Archive for the ‘Torture’ Category

Back to Torture Again

Friday, February 12th, 2010

There was a horrendous report of child abuse in the news today — a man has been arrested for waterboarding his 4-year-old daughter because she couldn’t recite the alphabet.

After reading this horror story, I made a comment about it in an email I send out to some of my friends.  I said, “This is where it leads when one obfuscates the moral law, and shades the truth about intrinsically evil acts…  So, it’s criminal if you do it to a child, but permissible “enhanced interrogation” when you do it to a prisoner?”

Well, one of my friends challenged me for making this argument about my “hobby horse” of torture, and I thought that the exchange would be interesting to share more generally.  In his reply, my friend noted that there is a significant difference between the way that we treat children in the law and the way we treat adults, in particular where moral and legal culpability and punishment are concerned.   For example, we are legally and morally permitted to inflict punishments on adults (e.g., imprisonment and even execution) that we would never impose upon children.  He also noted that waterboarding is similar to the training we give to soldiers, which tends to undermine the argument that it is always “torture”.

My response began by pointing out that the starting point of any discussion of morality is to remind ourselves that there are three fonts of morality — the moral object (the objective nature of the act), the intention of the actor, and the relevant circumstances. (Catechism 1750)

The problem with the debate over torture is that the focus is not on the moral object of torture, but has instead concentrated on other factors — the intention of the actors (some writers’ theme that the waterboarders are “honorable men”), or the usefulness of torture (the Jack Bauer, er, I mean Dick Cheney consequentialist argument that “it works”).  But none of those factors will render the act good, since the moral object of torture is intrinsically evil.

Remember, the moral object is not just the physical act alone.  It represents the object that is freely chosen by the actor, and thus involves not just a physical act but also an end that is chosen. (See Veritatis Splendor 78)   The distinction between the physical act and the moral object is essential.

Here’s the definition of the moral object in question: “Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred” (Catechism 2297), in violation of the affirmative duty that “Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely” (Catechism 2313).  In Veritatis Splendor 80, Pope John Paul listed  torture among those acts that are “”intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances”.

Once we recognize the intrinsic evil of such an act, the intentions of the actor (honorable or otherwise) and the circumstances (the victim is a really bad person, the bomb is ticking, etc.) are irrelevant to the moral analysis — they cannot render an intrinsically evil act good or neutral.  Using the physical and moral violence of inflicting the sensation of drowning and the terror of dying upon a bound prisoner in order to extract information cannot, under any circumstances, be a good or neutral act.

Other moral objects are morally neutral or good, and are not intrinsically evil.  Thus the circumstances and intention must be consulted to see if the act is good or evil.  So, a parent’s striking a child to teach them discipline (i.e., the infliction of corporal punishment) can be a good act (but can also be evil if overdone, or done for the wrong reason).

We also have to be precise in how we define our moral objects, especially in situations where two physical acts are superficially similar.  For example, what happens in military training may resemble the physical act of waterboarding, but it is not the same moral object as waterboarding, because the end that is sought by the actor is fundamentally different.  This training is not “physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred” in violation of a duty to treat a prisoner humanely.  It is instead the consensual infliction of physical distress in order to prepare a soldier to endure mistreatment (i.e., torture) by an enemy.  It is a different moral object entirely, and cannot be used to justify torturing a prisoner.

This may seem like splitting hairs in the way we define acts, but it is essential to a comprehensive analysis of moral activity.  We must keep in mind that there are some acts that are always intrinsically evil, regardless of the circumstances or intention of the actor.

Not a Cause for Rejoicing

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

One of my favorite websites is National Review Online.  Not only do they have top-notch political analysis, but they feature a number of excellent writers who are strongly pro-life and excellent promoters of Christianity and Catholicism in the public square, like Kathryn Jean Lopez.

Unfortunately, some of their contributors have a significant blind spot when it comes to torture.  I’ve written a number of times now about torture, and its absolute immorality under all circumstances (see here, here, and here, for example).  I’m not going to re-hash the arguments once again.

But now we have one of the leading defenders of the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, including waterboarding, saying this about the results in the Massachusetts special election for U.S. Senate:

Scott Brown spoke out forcefully in favor of enhanced interrogation, and won — in Massachusetts. He said of waterboarding, “I do not believe it is torture. America does not torture . . . we used aggressive, enhanced interrogation techniques.” And his own top strategists say their polling shows his victory was not in spite of this public stance, but because of it…  [E]nhanced interrogation is not torture. It stopped terrorist attacks. And as Scott Brown’s election shows, Americans understand this — and rally to candidates who are willing to speak the truth.

In support of this contention, he cites the distressing recent polls that show a majority of Americans, and a majority of Catholics, support the use of torture — flat out torture, not just “enhanced interrogation techniques” — against people we suspect of being involved in terrorism (see my comments on those polls here).

It’s a tragedy that a majority of Americans, and perhaps now another United States Senator, think it’s a good idea to torture human beings who are made in the image and likeness of God, just because we suspect they might have knowledge of heinous acts.  That’s not a cause for rejoicing, it’s a cause for moral alarm.

Don’t get me wrong here.  I’m happy that Mr. Brown’s victory kept an ardently pro-abortion politician out of the Senate (he’s “pro-choice”, but open to some pro-life bills).  It also makes it less likely that Congress will pass one of the gravely flawed health care reform bills.

But if his victory demonstrates that Americans are even more pro-choice about torture than they are about abortion, and that politicians should take advantage of that when they campaign, then don’t expect me to show up at that victory party.

A Tortured Poll and the Caiaphas Principle

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

A deeply disturbing poll has just come out from the Rasmussen Reports, the respected public opinion research organization. They report that “Fifty-eight percent (58%) of U.S. voters say waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques should be used to gain information from the terrorist who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day.”

This confirms to me that our Church and other religious leaders need to do a much better job in catechizing our people about the intrinsic evil of torture, and the utter unacceptability of consequentialist ways of thinking. Consequentialism is the mischievous notion that the end justifies the means. In this case it means the idea that our government should do “whatever it takes” to obtain information from terrorism suspects, even if that means torturing them.

Last year, there was an absolutely appalling poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the well-respected research center. It revealed that most evangelical Protestants, and most Catholics, including most who attend Mass regularly, stated that they approve of the use of torture. What is especially disturbing to me is that the Pew poll didn’t allow for a wiggle-room discussion over whether things like waterboarding are actually “torture”. It openly asked people about torture — yet 62% of evangelicals, 51% of Catholics, and 54% of all weekly church-goers approved of its use.

Let’s review some important points about God’s law, as proclaimed in the teaching of the Church. The Catechism states that

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. (2297)

Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely. Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. (2313).

This leaves no room for consequentialism — our Church clearly defines torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners as intrinsically evil, and forbids them unequivocally.

Just so it’s clear, there’s really no question that waterboarding is torture, or at the very least that it is “contrary to the law of nations”. Here is how torture is defined in the Convention on Torture, which, as a treaty ratified by Congress, is the law of the United States:

[A]ny act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person… when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

Indeed, at various times in our history, our government has consistently held that anyone who waterboards a prisoner during wartime is guilty of a war crime. Our military specifically forbids the practice.

Even if you thought that waterboarding didn’t qualify for that definition, any “aggressive interrogation technique” that falls short of that definition would still be forbidden by the Convention on Torture — and thus by American law, “the law of nations”and the teaching of the Church — if they constitute:

cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture… when such acts are committed by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

Remember, waterboarding consists of continuously pouring water into the mouth and nose of a bound prisoner, so that he feels as if he is drowning and can’t escape — “inhumane”, at the very least.

I understand the impulse that leads people to support “aggressive interrogation techniques” — it’s a natural combination of fear and anger. I was in Manhattan on September 11, so nobody needs to tell me about that. But we are obliged to obey God’s law, even when we are sorely tempted to take the apple from the tree and define good and evil for ourselves, even when we’re terrified that an attack is imminent.

I call this temptation “the Caiaphas principle”, after the story of the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin in John’s Gospel, Chapter 11:

So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council, and… one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.”

The Caiaphas Principle — “do whatever it takes, even if somebody has to suffer” — is the classic expression of the wicked idea that the end justifies the means. It is not acceptable Christian behavior, no matter how understandable and tempting it may be.

We cannot do evil so that good may come of it. As Christians, we have to be better than that.

An Interesting Discussion about Torture

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

In response to my blog post the other day on torture and “enhanced interrogation techniques”, I had an interesting series of emails with a good Catholic man who strongly disagreed with my position, in good faith.  I thought the email exchange was interesting, and, with his consent and with some mild editing to remove personal information and comments, and to clarify a few points, I decided to share it with you.

The first email I received:

I do not agree that VP Cheney’s remarks about Enhanced Interrogation are disgusting as you say.  In my opinion, Enhanced Interrogation is NOT Torture.  Torture is the prolonged and continuous application of pain and suffering to a human being just for the fun of it or to punish the person.  Enhanced Interrogation is not meant to punish, but the goal is to get information about a terroist’s evil deeds which could kill or injure fellow Americans.  My advice is not to let the liberals triangulate you and our Catholic Church on the important saving methods and means we have in the use of Enhanced Interrogation.  Be honest.  If someone had your son or daughter hidden somewhere, would you allow the police or army to use Enhanced Interrogation techniques to find them?

Here is my response:

Sorry, but I have to disagree on this one.  I’ve looked at the report of the International Red Cross, as well as the CIA Inspector General’s report, and the “enhanced interrogation techniques” are indeed disgusting to me. They also fall squarely into the conduct forbidden by the teachings of our Church and by the laws of the United States.

The Catechism specifically states that “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.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2297)

The UN Convention Against Torture (which is the law of the United States, since Congress has ratified the Convention) defines “torture” as follows:

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

Any act that falls short of that definition may still be prohibited by law, in that they may constitute “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture as defined in article I, when such acts are committed by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity” (Article 16 of the Convention Against Torture).

That’s the law, but it’s really the moral question that I’m getting at.  I’m very disturbed by the general reliance on consequentialist arguments, and the dismissal of moral norms as irrelevant during wartime.  If there are no moral considerations about appropriate interrogation techniques, then it’s just a matter of “what works”, and there is no basis for any moral or ethical standards whatsoever — it’s a “free fire” zone for doing anything to people when we believe they have information that we want.  That is apparently is Vice President Cheney’s position, since he clearly thinks that neither moral principles nor positive laws have any binding force when our government wants to extract information from somebody.  I find that attitude to be appalling.

You’ll notice that I ducked his first question, about what I would do if it were my own children.  He didn’t let me get away with it, and came right back at me.  Here’s what I got back in reply:

I am determined to convince you of my position on Enhanced Interrogation techniques based on the following 2 elements, which are related to justice and “just war” reasoning.

1)  “Be honest.  If someone had your son or daughter hidden somewhere, would you allow the police or army to use Enhanced Interrogation techniques to find them?”  Most people would have a very clear conscience under justice or “just war” reasoning to agree with the above.

2)  ‘The Catechism specifically states that “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.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2297)’  The above quotation from the Catechism mentions confessions, but it does not mention “extracting information from enemies for purposes of saving lives.”

Again, please reconsider your position based purely on justice or “just war” reasoning.

Good, hard arguments.  So I sent this:

1.  I don’t know what I would do under those circumstances.  I hope that I would be virtuous, but I am weak and sin often under normal circumstances, so I have no confidence that I would do the right thing under stress. 

But here’s the important point — my personal weaknesses can’t be the measure of the moral law. In other words, I can’t define evil downwards to my level (see Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 — they tried it and look where it got them!).  God is the only one who defines the objective moral law.  Otherwise we’re in the “dictatorship of relativism”, as Pope Benedict called it. 

Pope John Paul wrote about this in Veritatis Splendor (it’s a long quote, but worth it):

104.  In this context [the intersection of human freedom and the divine law] appropriate allowance is made both for God’s mercy towards the sinner who converts and for the understanding of human weakness. Such understanding never means compromising and falsifying the standard of good and evil in order to adapt it to particular circumstances. It is quite human for the sinner to acknowledge his weakness and to ask mercy for his failings; what is unacceptable is the attitude of one who makes his own weakness the criterion of the truth about the good, so that he can feel self-justified, without even the need to have recourse to God and his mercy. An attitude of this sort corrupts the morality of society as a whole, since it encourages doubt about the objectivity of the moral law in general and a rejection of the absoluteness of moral prohibitions regarding specific human acts, and it ends up by confusing all judgments about values.

Instead, we should take to heart the message of the Gospel parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (cf. Lk 18:9-14). The tax collector might possibly have had some justification for the sins he committed, such as to diminish his responsibility. But his prayer does not dwell on such justifications, but rather on his own unworthiness before God’s infinite holiness: “God, be merciful to me a sinner! ” (Lk 18:13). The Pharisee, on the other hand, is self-justified, finding some excuse for each of his failings. Here we encounter two different attitudes of the moral conscience of man in every age. The tax collector represents a “repentant” conscience, fully aware of the frailty of its own nature and seeing in its own failings, whatever their subjective justifications, a confirmation of its need for redemption. The Pharisee represents a “self-satisfied” conscience, under the illusion that it is able to observe the law without the help of grace and convinced that it does not need mercy.

105. All people must take great care not to allow themselves to be tainted by the attitude of the Pharisee, which would seek to eliminate awareness of one’s own limits and of one’s own sin. In our own day this attitude is expressed particularly in the attempt to adapt the moral norm to one’s own capacities and personal interests, and even in the rejection of the very idea of a norm. Accepting, on the other hand, the “disproportion” between the law and human ability (that is, the capacity of the moral forces of man left to himself) kindles the desire for grace and prepares one to receive it. “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” asks the Apostle Paul. And in an outburst of joy and gratitude he replies: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! ” (Rom 7:24-25).

2.  Just war theory really is not a help to supporters of ”enhanced interrogation”.  Traditional just war theory deals with both jus ad bello (going to war) and jus in bello (how to conduct the war).  I think a Catholic can easily hold the position in good conscience that our war against Islamists is justified (I believe so, as well).  But, once entered into, how we conduct the war must comply with the objective moral law.  The Catechism talks about this too:

2312 The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. “The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.” [Citation to Gaudium et Spes 79]

2313 Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely. Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions.

Hope that helps to make my position clear.

The issue of torture is not an easy one, because it can conflict with a very powerful obligation on the part of our government to protect us.  This is exactly the kind of discussion that needs to take place, but, sadly, it is not.  Our media discussions of this issue are completely dominated by pragmatism and consequentialism — “does it work”?  Many thanks to my correspondent, who raised good, solid questions based on his Catholic faith.

It is up to all Christians to inject moral considerations into this debate.  Indeed, it is a specific duty of Catholics to bring the Gospel to the debate.  There is no part of life that is beyond the reign of God.  But nobody will hear about God’s will unless we talk about it.

The Caiaphas Principle

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

Former Vice President Richard Cheney gave an interview the other day, in which he was asked about torture. I’m sorry, the preferred term appears to be “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Throughout the interview, the former Vice President defended the use of torture by American authorities, on the grounds that it “worked”.

Remember, we’re talking about such “techniques” as repeatedly pouring water in prisoners’ throats and noses to bring them to the edge of death by drowning (also known as “waterboarding”), subjecting them to protracted exposure to the cold to induce hypothermia, extended sleep deprivation that lasted for days, threatening to disfigure or kill them (for example by threatening to use a power drill upon them), repeated brutal physical beatings, hanging them by the arms until their shoulders dislocated, confining them in small boxes, threats of grievous violence (including rape and murder) against their wives and children. A number of prisoners were killed during the course of these “interrogations”. All suffered physically and psychologically. One can only imagine the effect on those who inflicted these torments or witnessed them.

These “techniques” were used under the authority of legal guidelines adopted by the United States government. Yes, our government authorized such disgusting and degrading things to be done to human beings in custody. That’s horrifying enough, but some “interrogators” went even beyond those guidelines, and did things to prisoners that were specifically prohibited.

With that context, here is the key exchange between the television interviewer and the former Vice President:

Chris Wallace: So even these cases where they went beyond the specific legal authorization, you’re OK with it?”
Vice President Cheney: I am.

Stop for a moment and consider that statement. Here is a man who took the oath of office as Vice President to uphold the Constitution and to faithfully discharge his duties. Implicit in that oath is that he swore to obey the law and to enforce the law. And here he is, boldly stating that he had no problem, not just with the degrading and disgusting torture of prisoners, but with appalling actions that went even beyond those permitted.

As a Christian, I find this intolerable. Regardless of how evil one may judge these prisoners to be, they are still human beings, made in the image and likeness of God. It is a gross violation of their human dignity to treat them this way. And it is degrading to the human dignity of all those who committed such acts, or who justify them.

The teachings of our Church are clear:

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. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2297)

Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful 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… 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. (Gaudium et Spes 27)

Here’s what is so upsetting to me, and so dangerous. Many people — good people who love God and love their country — are defending the torture of prisoners, on the grounds that the methods “worked”, that they “saved lives”, that they “defended our country”.

That may or may not be true, but it is entirely irrelevant.

In John’s Gospel, Chapter 11, we read:

So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council, and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.”

The Caiaphas Principle — “do whatever it takes” — is the classic expression of consequentialism, the wicked idea that the end justifies the means. It is not the standard for Christian behavior. We cannot do evil so that good may come of it. Remember, Caiaphas is not the hero of the story.

Here’s the lesson to powerful people, and indeed to everyone. If it’s evil, it doesn’t matter if it “works”. It endangers your soul and corrodes your character. Don’t do it.

Listen to Yourself, Mr. President

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

Sometimes, you have to wonder about the ability of people to hold in their heads two completely incompatible ideas. I know that it’s difficult to be consistent about everything in life, but sometimes the conflict is just so jarring that you can’t help but wonder — how can he or she do it?

This thought came to mind after I browsed through the transcript of the President’s recent news conference. Yes, I am enough of a political geek that I do such things, much to the amusement of my family.

Anyway, here is what the President said in response to a question about waterboarding and torture (I edited the response to remove some non-pertinent comments):

What I’ve said — and I will repeat — is that waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture. I don’t think that’s just my opinion; that’s the opinion of many who’ve examined the topic. And that’s why I put an end to these practices. I am absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do…. So this is a decision that I’m very comfortable with. And I think the American people over time will recognize that it is better for us to stick to who we are, even when we’re taking on an unscrupulous enemy.

I happen to agree with the President, and I’m glad he said that. Torture is always wrong, it’s a grave violation of human dignity. But note the tone of his answer — he’s clear and forceful about the moral element here, and expresses himself with precision and confidence.

Now, listen to what he said about abortion:

You know, the — my view on — on abortion, I think, has been very consistent. I think abortion is a moral issue and an ethical issue. I think that those who are pro-choice make a mistake when they — if they suggest — and I don’t want to create straw men here, but I think there are some who suggest that this is simply an issue about women’s freedom and that there’s no other considerations. I think, look, this is an issue that people have to wrestle with and families and individual women have to wrestle with. The reason I’m pro-choice is because I don’t think women take that — that position casually. I think that they struggle with these decisions each and every day. And I think they are in a better position to make these decisions ultimately than members of Congress or a president of the United States, in consultation with their families, with their doctors, with their clergy.

All of a sudden, the moral issue becomes murkier, and the tone of his response becomes less forceful and clear. The equivocal phrases sneak in, the buzzwords, the guise of tortured wrestling with a difficult issue, the circumlocutions. This answer does not sound as if it was given by the same man who was so clear and strong about the immorality of torture.

It is hard for me to comprehend that a man of his obvious intelligence can’t understand that killing an innocent child in the womb “violates our ideals and our values” just as much as waterboarding. That protecting all human lives is more consistent with “who we are” than allowing them to be discarded as non-persons. That ending the barbaric practice of abortion on demand — which is far, far worse than waterboarding — is “the right thing to do”.

Mr. President, listen to yourself. The answer will no longer be above your pay grade if you just apply the same moral reasoning to abortion that you do to torture. In fact, it’s even an easier moral analysis.

If you listen to yourself.

Torture and Truth

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

The debate is currently raging in the public square over the revelation that the Bush Administration authorized the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” against suspected terrorists in American custody. Many Catholics are also arguing about this issue, or are confused about what it’s all about.

While one can always argue about whether a particular technique is “torture” or not, why would we ever want to go anywhere near that boundary line? Suffocating with water? Beatings? Prolonged hanging by the arms? Confinement to tiny spaces for extended times? How can we justify doing anything close to these things?

The justifications offered for these harsh and brutal practices are almost invariably consequentialist (we need the information for the common good, so anything goes), and are deeply rooted in utilitarianism (using a person for our ends). In either case, it is something that Catholics should shun. In no way is it compatible with the fundamental principle of moral theology, which Pope John Paul II called the “personalistic principle” — people are ends in themselves, and are to be loved, not used as means to some other end. Nor is it any way in keeping with anything from the mouth of the Lord about loving one another.

Once we let consequentialism in the door, there’s no other destination but the abortion clinic and Planned Parenthood. Utilitarianism leads to the house of prostitution, the cloning clinic and the exploitation of workers. We need to beware those paths — that way passes through the gate to destruction.

I know a little about coercion and interrogation from my days as a prosecutor, so I’m particularly sensitive about torture. We routinely put heavy pressure (never physical, but moral and emotional) on people to try to “turn” them against others. It was consequentialist (we would routinely make false threats and assurances) and utilitarian (we used these people to “get” others, even though it was dangerous to them — it was not unknown for witnesses to be murdered). We saw it as being necessary for us to make the cases against people who were even worse than those we were using.

In a pragmatic, utilitarian way, we were right. But in a deeper sense, we were wrong.

It doesn’t matter if what we did “worked”. What mattered was the degrading effect of it on us — we became users. The power it gave us over other people was intoxicating, to the point that they ceased being people to us — they were pawns in a game we were playing.

It was totally incompatible with our Christianity, and is one of the main reasons I left that life.

You can see this degrading effect in the tone and language of the apologists for “harsh interrogation” — full of anger, vengeance and hate, indifferent to the victims, who, while being practitioners of terrible evil, are still children of God. You rarely hear any hint of the fact that even wicked, evil people are made in the image and likeness of God, and are entitled to be treated that way. Everyone is degraded by torture — the victim, who is treated as sub-human, and the torturer as well, who behaves beneath his human dignity.

Jack Bauer is not a Christian role model. Jesus is.

We Catholics have to be different.

Why Intrinsic Evil is Important

Saturday, April 18th, 2009

I was walking along the street the other day with a friend of mine, a Methodist minister who in may ways is more Catholic than I am. He described to me a conversation he had with a Catholic priest about abortion.

My friend, the Methodist, told me that during his conversation with the priest he had mentioned the Church’s clear teaching that abortion is an “intrinsic evil” – it’s always wrong, no matter what, and there can never be a situation in which it is a morally acceptable act. He was shocked at the response from the priest, who said that he had “a problem with the idea of intrinsic evil”, because it brought back bad memories of his moral theology class.

I almost fell on the floor when I heard it.

Perhaps those bad memories of his moral theology class were when he received his failing grade.

You can’t pass a legitimate Catholic morality class without understanding that there are some things that are always against God’s will, all the time, everywhere, no matter who does it. Things like blasphemy, murder, adultery, perjury, child abuse, genocide, rape. Those are the intrinsically evil acts we’re talking about. That’s been the clear and unequivocal teaching of the Church forever. Who can have a problem with that?

Well, some people do. Our sinful nature is always looking to play the angles and excuse the inexcusable. We make up justifications to allow us to do whatever we want, and then we claim that we “wrestled with our conscience”. We look to our allegedly good intentions to explain our unspeakable acts. And we argue that it was for the greater good that we did such awful things. We always look for exceptions because, well, we’re exceptional people. We try to hide our evil deed behind the lies of consequentialism (the good end justifies the evil means) and subjectivism (my good intention is all that matters).

The bottom line? We like to sin. And we like to make up excuses for it.

Why is this so important? If we don’t hold on to the notion of intrinsic evil, we are on the path to destruction. Here are two examples of where that road leads:

The first can be found on the balance sheet of the Temple of Moloch, er, I mean Planned Parenthood. A summary can be found here. The key numbers are horrifying — over 300,000 murders of children in the womb, over $350 million in taxpayer subsidies, and total revenue over $1 billion. Much of that taxpayer money goes to the corruption of our youth – giving them pornographic “sex education” materials, and facilitating promiscuity by dishing out condoms, contraceptives, and abortifacient pills like they’re candy. Killing babies, killing souls, all in the name of good intentions and “healthy teens”. All built on lies.

The second can be found in a horrifying recent report by the International Red Cross on the torture of Al Qaeda terrorists held in American custody. The essential facts of the report were also confirmed by the memoranda released by the government yesterday. Prisoners were treated in horrendous ways that we would never tolerate in an animal shelter or an American prison, and which we would mightily protest if it were occurring in a foreign jail. Look, I get it – these are the bad guys. But there’s no excuse for this barbaric treatment . It’s routinely justified by appealing to the “greater good”, and the need to get information “by any means necessary”. But that’s just consequentialism and subjectivism run amok, and it degrades both the torturers and those who justify it. And it, too, is all built on lies.

Instead of having a problem with the concept of intrinsic evil, we need to have more of a problem with sin. And above all, we have to stop making excuses for our sins.

Being faithful to Catholic doctrine might be a good starting place, too.