Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Insanity: The Case of Catholics Who Defend Torture

Preliminary Note

This article is not going to deal with the allegations of the Senate Report on CIA torture and whether or not they are true. I’ve seen some people try to sidestep the real issue by questioning whether the report is accurate. As I see it, that’s a red herring. Regardless of whether or not this report is accurate, that doesn’t change the issue of whether torture should be done at all. This article is going to deal with that second issue. If torture is evil, then whatever nation uses it is doing evil—and that includes the United States.


There is a certain insanity going around the internet—or, for their sakes, I hope it is insanity—concerning the release of the Senate report on torture and the CIA. I call it insanity because the action is essentially Catholics openly rejecting the teaching of the Church. Mind you, these are not the typical dissenting Catholics who reject the Catholic teaching on abortion and contraception and teach that people need not listen to the Church. These are people who openly profess their belief in and obedience to the Church who are saying that torture, which the Church condemns as intrinsically evil (that is, never can be considered morally acceptable under any conditions), is justified against the enemies of the United States.

The Catholic Cannot Be Considered Faithful In Defiance of Church Teaching

This is where the individual Catholic has to make a choice. Either he recognizes that the Church teaches with the authority of Christ, and is protected from teaching error, or he denies that authority—at least on some issues—and makes himself or herself the authority which judges the Church.

The Catholic who professes to be faithful knows that when the Church teaches on a matter of faith and morals, even when the Pope does not teach ex cathedra, the Catholic is supposed to give assent to the teaching of the Church. We can see that taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #892:

892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent”422 which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

So, when the Church condemns something in a source like the Catechism, we are to give our assent (express agreement) to this teaching. If we don’t, we’re not being obedient to the Church teaching, and if we condemn others for being disobedient to Church teaching, we show ourselves to be hypocrites. Now, it is good to explain the why of a Church teaching, but right off the bat, we have to make a fundamental choice.

The Catholic Defending Torture is Rejecting Church Teaching

The defense of torture tends to take three basic forms (which can be embellished by name calling and emotional rhetoric). All of them involve a rejection of Catholic teaching. These three basic forms are:

  1. What was done was not torture.
  2. We have to do this to keep Americans safe.
  3. What we do is not as bad as what they do.

The first of these denies that the Church has the authority to define what is and what is not torture. In the Catechism (#2297), the Church describes torture as "physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred.” The individual Catholic does not have the right to define it in a more convenient way.

The second promotes an idea of pragmatism which the Church utterly repudiates. In the Catechism (#1789), the Church declares, "One may never do evil so that good may result from it.” Yes the government is required to protect her citizens from harm. No, the government cannot choose to use evil means to do so. All the arguments that state that because we haven’t had a major terrorist attack since 9/11/01 are irrelevant. If torture is evil (and the Church teaches it is), then we cannot use it as a means to let good come of it.

The third argument is sheer moral relativism. It replaces good and evil with the concept of “Not as bad as . . .” Basically it says, "I’m not as bad as a terrorist. Therefore what I do is acceptable.” The Problem is, whose standards are you going to measure yourself against? Pope Francis? George W. Bush? Obama? Kim Jong-Un? Josef Stalin? Adolf Hitler? As long as you use someone worse than you as your standard, you can basically justify whatever the hell you want. And that’s what is happening. Say on Facebook that torture is evil and people will say that what we do is not as bad as what ISIS does, so we shouldn’t complain.

But the problem is, just because what ISIS does is grossly evil does not mean that what we do is not evil. The difference between ISIS and what the US has been accused of is not the difference between two extremes. It’s a difference of degrees—ISIS is willing to tolerate more to achieve their goals than the US is, but both are willing to make use of "physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred.”

But, if we use what benefits us as a sign of what is good and compare ourselves to someone who is worse, what basis would we have to complain if ISIS said, “We’re not as bad as Josef Stalin or Adolf Hitler”? They would be using the same argument, but in their own favor. Without an objective moral standard that says “torture may never be done,” the only standard is the morality of the individual. History is full of people who believe this . . . and we look back on them with horror and disgust. 

Basically, none of these arguments are compatible with Catholic teaching. If we believe that God exists, and that certain things are always evil, we must not do those things. If we have done these things, we must repent and turn away from them if we would have God forgive us.


For the Catholic, we cannot let our political ideology get in the way of our faith. If we believe that the Catholic Church was given the authority to bind and loose by Christ Himself, we have to accept that the Church has the authority to bind and loose what we can do—always protected from teaching error in things concerning our salvation. If we reject that, it makes very little sense to remain in the Church.

If something is condemned as wrong by the Church, we do not have the right to say it is morally good. That includes abortion, and it includes torture. We who claim to be faithful Catholics must be faithful to all the teachings of the Church, not just those we like. Otherwise, we’re just cafeteria Catholics, just like those who reject the Church teaching on contraception and abortion and so-called “same sex marriage."

We must also realize that we will be judged for what we do, and we will be judged for leading others astray. As the Catechism points out (#2283), "It is also blasphemous to make use of God’s name to cover up criminal practices, to reduce peoples to servitude, to torture persons or put them to death. The misuse of God’s name to commit a crime can provoke others to repudiate religion."

Will God judge us for causing people to repudiate religion because we are so foolish as to reject the Church teaching on a subject where even the irreligious can see evil is being done?

Think about it.

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