Monday, October 23, 2006

Theology and Torture

As noted many time, torture was condemned explicitly the the Second Vatican Council. In particular, Gaudium Et Spes says:

"The varieties of crime are numerous: all offenses against life itself, such as murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and willful suicide; all violations of the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture, undue psychological pressures; all offenses against human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, degrading working conditions where people are treated as mere tools for profit rather than free and responsible persons: all these and the like are criminal: they poison civilization; and they debase the perpetrators more than the victims and militate against the honor of the creator."
In his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendour, Pope John Paul II went even further, defining torture (and other things on this list) as intrinsically evil (intrinsece malum), namely "acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object." These acts "do not allow for any legitimate exception. They do not leave room, in any morally acceptable way, for the "creativity" of any contrary determination whatsoever." Moreover "circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act "subjectively" good or defensible as a choice."

Pretty strong words. Some have quibbled with this, however. They note that the Church has not always condemned torture, and anyway, how could John Paul raise a group of issues that the Council called "shameful" to the status of "intrinsically evil"? The latter issue has been dealt with by Cardinal Avery Dulles, in the context of slavery (he didn't address torture directly). But Dulles disputed the overall notion that John Paul had somehow changed church teachings. Appealing to Jacques Maritain, he argues that:

"Radical forms of slavery that deprive human beings of all personal rights are never morally permissible, but more or less forms of subjegation and servitude will always accompany the human condition. The elimination of slavery, possible in our time, corresponds to a natural dynamism of the human spirit toward freedom and personal responsibility. The goal of full and uninhibited freedom, however, is an eschatological ideal never fully attainable within history."
In other words, no core doctrine has been altered or reversed. As Dulles puts it: "The formulation of revealed truth develops through the discernment of new truths that are formally implicit in the apostolic deposit." What about torture? Although Dulles does not address it directly, the same argument would hold. Torture is intrinsically evil if and when it violates the God given dignity and integrity (the intrinsic worth) of human beings. Now, even though this cannot be defined precisely, the old pornography "I'll know it when I see it" standard holds.

But what about the Church's behavior in the past? Didn't it condone torture, and even proscribe rules for use during the Inquisition? Well, we need to make some clear distinctions. For a start, the evil of torture was explictly recognized as far back as 866, by Pope Nicholas I. Still, the Church failed to speak out more often than not, and was often complicit in torture. But it is not so simple. Using the same logic as Dulles, Michael Liccione argues:

"The Church has not changed her doctrine; she has developed it by better understanding and making more explicit the logical consequences of truths she has always professed. Accordingly, she has put the particular sin of torture behind her."

Zippy Catholic makes the following distinction:
"There is a fundamental difference, though, between a doctrinal teaching and a juridical decision. When Church administrators (including the Pope) make juridical decisions, they are not exercising the teaching office of the Magisterium."
Think of it this way: the unchanged teaching of the Church was that torture was licit, if doing so would serve the common good. Liccione notes:
"But the Church's development of doctrine has it that the torture and execution of people for their religious beliefs is a violation of their consciences, which is intrinsically evil inasmuch as it violates one of the most basic of human rights.... That is what the Western-European wars of religion and the rise of popular government taught the Church even though should it have been obvious much earlier than that... Even though [this notion] is a remote application of moral principles pertaining to the depositum fidei, it is not itself such a principle and in fact relies, like geocentrism, on an empirically mistaken belief to get where it goes from such principles."
Therefore, according to Catholic theology, torture is indeed intrinsically evil, and admits of no exceptions, and the seeming discontinuity is not of a nature that should cast doubt on the veracity of this teaching.

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