39 Responses to Catholic Statements on Torture

  • Phillip says:

    Thanks. I think that answers one of my questions. Though it leaves the question of how much discomfort or how many times is too much. This is that “bright line” question that some deny we should approach.

  • Tito Edwards says:

    Just a friendly reminder that that USCCB has no teaching authority whatsover. We as Catholics adhere to the Magisterium (which does not consist of the USCCB), Tradition and Sacred Scripture.

  • Kathy says:

    My husband underwent waterboarding as part of his military survival training. Compare this to what the enemy does to torture. There is a definite contrast.

  • Joe Hargrave says:


    I realize that the USCCB has no teaching authority, but my argument is, do we really expect that a statement is ever going to be issued from Rome that differs from what Pope Benedict reaffirmed in 2007, or what the USCCB has been saying for years now?

    I think Catholics are called to a higher standard than “freedom is the silence of the law”.


    Was your husband waterboarded 180 times?

  • From what I understand, the claim of “waterboarding 180 times” refers to individual pours, not sessions.”:

    Under a strict set of rules, every pour of water had to be counted — and the number of pours was limited.

    Also: Waterboarding interrogation sessions were permitted on no more than five days within any 30-day period.

    No more than two sessions were permitted in any 24-hour period.

    A session could last no longer than two hours.

    There could be at most six pours of water lasting ten seconds or longer — and never longer than 40 seconds — during any individual session.

    Water could be poured on a subject for a combined total of no more than 12 minutes during any 24 hour period.

    That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t approve of it — for all the reasons Joe mentioned, but I think it’s important to know the details of what actually happened.

  • My husband underwent waterboarding as part of his military survival training. Compare this to what the enemy does to torture. There is a definite contrast.

    True — I would consider “simulated death” not as extreme as other practices. Times UK just published a story about a member of the United Arab Emirates Royal Family torturing a man — beating him with a cattle prod and a nailed board, burning his genitals and driving a Mercedes over him repeatedly, with the assistance of uniformed policeman. (So yes, I do think there’s a qualitative difference).

    At the same time, that we waterboard our own SEALS does not itself suffice as an argument for doing so; apparently the reason we do this to our own men is precisely to train them to withstand torture, on the assumption that — were they in captivity — they would receive it ten times over at the hands of our enemies.

  • “My husband underwent waterboarding as part of his military survival training.”

    And I know people who let themselves be put up on a cross during the Holy Season; doesn’t make crucifixion no longer cruel.

  • Joe,

    Honestly, I don’t know whether adherence to that list of rules and regulations was what “actually happened” any more than you know for a fact that somebody was waterboarded “180 times”.

    That said, a prior ABC news interview with lends credibility to the assertion that those doing the interrogations were meticulous in sticking to what they were legally (not morally) permitted to do:

    “It wasn’t up to individual interrogators to decide, ‘Well, I’m gonna slap him.’ Or, ‘I’m going to shake him.’ Or, ‘I’m gonna make him stay up for 48 hours.’

    “Each one of these steps, even though they’re minor steps, like the intention shake, or the open-handed belly slap, each one of these had to have the approval of the deputy director for operations,” Kiriakou told ABC News.

    “The cable traffic back and forth was extremely specific,” he said. “And the bottom line was these were very unusual authorities that the agency got after 9/11. No one wanted to mess them up. No one wanted to get in trouble by going overboard. So it was extremely deliberate.”

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Well, IF the man was water boarded 180 times, it was torture.

    If not, it’s hard to say.

    I think we should err on the side of caution, not license. We’re really pushing the envelope here. Maybe – just maybe – what the government did in these specific instances wasn’t torture. I have to be open to that possibility.

    But there is no debate as to whether or not that which we clearly understand to be torture can ever be used. The answer is no. I’m going to update this post with some more info – stay tuned.

  • Eric Brown says:

    This is something I find odd…

    The USCCB is a part of the Magisterium, in that, the Bishop themselves are a part of the College of Bishops. The USCCB does not masquerade as a magisterial authority–correct. However, the Bishops themselves (presumably) teach according to the teachings of the Magisterium.

    For really, people who deny that the USCCB as a source of authority when it is inconvenient to them, quote from them when it is.

  • Joe,

    Read your post on Vox Nova referring to the comments here and I agree, when the Holy Father speaks as forcefully as “I reiterate that the prohibition against torture “cannot be contravened under any circumstances“ — that’s not something one can dispute.

    Maybe – just maybe – what the government did in these specific instances wasn’t torture. I have to be open to that possibility.

    I’m hesitant to say what without knowing the specifics. I am reading the released memos right now. I admit I do have difficulty considering actions like

    – “The attention grasp” (grasping an individual with both hands on the collar and drawing him towards the interrogator

    – “Facial Hold” – both palms grasping the individual’s head (fingers well away from the eyes) so as to hold the head immobile.

    – “Facial Slap” – slapping the face with fingers slightly spread. “Not to inflict personal pain but to induce shock, suprise or humiliation”

    taking place during an interrogation as rising to the level of torture. Waterboarding on the other hand, …

    Lines should be drawn, as hard and difficult as they may be to ascertain.

  • Tito Edwards says:


    For the record, I always deny that the USCCB has any authority.

    If we want to play the game of ‘since the bishops make up the Magisterium, ipso facto, the USCCB is a sub-stratum of the Magisterium, etc, etc, etc,’, then technically I can become the next Pope since I fulfill the the three minimum requirements of ‘single’, ‘Catholic’, and ‘male’.

    The USCCB has zero authority in any matters with the exception of organizing bingo tournaments and pancake sales.

  • Phillip says:

    Having followed this discussion for four plus years, some observations. First, there are some people that consider all waterboading, including in interrogation, as immoral if not torture per se. This from people who oppose torture mind you. There are those who argue that, while there may be a “bright line” that distinguishes torture from non-torture interrogation, we should not as Catholics make any attempt to approach that line. There are some who argue that there is no such line as any direct infliction of pain in interrogation is torture. There are few I have come across that argue that anything goes in interrogation.

    The statement from the USCCB seems to be from the Justice committee and not a statement of doctrine by the bishops themselves. As such, per the document Apostolos Suos, it does not seem to be morally binding. Having said that the statement of then Cardinal Ratzinger has great power from a predictive standpoint. By that I mean one suspects that the now Benedict XVI will have a similar sentiment. However one must be careful with such a conclusion. The teaching authority of a Cardinal in a public speech is quite a different matter from what a pope declares as a matter of teaching. Benedict XVI knows this better than any.

    So why wouldn’t he say it? There remains the problem, which is not resolved by the USCCB and may not have been considered by Cardinal Ratzinger prior to his speech. That question is why can the state put a person to death to protect society but not inflict a lessor pain to protect society?

    Poli has answered in a previous post that what occurs in capital punishment is retributive justice. But I think the Catechism is clear that what the Church has in mind is defense. It seems before Benedict can pronounce definitively on this matter, some arguement must be made to distinguish the issue.

  • Joe Hargrave says:


    “By that I mean one suspects that the now Benedict XVI will have a similar sentiment.”


    “However one must be careful with such a conclusion. The teaching authority of a Cardinal in a public speech is quite a different matter from what a pope declares as a matter of teaching.”

    True, but, see my last post at Vox Nova. We still have an obligation to listen to the Pope, even when he isn’t speaking ex cathedra.

  • Phillip says:

    I agree we have an obligation to listen to the pope with reverence. My question is when will he speak. And how will he resolve the last question I pose.

  • Eric Brown says:


    The point is that USCCB offers teachings of the Church to Catholics in America. What they are doing — ideally — is interpreting the Magisterial teachings and offering guidance for Catholics living in the United States of America, gearing Catholic teachings specifically toward a Catholic life in this country.

    Often, they are going to speak non-infallible in this regard. However, the very fact that they are Bishops speaking, even non-infallibly, according to their office as a part of the College of Bishops, we are obliged a religious submission of intellect and will — not full assent of faith as is the case with the extraordinary Magisterium or the ordinary Magisterium upholding a constant teaching of the Church.

    So, in that sense, people who say the USCCB’s words are irrelevant seem to me basically playing a game of jumping through a convenient of loophole of not having to listen because usually they flat out disagree with the Bishops, therefore, their teaching has no bearing. But I think this same sort of disregard, even on non-infallible teachings, does little in service to fighting the spirit of dissent of Catholics who disagree with Bishops when it does matter. If you want people to follow their Shepherds, lead by example.

  • The USCCB has zero authority in any matters with the exception of organizing bingo tournaments and pancake sales.

    I’d concur with Eric — this cuts both ways. One could imagine our Vice President and Speaker of the House saying the very same in response to the USCCB’s public rebuke of their statements on abortion.

  • IamWojo79 says:

    From the encyclicals: first, Gaudium et Spes (27), and then in Veritatis Splendor (80):

    “Furthermore, 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; 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 supreme dishonor to the Creator.”

    Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “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. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, 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”.

  • IamWojo79 says:

    The bishops and John Paul II clearly place torture in the category of intrinsece malum. Such acts would never be morally permissible, no matter what the intention or the circumstances. Therefore, “Is waterboarding torture?” is an important question. I do not think the answer is clear. It is certainly different from techniques that are intended to cause permanent physical harm. The above encyclicals also speak of ‘torments inflicted on body or mind’. Waterboarding seems to qualify but wouldn’t that also forbid, for example, prison sentences for justly convicted criminals? I am not a moral relitivist but this is clearly a gray area.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Prison sentences are not a gray area, Wojo. The Church has always held it lawful to imprison people, but as Pope Benedict reiterated in 2007, the aim of imprisonment is rehabilitation. I think this means that with the exception of incurable psychopathy/sociopathy, everyone should be given a chance to redeem themselves. They should be given access to educational, psychological and spiritual services to help them in that end. Ways to make amends and restitution should always be open.

    Prison does not and cannot = torture. I understand that some people sincerely think there is a convergence, but there isn’t. I give people the benefit of the doubt and assume their sincerity until they prove me wrong, so don’t think what I’m about to say applies to you.

    Others know well enough that the two are different but are trying to play with words and get people to accept torture in the same way they accept prison. This is deceitful, it is a way to trick faithful Catholics into supporting a practice that is evil. And God will hold them to account for it.

  • David Harley says:

    >>>> We still have an obligation to listen to the Pope, even when he isn’t speaking ex cathedra.

    Count how many times any pope has spoken ex cathedra. You will have some fingers left on one hand.

    It is the ordinary magisterium and the papal magisterium that are the issue here. Both are considered binding, but not infallible, even if the pope produces an encyclical. In this instance, it is clear that the bishops are giving their imprimatur to a summary of the ordinary magisterium on the matter in hand. The US bishops are the loyal appointees of John Paul II, not some bunch of questionable hangovers from past liberalism, such as the late Archbishop Romero, despised by the present Curia.

    Things are not always quite so clear, especially when a pope has not been in post for long enough to pack the ranks of the bishops with those who agree with him. The hedging in the text of Humanae Vitae, was caused by the well-known conflict between the ordinary magisterium, as expressed by the consultations that took place, and the papal magisterium that was being delivered.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Wikipedia has an interesting table of the “levels of Magisterium”.

    It notes that the assent required for the ordinary magisterium is “Religious submission of intellect and will”.

    Torture apologetics are pushing that to the limits.

  • Mike Petrik says:

    I’m not sure to which statement by our Holy Father you are referring, but if he stated that rehabilitation is the only purpose, then this would represent a change in established Catholic teaching, which held at least three:

    1 defense of society against the criminal,

    2 rehabilitation of the criminal, and

    3 retribution or the reparation of the disorder caused by the transgression.

    Some sources cite a 4th — deterrence of others.

    In any event, while I am generally opposed to capital punishment because (i) I do agree that it is at tension with the rehabilitation/redemption objective, (ii) I also agree that our judicial system is far too imperfect to regularly employ it with confidence, and (iii) I simply submit to Church teaching, I very much agree with the conclusions of the late Cardinal Dulles who found the most recent expressions of Church teaching to be muddled and confused, especially in light of Tradition. Moreover, the inclusion in the Catechism of an particular application of a prudential analysis that under Catholic teaching must by necessity rest elsewhere was very puzzling, even though I do agree with it.

  • Mike Petrik says:

    I apologize if I unintentionally shifted attention away from the topic — torture — to something else. The Church’s most recent pronouncements regarding the purpose of punishment tend to occur in the context of capital punishment. I do agree that torture is always wrong, even though I cannot fully grasp the rationale in the case of the hypothetical ticking time bomb scenario involving innocents (I simply submit to Church teaching and be glad I’m not likely to be tested).

  • Joe Hargrave says:


    Did I claim that Pope Benedict said the “only” purpose was rehabilitation? I don’t think so.

    It was just the main focus of his speech in 2007. I think the Church these days is focusing more on rehabilitation than punishment. That being said, I never argued that the Church says that it is no longer a valid reason for imprisoning someone.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Oh, and don’t worry about going off topic. This thread is a little old now, and, I think it’s important to discuss how to interpret the Popes.

  • Mike Petrik says:

    I prefaced my statement with “if” precisely because I was genuinely uncertain as to (i) whether you were making such a claim (the use of the definite article confused me — i.e., “the aim ….”) and (ii) whether the Holy Father was making such a claim.
    Thanks for clarifying.

  • IamWojo79 says:

    Not trying to say torture = prison.

    Lets focus on the papal documents.

    Imprisonment, by its object and regardless of circumstances, takes away one’s freedom. That causes “mental torment”, regardless of the intent. This cannot be refuted.

    Therefore, when the church fathers say that “torments inflicted on body or mind” are intrinsece malum, couldn’t I say that imprisonment is also intrinsece malum? No. Only a fool would do so.

    Imprisonment is not intrinsically evil. It would never be permissible if it was. It only becomes an evil act if it is done unjustly.

    My point is that there are many forms of “coersion”, running the spectrum from mild to severe. In my view, WB (waterboarding), as I understand the technique, does not seem to be intrinsically evil. It is harsh and painful, but so is amputating a gangrenous leg to save a life.

    Lets say that WB it is not intrinsece malum. It could only be made an evil act if the intention was evil or the reasons for doing it were not proportionally grave.

    I am looking for moral clarity on this issue; I am ready to be proven wrong. Has Benedict spoken specifically about this?

  • Phillip says:

    That is one of the arguments against torture – that it coerces the will. I think the prohibition of such coercion is in a section of Gaudium et Spes. But as others have pointed out, some coercion of the will is valid.

  • Karen LH says:

    I think there’s a difference between coercion of a person (eg, imprisoning him) and coercion of his will (ie, “breaking” him). It seems to me that the point of torture is to do the latter.

    It’s a difference of kind, not of degree.

  • SteveWoj says:

    Joe Hargrave,

    I may be mistaken, but from what I can gather from IamWojo79′s arguments, the status of waterboarding as torture is really what the heart of this debate is all founded upon. Try as I may, I cannot find a decisive statement by Pope Benedict, or Church Doctorine for that matter, that explicitly mentions waterboarding as contrary to the tenents of our faith although this is more likely a failure on my part to locate them.)

    Perhaps they may be implicity stated, attempting to cover all formes of torture in general, but isn’t that the reason why we’re all discussing this? Is waterboarding considered torutre or not?

    Whatever the case, I do agree that waterboarding is torture, in fact is is rather difficult in my eyes to make an argument that it’s not. This issue has been an ongoing source of debate amongst the Wojos and friends, so I’ll simply restate what I have said before:

    [By introducing water into the lungs, preventing respiration, depriving the brain of oxygen and inflicting the pain and suffering associated with the aforementioned acts, water boarding clearly causes the victim extreme pain and induces an extreme fear of death associated with suffocation. This alone could probably rupture the lungs, cause a heart attack, cause irreversible brain damage and one or more types of psychological trauma. Remember: water boarding is not just a dipping of the head in water for a good amount of time. It forces the suspect to inhale water after he can no longer hold his breath. It is essentially forcing the victim to drown over and over again until the desired information is attained. Keep in mind that this can be done for as long as necessary, meaning that it probably goes on for months and months until the desired information is attained.]

    My main concern however, is that we are relying too much on what the Church Documents might say, or what someone has said sometime in the past. It is fine to have those availible as a resource, but it is much more convincing to the reader to have these things proved a priori rather than by the semantics of letters and documents. This is a case of believing for oneself, rather than what someone else might teach.

  • Joe Hargrave says:


    I must take issue with this statement.

    “the status of waterboarding as torture is really what the heart of this debate is all founded upon”

    This is not just about the status of waterboarding. There are two problems with making it so.

    1) Many different things that would not ordinarily be considered torture, when done repeatedly and systematically over a long period of time, can become torture. It is a question of when quantity – the number of times – transforms the act qualitatively, from ‘a few dunks’ to what we all know to be ‘torture’. Many things can be either torture or not torture, depending on many other things.

    2) All of the new evidence, including the memos and the Senate Armed Services Committee’s 232 page report on prisoner abuse and torture, demonstrates that far more than a few dunks underwater were authorized and/or tolerated by the Bush administration. In my second to last post at VN, I went over in detail some of the degrading sexual humiliation that prisoners were subjected to – offenses against human dignity if ever they existed.

    So we must consider these things as well. The argument that in these more severe cases it was ‘a few rouges’ acting on their own is completely discredited.

    Interestingly you say,

    “Keep in mind that this can be done for as long as necessary, meaning that it probably goes on for months and months until the desired information is attained”

    Which would in fact make it absolutely forbidden, since the only scenario we have any lingering doubts about (some people do anyway) is the ‘ticking time bomb scenario’.

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