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The intrinsic immorality of torture: still not convinced?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 18, 2014

Many readers continue to write with arguments against my condemnation of torture. I have already tried to answer the most common objections, so I will not belabor the matter. Let me just make one simple point:

If torture is intrinsically wrong, then it is wrong under all circumstances. We cannot argue that torture is justified in an emergency, any more than we can argue that abortion is justified in extreme cases.

So is torture intrinsically immoral? Don’t ask me; ask the magisterium:

Pope Benedict XVI, speaking on September 6, 2007, said: “I reiterate that the prohibition against torture ‘cannot be contravened under any circumstances.’”

Pope Benedict was quoting from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (404):

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.” International juridical instruments concerning human rights correctly indicate a prohibition against torture as a principle which cannot be contravened under any circumstances.

That document, in turn, cites a speech given by St. John Paul II to the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1982, in which he said: “Of their own accord, disciples of Christ will reject torture, which nothing can justify, which causes humiliation and suffering to the victim and degrades the tormentor.”

There is an argument abroad that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the CIA cannot be classified as torture because they were used to extract important information. The Catechism teaches that torture is wrong when it is used to extract a confession, my critics admit, but the Catechism says nothing explicitly about the use of torture to extract information.

Frankly I have trouble taking this argument seriously. Pope Benedict made the above remark in a talk to prison chaplains, who would be concerned with confessions; but Pope John Paul II was speaking Red Cross officials, who would not. The two Pontiffs reached the same conclusion.  

In either case, torture is used to force someone to say something that he would not willingly say. Whether it is used to gain a confession or some other information, torture is designed to strip the subject of his freedom of choice, which is essential to his human dignity. It is noteworthy that a theologian who once defended the confession-vs.-information distinction, Father Brian Harrison, later changed his position and said that he “would not defend any proposal, under any circumstances, to use torture for any purpose whatsoever-– not even to gain potentially life-saving information from known terrorists.”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: pc0508262962 - Dec. 22, 2014 8:02 PM ET USA

    If torture is intrinsically wrong, Mr Lawler, then we have difficulty explaining its toleration by the Church (popes, moral theologians) under the influence of legal neo-classicism from the 13th century to at least the 18th...

  • Posted by: John3822 - Dec. 20, 2014 9:22 AM ET USA

    As some comments here show, some people try to contort Catholic teaching to ensure that it conforms to their worldview instead of visa versa. It is always refreshing to see people stand up for a principal that they might not naturally be endeared to (e.g. a criticism of government policy). Kudos!

  • Posted by: FredC - Dec. 19, 2014 9:33 PM ET USA

    In stressful interrogation to get information, the objective is to stop the aggressor. The person interrogated can refuse to yield the information. The aggressor might be remote from the interrogated, but so is the soldier remote from his commander -- the chief aggressor -- when the soldier is being knifed. So I don't buy Phil's reasoning. Is he against all self defense? Contra Jeff: Some bosses pressure their employees to cheat on time cards -- immoral but not torture.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Dec. 19, 2014 1:32 PM ET USA

    The Magisterium is clear on the immorality of torture, which has been taught not only by two popes but by an ecumenical council (Vatican II). The only question left is what constitutes torture. How much pressure is too much? What kinds of pressure are either permissible or impermissible. One way to think about this is: If you think it would be immoral if done to you, your wife, or your children even for the best of reasons, it is probably torture, and so condemned.

  • Posted by: phil L - Dec. 18, 2014 4:02 PM ET USA

    No, Shrink. In just war or self-defense the object is to stop the aggressor-- by force-- if necessary. He retains his freedom to choose; the goal is to make him CHOOSE to stop. It's possible to resist an aggressor, even with deadly force, without denying his dignity.

  • Posted by: JosephAnthony - Dec. 18, 2014 3:50 PM ET USA

    My problem is with the word 'torture', because I'm not sure what it means. Some things are obviously torture, but what about sleep deprivation? what about intensive interrogation? what about psychological manipulation? What about cutting off the hand of a thief (cf. ST II-II Q65)? always torture? only sometimes torture? Are torture and punishment different? Is there a definition of torture that includes everything that is intrinsically wrong in every circumstance and nothing that is now?

  • Posted by: shrink - Dec. 18, 2014 3:42 PM ET USA

    Phil, not meaning to be tendentious, but if the intrinsic evil of torture "is designed to strip the subject of his freedom of choice" well then, so is war, under all circumstances. Even a war of self-defense entails acts of violence designed to strip the enemy of his will to persist—that is, his freedom of choice. War either destroys the enemy completely, or it forces a surrender, and violence is it's instrument. By your reckoning, all war is intrinsically immoral.