"And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God"
-- Micah 6:8

"The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict."
-- American Bar Association Standard 3-1.2(c)

"There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."
--Pope Benedict XVI, June 2004

Friday, May 01, 2009

Absolutists and Catholic Morality

Since the issue of torture has become prominent again due to the Obama administration releasing Bush-era memos on the subject, the morality of the methods of interrogation used in the fight against militant Islam has gotten a lot of play on the Catholic blogosphere. Some of the "anti" enhanced interrogation coverage has been of the frothing at the mouth variety while others like Feddie find a way to oppose these practices without impugning the good faith of those who disagree.

I say "enhanced interrogation" by the way, because there is still, at this late date, a great deal of ambiguity about what the term "torture" encompasses. In terms of Catholic morality, "torture" has never been actually defined authoritatively, much less condemned, until (apparently)Veritatis Splendor, an encyclical letter of John Paul II written in 1993. In #80 of that letter, opponents of "torture" find this support for their position:

the Church teaches that "there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object". The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: "Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, 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 honour due to the Creator".
This is to my knowledge the first and only authoritative source for the claim that torture is intrinscally immoral. Oddly, VS #80 cites to the Second Vatican Council document "Gaudium et Spes" as authority for the claim that the list of wrongs in #80 is intrinsically evil.

But Gaudium et Spes itself makes no such claim, only stating the following:

Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of homicide, 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 a supreme dishonour to the Creator.
These things are styled "infamies" but the precise claim is not made that they are intrinsically evil, that is, always and everywhere forbidden, regardless of circumstances.

The troubling aspect of the anti-"torture" position is the weight it puts on VS #80's labelling of torture as intrinsically immoral.

It is troubling because the language of VS #80 is exceedingly imprecise, and if one literally takes the view adopted by what we might call the absolutists, certain untenable conclusions follow, as can be illustrated thus:

VS#80 calls "intrinsically evil" the following:

"attempts to coerce the spirit" -- this phrase is ambiguous, but if we take the position of the absolutists who insist on a very strict interpretation of the document, it would seemingly condemn as intrinsically evil even the modest coercion routinely used in police interrogation, where mild methods like temporary isolation in a small room, insistent questioning, and use of verbal trickery are all employed to "coerce the spirit" to obtain a confession. Parents are under a duty at times to "coerce the spirit" of their children through punishment, counselling, persuasion, and invocation of authority. Those in authority in many different contexts rightly attempt to coerce the spirit of those for whom they are responsible.

"deportation"-- Again, strictly reading the document as a condemnation of the named practices as intrinsically evil would lead to the surely absurd result that nations could no longer deport even the worst violators of the public order who enter the country illegally. Again, there is no support in any prior teaching of the Church for the position that deportation is an evil of any sort, much less an intrinsically evil practice that can never be justified in any circumstances. Indeed, even the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, not noted for being particularly "rightist" or conservative about immigration, acknowledges that in some situations deportation is permissible.

The most unusual application of the "intrinsic evil" label is to what VS #80 in the official English translation calls "homicide." I wondered whether the English rendering "homicide" might be a mistaken translation for a Latin word more properly rendered as "murder," which would make sense when talking about intrinsic evil. I found that VS #80 actually quotes Gaudium et Spes here, and the Latin word used in that document (and in VS) is "homicidia." Homicidia can mean "murder," but is more accurately rendered, as it is the Vatican's own English translation does, "homicide." There are several words more specifically denoting "murder" in Latin, but these are not used in Gaudium et Spes or in VS.

So we are left with VS #80 classifying "homicide" as an intrinsic evil. This is problematic for several reasons, primary of which is that it would directly contradict the Church's long and clearly authoritative approval of Just War, proportional use of force for personal self-defense and defense of others, and the prerogative of the State to resort to capital punishment.

Now VS #80 does list some things that are in fact intrinsically evil, and we know they are because moral reaoning and the Church's long tradition have demonstrated them to be; examples of these are: genocide, abortion, euthanasia, suicide, and arbitrary imprisonment.

But the other items are not clearly intrinsically evil.

Yet the absolutists rest their case on a document which is riddled with ambiguities. There is in VS a mix of some actions that are, and always have been intrinsically evil, and which the natural law itself condemns. There are other things we must conclude are listed as intrinsic evils, which are clearly not, at least in the unqualified way in which they are presented: deportation and homicide, and probably torture itself; and there are items which are hard to describe as intrinsically evil, even while they might be often evil, such as subhuman living conditions, and perhaps torture, if we assume that the word describes a broader range of interrogation methods than the harshest practices it can be used to denote.

So VS in the end is a house of cards upon which to base an objection to torture based on Catholic moral principles. Which is not to say that torture or enhanced interrogation might not be worthy of condemnation for some other reason, or that we might define torture in such a way as to render it intrinsically immoral.

But the attempt by some to paint those who are not hasty enough to denounce all enhanced interrogation methods as lying, foolish, or sinful, based upon their absolutist reading of a very oddly worded encyclical, strikes me as unwarranted.

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