Pope John Paul II in his address to the Red Cross in June 1982, which is available on the website of the Holy See, but not in English. I’ve translated the French using an online French to English translator, so it is most definitely imperfect, however, the context in his address is the treatment of prisoners of war, referencing the Geneva Conventions as follows:

        “In this regard, within the framework of human rights, I would like to stress again on torture and other inhuman treatment. Governments adhering to the four Geneva Conventions are also committed to prohibit such treatment and to allow delegates from the Red Cross to visit detainees and to interview witnesses with inmates. I hope that, on this point also, your missions are accepted in all countries, to keep this open wound of mankind. So, with your specific means you are helping to establish respect for fundamental human rights and dignity, uniting also without distinction all those who, believing or not, are loving this ideal.”

        Pope John Paul II goes on to call to mind the person of Christ in the Passion as a graphical demonstration of torture:

        “And what is torture , the Christian faces his childhood with the story of the passion of Christ. The memory of Jesus bared struck derided even in his suffering agony, should always make him refuse to see a similar treatment applied to one of his brothers in humanity. Spontaneously, the disciple of Christ rejects any recourse to such means, that nothing can justify and where human dignity is debased in the person who is struck as elsewhere in his executioner.”

        One could write a book, and many have, on the Passion. However, if it is emblematic and at the root of Pope Benedict quoting the Compendium quoting John Paul II, on torture, we see an innocent, wrongly accused, imprisoned, mocked and brutally violated and mistreated to the point of death.

        That, the Passion, and a father acting to recover his child or children from a guilty party and immediate threat of harm are clearly not one and the same thing.

        Pax et bonum

  • DDoSCapitol

    Torture is a conflicted subject and as the byrneb says below, very much depends on context – what is torture, what is at stake and who is being tortured are important questions that a sweepingly general moral pronouncement avoids.

    Some of the arguments the author deploys are tendentious. Torture doesn’t work? At the very least, its persistence as an interrogation tactic makes that a suspect claim. The opinions of some interrogators quoted on Wikipedia – which is rife with anti-US bias on the subject of US military action against Islamists – are not the definitive word on torture. They are an opinion based on those persons’ biases and experiences. Major Hassan at Fort Hood was a US Army officer too, but I’m not accepting his word on anything. Less rhetorically, the military has people of varying political stripes whose opinions are colored thereby. Likewise, criminal prosecution isn’t the issue with persons subjected to waterboarding or other extreme (if not “tortuous”) measures – those tactics are used on a very limited number of subjects for whom the intelligence is worth more than the prosecution. War isn’t a subject for the courtroom.
    News flash: our soldiers in WWII tortured captives to get information – and sometimes as sheer payback.
    As for our soldiers being subjected to the same treatment – the enemy in question already employs torture rape and beheading against its own civilian population, much less enemy soldiers. They’re not doing this because we broke a rule – we’re not fighting a European army from the 20th century with similar values and rules. Who broke rules first may have had some relevance when both sides followed them (e.g. WWI and WWII between Germans and Allied troops) but even then total war’s lack of ethics prevailed – the same troops that engaged in the Christmas truce gassed each other. And that was a war where the combatants shared religions and cultures over centuries. Not the case now – not even close.
    Pat black and white answers to this question aren’t honest. Torture is a subject that tries the conscience of those who engage in it every time it’s done. The fact is, prohibiting it should also try the conscience of those who’d make these tactics off limits – when circumstances warrant it, do they want blood on their hands just to have a false ease of conscience ?