What does Catholic moral teaching have to offer in the torture debate?

What does Catholic moral teaching have to offer in the torture debate? The experience of seeing two millennia of human conflict of every sort, from civil war to world wars.

In response, the Church has applied its own moral reasoning based on the natural law to questions of war and injustice.

The debate in the United States has been framed over revelations about the improper treatment of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, as well as the recent claim that the CIA operates secret prisons and has knowingly extradited prisoners to countries where torture is practiced.

There have been two major responses. On the one hand, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has proposed a law banning torture by the United States in any form for any reason. On the other hand, commentators like Charles Krauthammer have claimed a complete ban on torture is unworkable at best and immoral at worst. The president, after some resistance, has agreed to support McCain’s proposal.

But given the ongoing war on terror, these questions are likely to arise again, and it is worth considering how Catholic thought approaches these questions.

Krauthammer poses the quandary of capturing a known terrorist who has information about an imminent attack: Is it permissible to torture him in order perhaps to save thousands of lives? Krauthammer says that in such circumstances it is not only permissible, but there is a “moral duty” to do so. Others counter that one life — even that of a terrorist — should not be brutalized in this way, even to get information that may save others.

So far, the debate has revolved around a sort of debased utilitarianism, as the example above suggests: How many terrorists tortured are worth one American saved? How many Americans are worth sparing one terrorist from torture? Some say none; some say it depends. Further, the argument for torture, even in limited circumstances, dances around the dehumanization of others.

While Krauthammer, for example, says he deplores torture for purposes such as revenge, he also condemns extending “undeserved humanity to terrorist prisoners,” who are entitled to no “humane treatment.”

Catholic moral teaching contributes a missing dimension to this debate. It has as its center the image of the Suffering Servant, who suffers torture at the hands of all humanity, including our own. As the rites during the Easter Triduum remind us, the congregation replaces the crowd seeking the crucifixion.

We are all torturers. Because of original sin and our fallen nature, people can be persuaded to torture anyone, even the innocent. To pretend otherwise and permit torture in “limited circumstances” ignores the basic facts of human nature as the Church has propounded them.

Catholic teaching reminds us that lives cannot be balanced one against the other. But there is a further point Catholic thought can make here. Because of its emphasis on moral action, Catholic thought takes into account not just the brutalization of the victims, but also the souls of the victimizers.

The Catechism could not be clearer on this issue: “Torture that uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and human dignity” (No. 2297). That is, the human dignity of all concerned — torturers and tortured. The Catechism then teaches that the torture of innocent persons is “against the moral law.” Calling torture methods “degrading,” it says, “It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors” (No. 2298).

It has often been said that Christ’s most difficult instruction was his command to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

The Catechism exhorts us next to “pray for both the victims and their tormentors.” This exhortation to prayer, uncomfortable as it may appear, applies equally to the situation of Americans brutalizing captured enemies, and terrorists abusing captured American soldiers.

Further, politicians have a responsibility to avoid harming the human dignity of the soldiers. Catholic politicians especially have a duty to avoid doing anything that may harm the souls of those in their charge. They violate that duty when they order soldiers to degrade others — such as terrorists — through torture.

The 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) reaffirms this teaching. It places torture with abortion and euthanasia as equally a disgrace to society, “and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honor due to the Creator” (No. 80). That is, torture contaminates us more than the terrorists, because in deciding to torture we choose to inflict violence on others. That torture may have a beneficial result — obtaining information, for example — is not in itself a justification for a dehumanizing act.

This is the key Catholic insight, and it is contrary to much of contemporary commentary. Catholic moral thought prohibits torture not just because of the pain inflicted on the victims, but because it is sinful as well to the torturers.

Once a society starts arguing about when such coercive methods are “appropriate,” it has already begun to condone permitting its own citizens to brutalize and debase themselves as well as harm their victims.

This is not an easy teaching to enunciate or defend, especially in the shadow of Sept. 11. Brutal things happen in wartime, and to assert this teaching is not to pretend otherwise. Nor does the teaching exclude the possibility of mercy even for torturers in a legal proceeding. Like anyone else, they should be afforded all the rights to which they are entitled. However, adhering to the Catholic teaching does place the focus where it belongs: on human dignity.

Gerald J. Russello is a fellow

 of the Chesterton Institute

at Seton Hall University.