home page links quotes statistics mission statement success stories resources Lighter Side Authors! Search Page
Posted February 16, 2006

Two noted priests share their thoughts on the question of torture.

Rear Admiral Louis V. Iasiello, a Franciscan priest who is U.S. Navy chief of chaplains, joins Jesuit Father John Perry of the Arthur V. Mauro Center for Peace and Justice at St. Paul's College of the University of Manitoba to discuss the use of torture by American combatants. The longtime Navy chaplain writes that torture doesn't lead to peace but "to outrage, and ultimately fuels further insurgency and conflict." Father Iasiello will become Washington Theological Union's president upon retiring from the Navy in June. Father Perry, author of "Torture: Religious Ethics and National Security" (Orbis/Novalis 2005), says "state-sponsored torture drives a stake" into the human community's heart.

The Theologian's View

By Father John Perry, SJ

Unlike its conditional condemnation of capital punishment, the church's position on interrogational torture is absolute: It may never again be used anywhere, for any reason whatsoever.

Catholic teaching on torture has developed over the centuries so that in his 1993 encyclical "Veritatis Splendor" Pope John Paul II included "physical and mental torture" in his long list of social evils that are not only "shameful" ("probra") as they are declared to be by Vatican Council II, but also "intrinsically evil." This condemnation was the culmination of teaching against torture by the papal magisterium that increased in severity through the course of the 20th century. Meetings of episcopal conferences have confirmed this official teaching.

Sadly, our current position does not reflect a long, robust tradition against torture. For centuries the Inquisition used torture in the course of interrogations when judicial inconsistencies existed. Seventeenth-century casuists like Antonio Diana and Cardinal Juan de Lugo, SJ, devoted many pages in their treatises on torture to discussion of procedural questions such as whether pregnant women could undergo torture (no), or children (no, but they may be shown the instruments of torture and be led to believe that they would suffer it if they did not provide truthful evidence), or whether a person could be tortured twice in the same case (yes, if the first and second episodes were considered one event).

During a European visit late last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told foreign leaders that cruel and degrading interrogation methods were forbidden for all U.S. personnel at home and abroad. In its annual report issued Jan. 18, Human Rights Watch authors argued that such assurances ring hollow. "In 2005 it became disturbingly clear that the abuse of detainees had become a deliberate, central part of the Bush administration's strategy of interrogating terrorist suspects," their report said. If these allegations are true, bishops and other Catholics in the United States, Canada and elsewhere need to speak out clearly and forcefully.

The human person's dignity is a central moral criterion in 20th-century theology. Many theologians find the "image of God" in the dignity attached to our personhood. They also see the human talent for creating and sustaining community life as grounded in our similarity to the divine nature, a nature which the doctrine of the Trinity teaches is a unique community of three persons distinct only in their mutual relationships to each other. Thus, a torturer inflicting torments and suffering on a victim not only defaces another brother or sister but implicitly attacks the face of God in the other and destroys human community.

Similar to systematic rape, and just as egregious and replete with moral turpitude, state-sponsored torture drives a stake into the heart of human community through its violation of the human person. Any nation that tolerates the practice is diminished by it.

With innocent lives at stake and a war against terrorism going on, nations such as the United States and Canada are greatly tempted to use torture as a weapon and a technique for questioning suspects. This temptation can and must be resisted.

The spiritual harm done to all by systematic torture has been succinctly stated by the Chilean poet Ariel Dorfman in some lines that refer to a notorious torture center near Santiago where Chile's new President Michelle Bachelet, her mother and many others suffered unspeakable horrors:

"Lord, you who are everywhere, have you been in Villa Grimaldi too?"

The Navy Chaplain's View

By Father Louis V. Iasiello, OFM

What should combatants do when confronted by an enemy that violates and exploits the rules of war? I addressed this topic with officers who might soon face duty in a war zone, inviting them to consider the advice given by one of the country's leading pacifists, Professor Stanley Hauerwas. He suggests that when confronted with a difficult moral choice, rather than asking "What ought I do?" we ask ourselves "Who am I?"

As American combatants sworn to protect and defend the Constitution, as men and women in uniform who follow generations of veterans who served selflessly and morally, and as modern warriors who embrace a code of honor and valor that has directed the behavior of combatants for millennia, in answering the question "Who am I?" our forces know instinctively what they are called to do by virtue of their civic, and some would say sacred, vocation.

Why should moral warriors reject torture as a tool for interrogation?

First, the use of torture is against the law, both international and domestic. The 1949 Geneva Conventions prohibit acts of torture against civilians and prisoners of war. Article 3, common to all four Geneva Conventions, requires that detained persons "in all circumstances be treated humanely," and it specifically prohibits "violence to life and person," including "cruel treatment and torture," and "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment."

Domestic law is just as clear. Public Law No. 109-163 states, "No individual under control of the U.S. Government shall be subject to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment." The U.S. Code, Title 18, 2441, also prohibits members of the armed forces from violating the Geneva Conventions.

Second, torture violates important theological precepts that should guide the behavior of all people of faith. For Roman Catholics, the Second Vatican Council gives clear guidance for our consideration:

"In our times a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of absolutely every person. ... Whatever is opposed to life itself ..., whatever violates the integrity of the human person ... torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity ... all these things ... are infamies indeed. They poison human society. ... Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator" ("Gaudium et Spes," 2, 27).

Consistent with this teaching, Pope John Paul II condemned the reported abuses at Abu Ghraib (2004), and Cardinal Renato Martino of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace recently reiterated the church's position: "Torture is a humiliation of the human person, whoever it is, ... [and] the church does not allow these means to extract the truth" (Fisher 2005). If we take to heart the commandments to love one's neighbor as oneself and to love one's enemies, torture is eliminated as an option for a believing warrior.

Third, the code of the warrior exists not only to protect the innocent and to ensure that combatants conduct themselves in a manner consistent with the principles of discrimination in the prosecution of war and of proportionality, but also to protect the warriors themselves, to guard against the invisible wounds of battle that oftentimes affect warriors psychologically and spiritually the rest of their lives. Torture is an immoral option not only because it denies dignity to fellow human beings, but because it saps the humanity from those who employ it. This psychological dynamic is reflected in the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World: "[Such infamies] do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury" (27).

Finally the goal of any just war is to establish a just and lasting peace. Torture does not lead us to peace; it leads to outrage, and ultimately fuels further insurgency and conflict. Torture as an interrogation technique is counterproductive to establishing a just peace.

America has many tools to address its current struggle against global extremism. One tool our country should never employ is the use of torture, for as it is written in Proverbs, "Virtue exalts a nation" (14:34).