Waterboarding, Lust, and Objectification

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. 


  1. I get your post and agree. The problem is that water-boarding is used by the military as a means of allowing certain groups to keep their honor while at the same time revealing military intelligence vital to our national security. Some less-than-radicals wish to cooperate with our government, but because of their culture which demands a show of strength (but allows that under torture, it is not un-honorable to “crack”) will HOPE for water-boarding so that they can then give information without MUCH worse torture. It can be terrifying, but it is a psychological fear rather than a more permanent, physically destructive means of torture.

    There are so many sides to this argument that it is difficult to make a sweeping judgment as civilians.

  2. Bill, I’ll try and respond to it tomorrow, but suffice
    to say for now that his article is really attacking the view called fideism, which promotes faith as an irrational thing. The views he condemns (irrational science-loathing religion which uses God as a crutch for confusing phenomena in nature) are views a well-taught Catholic would reject as immature, anyways. The problem is that the author doesn’t seem to have enough of a grasp on what different religions claim about the world to even sort this out.

    Anyways, I’ll respond at length soon. In Christ,


  3. Bill,
    As you may have seen, I posted a response to your comment. If there were any other portions of the article that troubled you, just let me know:

    Sorry for the delay in responding to your comment. A few thoughts on what you said:
    (1) I think we should be careful in claiming that terrorist (or anyone) WANT to be water-boarded. After all, you’re essentially saying that they prefer waterboarding to “MUCH worse torture.” Fair enough: I do, too. That doesn’t mean I want to be waterboarded. I’d prefer none of the above, as would all sane human beings.
    (2) I think you might also be mistakenly assuming that they want to talk. I think it’s a fair assumption to say that the opposite is true. These are individuals who don’t want to talk, but can perhaps be waterboarded into talking, so we can extract information from them.
    (3) Regardless of their internal state, it’s fair to say we’re not waterboarding them out of respect. This is the most important point of the three. Even if they secretly love to be waterboarded, if we’re doing it in a way that objectifies them, we’re in a state of serious sin.

    By the way, I loved your other comment: it made my day!


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