Saturday, January 3, 2015

Ask Tony: What's the Catholic Church's position on "enhanced interrogation techniques"?—UPDATED

Source: Washington Post.
A: "Enhanced interrogation technique" is simply a euphemism for torture. The Church teaches that torture is intrinsically evil.

It's really not rocket science. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, cruel practices, even when used to maintain law and order by legitimate governments, are not "in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person". (CCC 2297-8) In a speech in Sept. 2007, Benedict XVI stated unequivocally, "In this regard, I reiterate that the prohibition against torture 'cannot be contravened under any circumstances' (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 404)." Nobody should expect Pope Francis to support it, either.

In Romans 3:8, St. Paul specifically denies that the apostles teach a consequentialist message. This rejection is restated in Catechism § 1789: "One may never do evil so that good may result from it" is a rule "that applies in every case".

One of the many things St. John Paul II apologized for in the name of the Church was the sanction of torture in securing confessions to heresy. It really doesn't matter, for our purposes, that its use was hedged about with many restrictions, that the clergy never directly participated, or that it was a matter of discipline rather than dogma (and so is covered by neither infallibility nor "tradition").The Church was wrong to do so, and there's an end to it.

Then why, you may ask, did so many white Catholics (the only Catholics represented) come out in favor of torturing suspected terrorists on the recent ABC/Washington Post poll?

Stan Goff, the author of Chasin' Jesus, suspects that part of the answer is due to relentless indoctrination by Hollywood:

... [T]he whole subject is embedded in carefully formulated, dramatic hypotheses. Moreover, we are all indoctrinated with ... "electronic hallucinations" nearly from birth that implant these hypothetical situations in our heads. Television and film, to be more precise, the most effective tools for mass indoctrination in the history of the world, have bombarded us with concocted stories that revolve around something that the late Russian film theorist Sergei Eisenstein labeled the "tempo task." ...

Any time we have this debate, those who want to justify torture evade discussion of the actual acts of torture (breaking someone's limbs with iron bars, for example, or letting him be chewed up by attack dogs, or pumping pureed hummus up his ass, or plunging him into ice water until his core temperature drops), and instead deploy a tempo task scenario. What if he has armed a nuclear bomb in Times Square and you have ten minutes to find it and disarm it? The purpose of the tempo task scenario is not to establish some moral line, but to dispense with morality altogether in favor of pragmatism in extremis.


Other parts of the answer are poor catechesis and our tendency to read the Catechism through ideological lenses. It also doesn't help that a lot of the pro-torture argument depends on ad misericordiam appeals — O the poor victims who will suffer so much from the dastardly terrorists if we don't use "enhanced interrogation methods"! Above all, the pro-argument ignores the fact that more reliable and humane methods exist to harvest information from suspects. As Goff says, "So when I take the 'non-religious' to task for their theological illiteracy, I am obligated to point out that the bigger problem, for Christians, is not the theological illiteracy of non-believers, but the theological illiteracy of believers."

Some have tried to use an argument by Fr. Brian Harrison of the Oblates of Wisdom to the effect that, while torture to extract a confession is against the magisterium's teaching, torture to gain information isn't. However, Fr. Harrison himself has abandoned this position: "... [H]aving now become aware that Pope Benedict himself has personally reiterated [Section 404 of the] Compendium, I wish to state that I accept the Holy Father’s judgement on this matter, and so 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."

Others have tried to argue that the Vatican hasn't named particular techniques, such as waterboarding, as torture. However, the argument is ridiculous on the face of it: we're not talking about a schedule of controlled substances. Nor is it a question of establishing what level of pain, discomfort or fear must be reached before "interrogation" becomes "torture", since no threshold is even implied by the teaching. These are all attempts at appeal to finer detail, in the hope that we can find a way to finagle the teaching so it no longer applies.

I hate to do this, but let me repeat some things I said on a similar issue ("lying for Jesus"):

... People who engage in Catholic apologetics with Protestants ought to be familiar with qorban, as it comes up in Mark 7:10-11, which parallels Matthew 15:4-5: “For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father and mother, let him surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God’ [qorban], he need not honor his father.’”

Both Dr. [John] Zmirak and Dr. Peter Kreeft rightfully warn us of constructing a Pharisaic vision of God that smiles on adherence to a rigid, legalistic approach while ignoring the demands of justice and charity. But in the passages referenced, Jesus accused the Pharisees of a legalism that justified the evasion of the Law through the construction of a technicality.

That’s the other edge of the Pharisaic sword. In our eagerness to morally protect a tactic that seems to be working in our favor, we’re finessing Scripture, Tradition and the Catechism to death. It reminds me very much of the tactics the defense pursued in the Rodney King police-brutality trial: By stopping the damning videotape at various points during the replay, the lawyers created brilliant alternative explanations for certain events that, when taken together, succeeded in — if you’ll pardon the expression — turning black into white.

That’s how the culture of death works: it rationalizes the use of intrinsically evil methods to pursue good ends. It says to us, “Evil x isn’t as bad as evil y,” and asks us to ignore the fact that x is still evil. It plays with definitions; it provides examples that play on our emotions; it cites Scripture out of the context of salvation history. It appears to say to us, “Give us this ha’porth of tar, and we will save the ship,” when in fact it really says, “All the kingdoms of the earth will be yours, if only you fall on your face and worship me” (cf. Matthew 4:9).

As St. Paul said, “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14).

 This is not a conversation we should be having. This shouldn't be a debate. This shouldn't even be a cause for thoughtful chin-scratching. Roma locuta est, causa finita est: "Rome has spoken; the case is closed." Rome does not support "enhanced interrogation techniques" because Rome does not support torture. Neither should anyone who wishes to consider himself in communion with the Holy See. As St. Augustine said about another issue, "The matter is at an end; if only their error too might sometime come to an end!"

UPDATE: January 7, 2015

In the USCCB-approved and -issued study guide "Torture is a Moral Issue", we find the following paragraphs:

Enhanced interrogation techniques: This terminology, cited ... by Father [Bryan] Massingale, undoubtedly represents the euphemism most frequently cited by commentators on the contemporary use of torture. And the second most frequently cited euphemism for torture is surely "the extraordinary rendition" of prisoners, meaning that the United States or its allies sends a prisoner into another nation’s custody for interrogation. Often, commentators point out, it is well known that these other nations practice torture.
But any terminology that waters down the reality of torture, or that masks its reality, may be a euphemism. Thus, "sleep management" might replace "sleep deprivation," forcing prisoners to sit or stand in "stress positions" might mean forcing them to assume cruelly punishing postures for long periods.
Sometimes severe forms of interrogation are labeled "abuse," rather than "torture" — apparently out of a sense that "abuse" somehow sounds less cruel. Some might say that a certain interrogation technique is "tantamount" to torture, as if to suggest that it is almost, but not quite, torture. And some commentators consider even the term "waterboarding" euphemistic — a term that they say does not fully call to mind the reality of a simulated drowning. (Op. cit., p. 30; bold font mine)

The USCCB's Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development issued a "Background on Torture" in February 2013, begins by noting that "The depiction of coercive, violent, interrogation tactics in popular television programs like 24, or in the recently released film, Zero Dark Thirty, have spurred debate over whether torture can be used or justified." The "Background" also implicitly endorses the UN Convention against Torture, which defines it as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person"; and also states that the bishops "continue to speak out against expansion of 'enhanced' interrogation techniques".

Furthermore, the USCCB also sponsors a one-day workshop package titled "Torture is an Intrinsic Evil". In the study guide for this workshop, we find the following statement: "The ticking time bomb scenario ... further assumes that the only way to get the detainee to divulge that information is to have military and intelligence personnel use 'enhanced interrogation techniques' which is just another name for torture [bold font mine]."

The fact is, the USCCB has long been a critic of the US defense establishment's use of torture, regarding it as a failure to live up not only to our country's treaty obligations but also to our finest ideals; see here for a list of links to further resources on the USCCB website. It's also clear the USCCB considers "enhanced interrogation techniques" to be euphemistic. And it's also clear that they consider the "ticking time bomb scenario" — a version of Eisenstein's "tempo task" — to be an insufficient argument. Nor will you find a definitive list of tortures, for the same reason there's no definitive list of mortal sins: once you know the operating definition, deducing whether a particular instance fits ought to be a matter of reason and good sense.

However, we Americans have a bad tendency to read magisterial documents and pronouncements through the lenses of our politics. Thus, individual bishops and the USCCB as a whole are often dismissed or derided as "lefties" by political neo-conservatives who, as The Blogger Who Must Not Be Named put it, have "perverted 'prudential judgment' from meaning 'How can we best and most prudently obey the guidance of the Church?' to 'Feel free to blow off and mock the Church’s clear guidance if it does not jibe with the hivemind of Movement Conservatism'." The fig leaf of "prudential judgment" is no worse than the left's use of "primacy of the individual conscience" ... but it's no better, either; you could convincingly argue that one expression means essentially the same thing as the other.

In any event, I have no reason to retract the statement at the beginning of this post: "Enhanced interrogation technique" is simply a euphemism for torture. And, as Pope Emeritus Benedict (quoting the Compendium) said, "the prohibition against torture 'cannot be contravened under any circumstances'". Invoking high hypothetical numbers of lives that can be saved with it or lost without it doesn't make it any less intrinsically evil.