Clearing the wreckage: “Why a Catholic Despises Torture”

Did The Dish understand the Catholic doctrine on torture incorrectly? From my reading, that’s what it looks like. AS saw one of his own ideas about torture — and maybe a good one — reflected in Gaudium et Spes, one of the main documents of Vatican II:

whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.

I do not refer to my religious convictions very often in the torture debate precisely because I want to make an argument for secular society, on secular and moral grounds, and want to persuade more than Catholics.

But I do want to say that the Church gets to the core of the issue – the true definition of torture here:

whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself;

The point here is not to make some deranged distinction between waterboarding a human being with a cloth rather than cellophane, for twenty seconds rather than forty, or, God help us, 183 times in a row rather than 100 times in a row. People who define torture by these absurd qualifications are missing the forest for a stack of twigs. The point of torture is to violate the integrity of the human person and to coerce the will itself.

Except that phrase “attempts to coerce the will itself” is an ambiguous one in the Church’s document. It would seem to leave proper space, under violations of integrity of the human person, for both religious compulsion and brainwashing. Religious compulsion would be something the Church would want to address in its past history, and its schooling system. And brainwashing (for which this Wiki article says “coercive persuasion” and “thought control” are synonyms) would be a new feature of the modern age that the Church would want to address, given the development of fascism and communism. This is not to say that brainwashing and religious compulsion have not been linked to the use of torture.

In Latin, the line in question is

quaecumque humanae personae integritatem violant, ut mutilationes, tormenta corpori mentive inflicta, conatus ipsos animos coërcendi

Animus refers to “the spiritual or rational principle of life in man,” including his will, but it is also the word for “soul.” The phrase is also translated as “attempts to coerce the spirit,” which seems to evoke the idea of compelling a belief about religion instead of persuading or gently arguing for it.

[ In fact, the very next section of Gaudium et Spes clarifies the right way of religious persuasion and how to react  to a person who may profess a heresy:

28. Respect and love ought to be extended also to those who think or act differently than we do in social, political and even religious matters. In fact, the more deeply we come to understand their ways of thinking through such courtesy and love, the more easily will we be able to enter into dialogue with them. […] it is necessary to distinguish between error, which always merits repudiation, and the person in error, who never loses the dignity of being a person even when he is flawed by false or inadequate religious notions.(10) God alone is the judge and searcher of hearts, for that reason He forbids us to make judgments about the internal guilt of anyone.(11) ]

The Catechism, in 1992, seems to dissociate this idea of a coerced will from the idea of “tormenta corpori mentive inflicta,” a phrase which of course would by itself evoke the act of torture. The Catechism seems to indirectly set out a definition of torture in this section (which Andrew has quoted, only to note the proximity of torture and terrorism and its significance):

Respect for bodily integrity

2297 Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures. They are morally wrong. Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately is gravely against justice and charity. Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity. Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law. 91

(The bold print is mine.) Besides abandoning Sullivan’s sine qua non for torture — “attempt to coerce the will” — the Catholic Catechism also disputes Sullivan’s belief that torture has to be in the context of obtaining information or confessions. And the Church says it can also be a tool of sadism, if we read “satisfy hatred,” to include that.

Andrew vehemently disagrees with the idea that sadism can define acts of torture. He bristles at people trying to defend the Bush administration by noting the rules passed to prevent sadism. However, that an institution sets limits to prevent some acts that appear like pure sadism does not mean that the joys of sadism have been exorcised from the institution. Unlike Andrew, I don’t think sadism has to be a conscious feeling or drive. The sadism that comes from a person’s ressentiment is often unconscious and converted into a feeling of self-righteousness, for example, in a zealous attorney general’s call for harsher criminal sentences across the board.

Anyway, the upshot of Andrew’s post is that he charges Cliff May with supporting “the very infamy the church understands as torture,” even though I thought Cliff May’s background was Jewish. The Dish leaves us, and May, with this:

You will also note how high up the list of atrocities torture is. This was not just a crime; it was a sin.

Andrew doesn’t seem to realize that in the post width of his blog, there are only 6 lines of “atrocities,” meaning things in the Church’s view that oppose life, damage the integrity of a person or assault human dignity. Besides torture, the atrocities in this passage include murder, genocide, being a slum lord, and exchanging your own sexual favors for money. They don’t include rape, unless “torments inflicted on body” includes rape as well as the physical form of torture. Anyway, in these 6 lines, torture is “high up” on line 3.

Though it might disappoint AS, I’m not trivializing torture by demanding that we think critically about it even when someone brings it up in a religious context. Cliff May clearly supports things that a priest would argue are methods of torture according to Catholic doctrine — and I would probably agree according to my own doctrine.

However, if “attempts to coerce the will” doesn’t indicate torture, this upsets part of Andrew Sullivan’s ritual in battling what he calls “heresy” (here, on the part of maybe-non-Catholic Cliff May).

Every time someone tries to distinguish “coercive interrogation” from torture, Andrew says they are being Orwellian; there is no distinction, no matter what practices this person believes qualify as “coercive.”  Andrew has felt supported in this ritual by linking the Church’s language about  “attempts to coerce” to the idea of coercive questioning. His deconstructions of phrases such as “coercive interrogation” are part of the spiritual meaning he assigns the fact that he “despises torture”; and just from hearing the word “coercive,” Andrew’s mind will brand an opponent as someone who is “pro-torture.”

Andrew may be correct in many cases that this word is merely a person’s euphemism for things that constitute torture, but whether he is right depends entirely on what the opponent means by “coercive” — and Andrew has forgotten.


Next up: How Jean Amery in one of the classic texts about torture, and maybe also Saint Augustine, disagree with The Dish on the meaning of this atrocity.

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