It seems that the word torture today is often tied to government actions such as the former Bush administration and its policies. Many Catholics today are confused as to what the definition of torture actually is, and if and when it is permissible. Some Catholics fail to draw proper distinctions when dealing with moral issues such as torture or the death penalty, and many tend to either completely endorse such actions or completely reject them. They seem to think that if you are against abortion, or for the dignity of the human person, then the death penalty should be out rightly condemned, or that acts of physical or mental violence should not be permitted under any circumstances. The problem with many Catholic apologists today is that many do not take the time to think their positions through and draw distinctions for each circumstance. Many often read one quote from a document or an audience and immediately draw their own conclusions. I want to address one specific instance in this article.
The most common errors of Catholic apologists today is to play the "quote the Pope" card. You quote a Pope as an ultimate authority, when the Pope was possibly not speaking as an ultimate authority. For example many people quote Pope Benedict XVI in a public audience to a commission for the World Congress when he said, "...I reiterate that the prohibition against torture “cannot be contravened under any circumstances...” as if that were a dogmatic statement condemning all torture. Catholic apologists should know that this was not a dogmatic statement, and they should know better than to take a quote like this one out of context. For one, we can go back into history and find other Popes saying something entirely different. What we end up with is an appeal to opposing authorities. For example, Pope Innocent IV openly endorsed torture during the Inquisition. Does that mean that Catholics should have endorsed torture under any circumstances back during the Inquisition? Of course not. We need to think these things through before we go off making any definitive pronouncements on such things.
We have to draw distinctions if we are to make any sense of these moral dilemmas. There are certain times that someone can be put to death, and certain times where it is immoral. The same goes for when physical or mental violence can be used on a person. I think it would be a gross misunderstanding to take Pope Benedict's comment to mean that all physical or mental violence towards anyone for any reason is condemned in all circumstances. It is obvious that putting someone in solitary confinement for long periods of time would be considered torture. Yet the State has the right and duty at times to punish someone in such a fashion to keep the moral order of society and to protect society. The same goes for the death penalty. The State has the right to punish by Capital Punishment for the sake of the moral order of society, as long as it used proportionately.
I want to take a look at this statement made by Pope Benedict XVI where he talks about prisons and the issue of torture. The misuse of this quote has gone far enough. Many Catholic apologists have used this little quote as their tagline on their blogs to completely condemn torture of any kind in any circumstance. (example) Yet, if we look at the entire context of the quote you will see that the Pope is using torture in a limited context. Since torture is defined as using some sort of physical or mental means to coerce the will, we should realize that the Pope is not condemning it all circumstances. The proof however is seen in the entire context of the quote.
"Prisoners easily can be overwhelmed by feelings of isolation, shame and rejection that threaten to shatter their hopes and aspirations for the future. Within this context, chaplains and their collaborators are called to be heralds of God’s infinite compassion and forgiveness. In cooperation with civil authorities, they are entrusted with the weighty task of helping the incarcerated rediscover a sense of purpose so that, with God’s grace, they can reform their lives, be reconciled with their families and friends, and, insofar as possible, assume the responsibilities and duties which will enable them to conduct upright and honest lives within society."
Here the Pope is referring to prisoners being rehabilitated by the civil authorities. But there is one interesting caveat he uses, "insofar as possible." So here we can see that the Pope is not talking in an absolute as far being able to rehabilitate prisoners. Let us continue.
"Judicial and penal institutions play a fundamental role in protecting citizens and safeguarding the common good (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2266). At the same time, they are to aid in rebuilding “social relationships disrupted by the criminal act committed” (cf.Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 403). 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)"
Lets start at the beginning of this paragraph. The Pope in the first sentence acknowledges that the State has a fundamental role in protecting citizens and safeguarding the common good. This is the right and duty of the State to keep the moral order. One of the responsibilities of the State is also to try and rehabilitate the offenders, but notice the caveat that was already given, "insofar as possible." So the Pope is obviously not condemning the incarceration of certain prisoners who are not able to be rehabilitated. Then the Pope goes on to address specifically a punishment or correction which undermines the dignity of the human person. This is where we need to pay attention! It is only then that the Pope says, "In this regard, I reiterate that the prohibition against torture cannot be contravened under any circumstances." This is very important. Because the Pope is not condemning all torture here. He is condemning torture which specifically undermines the dignity of the human person.
Of course, the definition of what and when this happens is very obscure, and I have yet to come across a very detailed definition of what violates this dignity, and what exact circumstances it falls under. It doesn't mean that we stretch the limits to find out what they are, but it would seem that there are certain instances where torture could be used that would not violate this dignity, otherwise the Pope would have never used the exact wording that he chose to use in the above statement. I think that by using reason and common sense we can determine what may or may not be acceptable circumstances.
Punishment and self defense by the State authorities are two possible reasons that physical or mental coercion may be used. For example, the State has the authority to carry out the death penalty in order to restore the moral order and to institute punishment fitting to the crime. I think that we can make some distinctions that would allow for torture under certain circumstances as well. One instance would be for the State to carry out punishment to restore the moral order. To deny this is to deny imprisonment, which would be physical and mental torture. The State is incarcerating a person against his or her will to either punish or to rehabilitate them. This falls into the working definition of torture. To deny this use is to let every criminal on death row go free. But I think we could argue that this is not done in order to violate their human dignity.
Another reason would be for self defense. The State can carry out physical or mental violence to stop a violent act against innocent people. This would mean however that all other forms of coercion have been exhausted, before physical coercion could be used. This would include an appeal first to the criminal's intellect to get the offender to co-operate, then only moving up the chain to physical coercion as the initial coercion of the intellect fails. There are a few facts that must be established for the State to do this however. First the apprehended person must be materially cooperating in an active offense against innocent lives. You can't just guess that someone may have information regarding some attack, you have to have a certainty that they are materially cooperating with such an attack. For example, a man who is pulled over by the police has an abducted girl in his car. There is another girl missing to whom the criminal admits to having tied up somewhere in a basement to which he will not disclose the location to the police. The State could then, using the proper chain of coercion begin to force the will of the criminal to give them the location of the abducted girl. This would not be a violation of the moral law. This would be an act of self defense. The criminal's will is set to carry out an aggression against an innocent person to which he does not have a right to do. So in this case, such an act of mental or physical coercion would not violate the person's dignity any more than a police officer using a baton to force a thug to cease assaulting an innocent girl on a street corner. Once again, we must clarify each circumstance.
So as we make distinctions, we can see where there are not always absolutes to these types of moral questions. There are some instances where torture cannot be used under any circumstances, such as to gain a confession, or for the sole intention of stripping a person of his dignity as a human being, or to seek revenge on a person. These would be immoral to do. However, for the purpose of punishment, or the purpose of self defense, the State can use physical or mental violence to either restore the moral order, or defend innocent life when that life is in immediate danger by an unjust aggressor. To argue against this using the above quote from Pope Benedict XVI would be a gross misunderstanding of his intended statement.
Before I close this article, I must reiterate that this not an endorsement of various government policies or individuals. It is not a call for people to go out and play Jack Bauer. This is an objective look at Pope Benedict's statement which I believe is being taken out of context. I look forward to further dialog on the subject if anyone wants to rationally discuss it.