Last night, my friend Neal hosted a great dinner party for eight people, seven of whom were Catholics from St. Mary’s. The conversations were all over the place, but there were a lot of great Catholic insights which I gleaned. One of them was from another friend, Kevin, who was talking about how he came to oppose water-boarding as a means of extracting information. It was a pretty fascinating point of view, and I wanted to share it.
He started, interestingly, with the perspective of Theology of the Body, the Catholic sexual ethic. One of the things which it emphasizes is the need to treat your spouse as a human being, and not as an object by which to achieve your sexual gratification. Taking seriously this concept of the sinfulness of reducing a human being as a mere object, or means to end, he considered the use of water-boarding. Rather than try and determine if it met a legalistic definition of torture (or even which definition of “torture” to use), he asked himself simply whether the use of the technique objectified prisoners and reduced their free agency. Concluding that it did, he decided he wasn’t in favor of it.
Here, his thinking is very much in line with what the Church proposes. In fact, when She talks about torture in the Catechism, it’s tied to this question of respect for the individual, as opposed to objectification. CCC 2297 says “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,” and in CCC 2298 says:
2298 In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors.
The point here is an important one. His argument isn’t that interrogation by water-boarding is a sin against justice, but that it’s a sin against charity. It’s not a question of this being sinful because you’ve done lasting physical or psychological damage to a person: if, indeed, you have. After all, the Church considers the death penalty permissible, at least in certain contexts. But the death penalty, properly understood and implemented, seeks to punish the individual qua individual. [Obviously, if the death penalty were used merely as a deterrent, it would be gravely sinful, since its use wouldn’t be dependent upon an individual’s actual guilt.] Rather, it’s a question of whether or not we treat others as if they’re made in the image and likeness of God. And when we see them as tools – whether to extract sexual pleasure, information, or any other advantage or benefit – we are committing a sin against charity, and against their dignity as individuals.