instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Too nice an argument

Fr. Brian Harrison has written a much-mentioned two-part article titled "Torture and Corporal Punishment as a Problem in Catholic Theology." [Part 1; Part 2]

Fr. Harrison concludes his article "by offering a few tentative theological conclusions, based on [his] reading of Scripture, Tradition, and the rather confused and even historically inconsistent witness of the Church's (non-infallible) magisterium." His final conclusion is the most controversial:
Thirdly, there remains the question -- nowadays a very practical and much-discussed one -- of torture inflicted not for any of the above purposes ["extracting confessions," "to frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred," "carried out not by public authority in accordance with a norm of law"], but for extracting life-saving information from, say, a captured terrorist known to be participating in an attack that may take thousands of lives (the now-famous 'ticking bomb' scenario).... My understanding would be that, given the present status questionis, the moral legitimacy of torture under the aforesaid desperate circumstances, while certainly not affirmed by the magisterium, remains open at present to legitimate discussion by Catholic theologians.
I find this conclusion to be brain-spraining.

Here is my understanding of Fr. Harrison's understanding of why this one case can be pared off from all the other kinds of torture he states are "intrinsically unjust" (someone should confirm that I've represented his position fairly):

If you compare what the 1984 UN Convention against Torture (of which, for what it's worth, the Holy See is a signatory) and the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church say about torture, you will find they offer the following purposes of intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering as constitutive of torture:
UN ConventionCatechism
"obtaining...a confession""extract confessions"
"punishing...for an act he...has committed""punish the guilty"
"intimidating or coercing""frighten opponents"
"any reason based on discrimination""satisfy hatred"

Fr. Harrison suggests that the drafters of the Catechism, "while generally following the Convention's proscriptions, deliberately decided not to do so on [the] particular point" of torture for obtaining information. Because it looks to Fr. Harrison "like a deliberate decision on the part of church authorities, rather than a mere oversight or coincidence," he regards the morality of torture for obtaining information to be an open theological question.

My subjective response to this is that this is precisely the sort of logic chopping that gives Roman Catholic theology a bad name. As much as we might wish it to be otherwise, human language does not -- and cannot -- define a formal system of moral action. Strings of words found in the Catechism do not define reality, they describe it, and all this tweezering about to determine the precise degree of authority and authenticity becomes a mug's game.

It isn't, though, merely an academic game played by theologians. If, as Fr. Harrison suggests, "the moral legitimacy of torture" "for life-saving information" "remains open to legitimate discussion," then guess what! We can torture for life-saving information! Lex dubia non obligat. And from "we can torture" to "we ought to torture" is but a syllogism or two. Pretty quickly, we're to the point where what the Church teaches is, practically speaking, the same as what any fair-minded pagan at leisure would opine.

A more objective response seems to require taking my own axe to Fr. Harrison's logic. Looking again at the comparison between the UN Convention and the Catechism, we can ask whether "intimidating or coercing" and "any reason based on discrimination" really correspond to "frighten opponents" and "satisfy hatred." Isn't it possible to act for a reason based on discrimination that isn't also based on satisfying hatred? Might one not intend to coerce without intending to frighten? And if so, are we to conclude that torturing in these cases "remains open to legitimate discussion"?

I would note also that the argument that torture for information is an open moral issue seems to require, not only the absence of a couple of words in the Catechism, but something very like Fr. Harrison's second tentative moral conclusion: seems that the exclusion of torture (flogging, etc.) as legal punishment can be seen as an appropriate practical implication of the Law of Christ, especially under modern circumstances, even though such punishment is not intrinsically unjust.
The exclusion of torture must be only "an appropriate practical implication of the Law of Christ," or else the list of motives given by the Catechism cannot be taken as normative. If torture to punish the guilty is a matter of balancing "their dignity as human persons" with the duty "to maintain public order and protect innocent citizens," then the Law of Christ functions here as less a law than a rule of thumb.

In short, as Fr. Harrison chops up the words of the Catechism,* both what it says and what it doesn't say are sources of legitimate freedom to torture.

*. And yes, I'm not entirely unaware of the irony of me complaining about someone else chopping up words.