with Evil: May a Catholic Advocate Torture?
Mark P. Shea
do not differ much about what things they will call evils,"
said G. K. Chesterton; "they differ enormously about what evils
they will call excusable."
political ideologies tend to have different ways of finessing
and nuancing what, in Catholic thinking, is more bluntly called
"mortal sin." Conservatives are familiar with the ingenious
ways that the Pelvic Left has found to rationalize it by either
subjectivizing Goodness and Truth or by appealing to the notion
that good ends justify evil means. The goal here is simple:
legitimize more and more ways in which powerful people can have
sexual pleasure, no matter the cost to anybody else. That's
why there's abortion, whereby men make women pay for the fun,
and women pass the bill onto their babies. That's also why an
economically prosperous subculture of gays can continue the
push to force "gay marriage" on the culture. And that's why
there's no-fault divorce. The big winners of the sexual revolution
were adulterers, abortionists, and attorneys.
according to Lifesite News, that very same ethos has made it
possible for Richard Yuill to be awarded a doctorate degree
from Glasgow University for arguing in his doctoral thesis that
sex between children and adults is sometimes a positive experience
for the children.
a moral cretin like Yuill can now be taken seriously in the
leftist academy is actually quite simple: Once you embrace one
form of sexual sin on the basis that morality is subjective
or that the ends justify the means, your own flawed logic demands
that you support whatever fresh perversion rounds the bend.
After all, if you try to tell Dr. Yuill that he's advocating
a violation of the immemorial moral code of humanity, you stand
in grave danger of having your recently legitimized sexual sin
called back into question as well.
one justification for evil tends to lead to justifications for
even deeper forms of evil. Artificial contraception leads to
abortion leads to euthanasia leads to infanticide (currently
being tested in the Netherlands in preparation for worldwide
distribution) leads to the classification and murder of other
"undesirables." No-fault divorce leads to shattered families
leads to redefinition of the family leads to gay marriage leads
to further redefinition of the family out of practical existence.
And so on.
generally recognize all this and stand on guard against attempts
to excuse and downplay pelvic sins precisely because they know
where those sins lead. For this reason, few conservatives would
fall for something like this imaginary editorial (written, say,
in response to the claims made a couple of years ago that a
drop in crime rates could be correlated to the rise of abortion):
Hubener was a rarity in Austrian 19th-century medicine. Against
the dictates of the powerful Austrian Catholic Church, he advocated
the right of women to terminate dangerous pregnancies, particularly
when they were trapped in relationships with powerful, abusive
men. One day, a woman named Klara came to him for medical advice.
She was pregnant and frightened. Not the least of her fears
was the manipulative fear of hell that had been put into her
by a cold and uncaring parish priest. She was a timid girl and
not sure she was ready to be a mother. Dr. Hubener was, at present,
the only one who knew she was pregnant besides her. He urged
her to terminate the pregnancy, but in the end, out of her fear
of hell, Klara declined. Eight months later, her son, Adolf
Hitler, was born.
feel that abortion is evil. We will not argue the point. We
will merely note that every reasonable person will agree that
the cause of good would have been greatly advanced if Dr. Hubener
had aborted Hitler that day. So even if you think abortion is
evil, we can only reply that history abounds with examples of
good actions furthering the cause of evil.
take a conservative Catholic long to reduce the logic to dust.
But when identical rhetoric comes from the Right, things become
example, a recent piece by Michael Ledeen that appeared in National
Review Online (http://www.nationalreview.com/ledeen/ledeen200411180823.asp).
Excerpted from his book Machiavelli on Modern Leadership,
the piece was titled "WWMD?: Machiavelli on how to deal with
wounded enemies," and told of one Henry Tandey, an English soldier
who found the wounded Adolf Hitler on the battlefield in World
War I and spared his life. It concluded: Murder
is surely evil, yet every reasonable person will agree that
the cause of good would have been greatly advanced if Henry
Tandey had killed Hitler in that trench. History abounds with
examples of good actions furthering the cause of evil....
the piece was published just a few days after a U.S. Marine
was filmed shooting an unarmed, wounded man in a Fallujah mosque.
Ledeen clarified his argument in a later post:
point, actually-is that real decisions in real life are almost
never easy, and those called upon to make those tough decisions
have to be willing to "enter into evil." Sometimes by doing
that-as briefly as possible, he implores us-means doing things
we know to be morally wrong. I gave the Hitler example because
Machiavelli knows, as every grownup thoughtful person knows,
that it is also possible to do the morally right thing, and
by so doing, we unleash great evil. Life is tough. And the abstract
moralists are not a very good guide for leaders, at least not
all the time. Obviously I was trying to get people to think
more deeply about the Marine in Fallujah [emphasis added].
are several things happening here, and it's vital to keep them
separate. The first is that Ledeen is aiming to "think more
deeply about the Marine in Fallujah."
believe, is a mistake. For the thing we should be thinking is
actually quite simple: Wait until the investigation is over.
If the Marine deliberately shot a wounded man, knowing that
he was unarmed, the Marine did evil. If the Marine-in attempting
to assess a difficult situation caused by enemy troops faking
wounds and death in order to ambush our soldiers-mistakenly
killed a wounded man, then he didn't do evil. That's it. That's
not Ledeen's approach here. First, he suggests that even if
the Marine had committed cold-blooded, premeditated murder...well,
is that really such a bad thing? And second, he proposes
that "grownup thoughtful" persons who are not "abstract moralists"
should endorse a Machiavellian call to "enter into evil" and
"do those things we know to be morally wrong."
see only two possible ways to account for Ledeen's linkage of
the story of the shooting in Fallujah to his "enter into evil
and murder the unarmed Hitler on the battlefield" argument.
One possibility is that the writer was simply having an off-day.
Where he meant to say, "Sometimes mistakes are made on the battlefield,"
he somehow ended up saying, "Sometimes things we know to be
morally wrong-such as cold-blooded murder of a man we know to
be unarmed and wounded-are acceptable." Charity bids me to hope
that's what happened; otherwise, he can only have meant precisely
what he said.
is not a Christian, and so I don't expect him
to much care when St. Paul warns that those who say, "Let us
do evil that good may result" are "justly condemned" (Romans
3:8). (I'm skeptical that there's room for this sort of thinking
in Ledeen's own Jewish tradition, but not being an expert on
Jewish moral theology, I will not press the point.) However,
I do expect a Catholic to follow St. Paul and Church
teaching on the subject. So I was surprised to read conservative
Catholic pundit Linda Chavez writing in much the same vein just
a week or two later in her Townhall article, "It's time
for a rational debate" (www.townhall.com/columnists/lindachavez/lc20041201.shtml).
stated purpose is to open "rational debate" about what does
and does not constitute torture. Is sleep deprivation torture?
Is missing a meal torture? Confinement? Extended interrogation?
a perfectly reasonable question and would certainly be beneficial-if
that's where Chavez went with her article. But instead, she
argues for torture using logic strikingly similar to that used
criticizes the International Committee of the Red Cross for
accusing the United States of torturing enemy combatant prisoners
at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and asks: "Does that mean U.S. interrogators
are sticking needles under inmates' fingernails and attaching
electrodes to sensitive body parts? Or are they merely beating
prisoners senseless? Hardly."
Chavez goes on to describe techniques that do sound like
they could-though not necessarily-constitute torture under certain
circumstances ("solitary confinement, temperature extremes,
and using 'forced positions' to obtain information").
At this point,
it would indeed be reasonable to raise the question, "When are
such things torture, and when are they legitimate?" After all,
a "forced position" can range from, "Put your hands over your
head" to being forced to squat for twelve hours. It's precisely
here that we need to have the discussion so that we can distinguish,
say, legitimate "forced positions" from torture.
doesn't raise that question. Instead she asks, "[I]f such methods
are 'torture,' is the United States justified in using them
Even if it is torture, can we do it anyway?
For a Catholic,
there is no debate on that question, for the Church has answered
it definitively. Gaudium et Spes (no. 27) condemns torture
violates the integrity of the human person, such as...torments
inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself...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.
And if that
isn't clear enough, Pope John Paul II quoted that same passage
in Veritatis Splendor (no. 80), calling torture (of any
kind) one of "a number of examples of...intrinsically evil"
however, does not consult the teaching of the Church. Instead,
she moves on to a recitation of various horrors perpetrated
by the murderous thugs of radical Islam and declares:
forced into debating the moral parameters of torture because
of the very nature of our current enemy. The United States is
not at war with a conventional army, but with men whose aim
is to kill innocent civilians in the most horrific manner possible.
shift in the argument. At the beginning of the article, we were
not debating the moral parameters of torture at all.
That's because there's nothing to debate. Torture is "intrinsically
evil." Period. We were, initially, going to debate what constitutes
torture. But now, Chavez argues, in effect, "Our good ends really
do justify use of evil means against this enemy because, well,
this enemy is different." How, precisely, the current enemy
is so different from past enemies-Nazi, North Korean, Japanese,
and Viet Cong torturers and murderers-that torture is now justified,
Chavez does not say.
she moves to a list of atrocities committed by radical Islamists-ranging
from 9/11 to the beheadings of innocent people like businessman
Nick Berg, and asks: "Would we have been justified in using
whatever means necessary, if [it] might have led us to rescue
as it may be to accept emotionally, the answer to that question
is, "No." Plain and simple. By no means, ever, at any time,
in any circumstance, in any world, may we commit grave sin that
good may come of it. Romans 3:8 makes this abundantly clear,
as does the entire Catholic moral tradition. And that goes a
fortiori for calls to use "whatever means necessary." We
cannot torture people for the Greater Good. We cannot-even for
a noble end-cut off the fingers of their children while they
watch. We cannot subject them to unmedicated dentistry for the
purpose of, we hope, gaining vital intelligence. We cannot rape
their wives before their eyes because you have to break a few
eggs to make an omelet. We cannot stick needles under inmates'
fingernails, attach electrodes to sensitive body parts, or beat
prisoners senseless because we're good guys who mean well. We
cannot turn blowtorches on a prisoner's back, suspend him from
hooks until he passes out from screaming, castrate, gouge eyes,
or employ many other devices wrought by the fertile imagination
of fallen man-even if 20 of the finest ethicists money can buy
say it will all work out well in the end. Those who embrace
such an ethic are, according to the word of Almighty God, "justly
would surely reject those actions as "so repugnant they may
never be used," she nevertheless misses an important opportunity
to turn to Church teaching to answer the broader question about
torture. Instead, she approvingly quotes Andrew C. McCarthy,
a former chief assistant U.S. attorney who wrote in Commentary
that we need to create "controlled, highly regulated, and responsibly
accountable conditions" to obtain information from enemy combatants.
"Under such a system, the government would have to apply to
a federal court for permission to administer a predetermined
form of non-lethal torture."
the tortures I describe above are non-lethal, so we can all
relax. And, as we know, the court could never, say, legislate
that a whole class of human beings is deprived of the most fundamental
human right, such as the right to life.
just like Ledeen, Chavez concludes by writing:
does not appear to have uncovered anything approaching real
torture. But perhaps it's time we put aside our squeamishness
on this issue and opened a genuine debate about exactly what
methods a humane society is justified in using to save innocent
words, the call for torture now issued, Chavez ironically stifles
the "rational debate" she started out asking for. Just as Ledeen
ridicules the "abstract moralists" and suggests that no "grownup
thoughtful person" could dissent from his calls to "do those
things we know to be morally wrong," Chavez dismisses the "squeamishness"
not of those who won't define torture, but of those who stand
in the way of "non-lethal torture" or the use of "whatever means
And so Chavez
has, by the end of her article, ended up very far afield from
what she set out to discuss. Beginning with the contention that
we must be very clear about what torture is and is not, she
then leads not to a discussion of how to distinguish legitimate
forms of coercion from torture, but from, "[I]f such methods
are 'torture,' is the United States justified in using them
anyway?," to the suggestion of using "whatever means necessary,"
to an implicit call for "non-lethal torture" (leaving up to
the imagination what "whatever means necessary" might entail).
For a Catholic,
the fact that something is "intrinsically evil" ought to be
enough to end the debate. Indeed, it should suffice as a granite
and immovable rebuttal to this entire line of argument since
nobody, Left or Right, has the right to even consider the notion,
"Let us do evil that good may come."
pains and penalties of sin (by which we mean "risking the everlasting
fires of Hell and eternal damnation") aren't the only reasons
no Catholic should support the use of torture. It is also worth
noting that right here in this world, a culture's adoption of
torture-even the "non-lethal" variety, and even in times of
emergency-is a formula for social catastrophe.
legal abortion-is a slippery slope leading to, among other things,
the creation of a special class of people who truly enjoy
this sort of work and are good at it. Reward such work and create
a special department in the government for it, and people like
that tend to find ways to continue plying their special skills,
even when they're no longer wanted by the state that once supported
them. Just ask the victims of the quasi-mafia, quasi-KGB operatives
who are doing very well in the post-Soviet era of gangsterism
in Russia. And
as Chavez, Ledeen, and McCarthy make clear, Americans are themselves
toying with these ideas. Already, according to ABC News, "U.S.
military panels reviewing the detention of foreigners as enemy
combatants are allowed to use evidence gained by torture in
deciding whether to keep them imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay,
And that includes "even...the data...from questionable practices
like torture by a foreign power." How do we rationalize this?
Easy. We argue, in the words of Principal Deputy Associate Attorney
General Brian Boyle, that enemy combatants "have no constitutional
rights enforceable in this court."
precisely Ledeen's implication when he argues that, at any rate,
"the Marine did not shoot a PRISONER. He shot an enemy combatant."
In translation, this apparently means that "enemy combatants"
have no legal rights and therefore-as torture proponents argue-no
human rights. So is Ledeen really saying that killing a wounded
"enemy combatant" you know to be unarmed is not murder? He doesn't
say, but merely suggests. And so he leaves us with another statement
that charity compels us to regard as a muddle, rather than suppose
that Ledeen is really saying that the fundamental right to life
doesn't apply to wounded, unarmed men, so long as they belong
to a certain legal class.
consequences and, for the Right as well as the
Left, one justification for evil tends to lead to justifications
for even deeper forms of evil. Ledeen tells us with brutal clarity:
"I know there are forms of torture that are both disgusting
and counterproductive, and they should be rejected. But I'm
quite prepared to believe that there are slightly less disgusting
yet significantly more productive methods that we should employ."
But what's to stop us from progressing from "slightly less disgusting
forms of torture" to truly disgusting torture, so long as it's
"productive"? Our corn-fed American goodness that protects us
from original sin and its effects? Given that this doesn't seem
to have done the trick with Roe v. Wade, Catholics should
hesitate to endorse this line of reasoning.
Chavez and McCarthy, both influential figures on the Right,
assure us they want to limit this intrinsically evil practice
to "non-lethal" forms of torture-much as we were once assured
by the Pelvic Left that only first-trimester abortions were
under consideration. Those who are squeamish about where this
could lead are effectively dismissed, again, much as opponents
of abortion were laughed at for saying this would surely lead
to infanticide and euthanasia. But the slippery slope
is slippery indeed, and Ledeen is already offering both pleas
for torture by "slightly less disgusting methods" and what amounts
to a plea for the realpolitik utility of cold-blooded
murder of unarmed wounded soldiers on the grounds that sometimes
we have to "enter into evil" and do "those things we know to
be morally wrong." And besides, they're "enemy combatants,"
not people with rights. So in their case, you don't necessarily
have to call it "murder," just as you don't have to similarly
label the killing of the unborn.
And so the
question will naturally arise: If murdering unarmed and wounded
enemy combatants is okay on the battlefield for a good end,
why not enemy combatants who are being detained? If a way can
be found to make even disgusting methods "productive," then
why not apply them-even if they are potentially lethal-in order
to extract vital intelligence? After all, we've already granted
that both torture and murder are sometimes necessary,
for the sake of the Greater Good.
our government has approved the use of evidence obtained through
torture, since people in certain special legal classes-like
the unborn or enemy combatants-are therefore without human rights
at all. How
far down the slope will conservative Catholics be willing to
slide before they recognize that they too can be lulled into
making excuses for intrinsic evil and mortal sin? The next few
years will tell us. My prayer is that the Right will learn from
the mistakes of the Left and not repeat its sins of justifying
the commission of evil for some greater benefit.
they do these things when the tree is green, what will happen
when it is dry?" (Luke 23:31). What indeed?
P. Shea is the author of By What Authority: An Evangelical
Discovers Catholic Tradition (Our Sunday Visitor, 1996) and Making
Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians
Did (Basilica Press, 2001).