Is Torture Intrinsically Evil? Pope Francis on Just War and Torture

Pope Francis spoke today (18 Aug 2014) to reporters about war and violence. He repeated the teaching of Jesus and His Church, that violence in defense of the innocent can be licit, including just war.

“In these cases where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,” Pope Francis told reporters. “I underscore the verb ‘stop.’ I don’t say ‘to bomb’ or ‘make war,’ (but) ‘stop it,’”

The holy Pontiff is emphasizing the limits to the use of violence in defense of the nation. The unjust aggression by another nation or by a militant group does not justify unlimited violence by the defending nation or group.

And this brings us to the topic of torture. Is a nation justified in using torture against photo-247enemy combatants or terrorists? If you cannot justify using torture against terrorists, nor in time of war, then torture is never justified. It would then fall into a category of acts termed: “intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.” This type of act is wrong by the very nature of the act. We call these acts inherently immoral, because such acts are evil, in and of themselves, regardless of intention or circumstances.

“The level of cruelty today of humanity is a bit scary,” he added…. torture is a sin against humanity. It is a crime against humanity. And, to Catholics I say that torturing a person is a mortal sin. It is a grave sin. But, it’s more. It’s a sin against humanity.”

Sins are divided into mortal and venial. The mortal sins are sufficiently grave to deserve eternal punishment in Hell, if such acts are committed with full knowledge of their grave immorality and full deliberation (and if the person never repents). Venial sins do not deserve eternal punishment, but only temporary punishment, which can be remitted by prayer, self-denial, and works of mercy.

Torture is sufficiently grave to be a mortal sin. However, not every mortal sin is intrinsically evil. Only acts that are wrong by their very nature, by what we call the moral object of the act, are intrinsically evil. So when the Pope asserts that torture is a mortal sin (gravely immoral), we are still left to consider whether it is intrinsically evil.

My theological opinion is that torture is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. But in order to condemn any act as intrinsically evil, we need a proper moral definition of the act.

The term torture is used today with a wide variety of different meanings and ranges of meaning. Some persons use the term torture to describe any severe suffering, regardless of the cause. However, if the suffering does not result from a knowingly chosen act, the term would not describe a moral or immoral act. And if the chosen act is not morally-direct and voluntary, then the act is not intrinsically evil.

As a knowingly chosen act, torture is sometimes used to refer broadly to any deliberate infliction of severe suffering. Some persons even use the term torture to describe relatively moderate inflicted suffering. But although all deliberate acts are subject to the moral law, an overly-broad definition of torture cannot be said to be intrinsically evil. Some degree of suffering may be inflicted on a guilty person as a punishment for a crime, and for a severe crime, the punishment may be of a proportionate degree. The teaching of the Church has always permitted punishment of the guilty, not only by imprisonment, which afflicts the prisoner with substantial suffering in the loss of his freedom, but also by the death penalty. The suffering of the loss of life is among the most severe punishments that human persons can inflict.

God inflicts punishment on the guilty souls in Hell, and this is the deliberate infliction of severe suffering. Yet God cannot violate the moral law; for the eternal moral law is the Justice inherent to His very Nature, and He cannot contradict Himself. Therefore, the torture of the guilty souls in Hell is not intrinsically evil. The punishment of the guilty, whether in this life, or in Hell, or in Purgatory, inflicts suffering, even severe suffering, on the guilty. So torture should not be defined so broadly as to include proportionate punishment of the guilty.

Many common definitions of torture include a statement about the intention of the one who commits the act of torture. Torture is said to be done with the intention of extracting information, or of satisfying revenge, or of frightening opponents, or for other motives. But intrinsically evil acts are immoral regardless of intention. And so a proper theological definition of torture would not include intention.

Setting aside the more common uses of the term torture, a narrow definition of torture could be applied only to the innocent, regardless of intention. Murder is intrinsically evil because it is the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being, not merely any killing. Similarly, we can define torture narrowly as the direct and voluntary infliction of severe suffering on the innocent. And any type of direct and deliberate violence against the innocent is intrinsically evil.

This narrow definition of torture would include any punishment of the guilty that is both severe and excessive. For to punish the guilty beyond an extent proportional to their guilt is a type of violence against the innocent (and so it is no longer properly called punishment). Even a person who is guilty of a serious crime is innocent beyond the limits of that crime.

Example: A person is guilty of theft, but is innocent of murder. If he is punished with a severe punishment, fitting to the crime of murder, but not to that of theft, then the punishment is an infliction of severe suffering on an innocent person. For despite being guilty of theft, he is innocent of murder. Whenever a person is punished beyond the measure of their guilt, the punishment extends into their innocence.

God’s punishment of the guilty in Hell, in Purgatory, and in this life would not fall under this narrow definition of torture. For even in Hell, God punishes the guilty no more than they deserve, and certainly, in His mercy, less than they deserve. For God is not merely Just, but also Merciful. His justice is merciful, and His mercy is just.

This narrow definition of torture, as the direct and voluntary infliction of severe violence against the innocent, is intrinsically evil, despite having the circumstance of degree (because torture is severe) as part of its definition. For when the degree is too small to be called torture, the act remains intrinsically evil, as the direct and voluntary harm of the innocent.

All violence against the innocent is contrary to love of God and neighbor. But in moral theology, the term violence is used not so much to refer to physical force, but to harm to the human person. And so violence in moral theology pertains to morality; it includes harm of any kind, even non-physical. Thus, the Second Vatican Council condemned, and Pope John Paul II reiterated, that various types of physical and non-physical violence against the innocent are immoral.

Second Vatican Council: “whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, [arbitrary] deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat laborers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like…” [Gaudium et Spes, n. 27; also quoted by Pope John Paul II, in Veritatis Splendor, n. 80.]

Note that I’ve added ‘arbitrary’ before ‘deportation.’ Just as imprisonment of the guilty is not immoral, so also deportation of the guilty is not immoral. The proportionate punishment of the guilty is not a type of violence at all, as that term is used in moral theology. Imprisonment or deportation of the innocent is immoral, and is a type of violence. Arbitrary imprisonment or deportation is immoral because the term ‘arbitrary’ indicates that there was no prior determination of guilt.

The infliction of suffering is not, in and of itself, necessarily immoral. Murder is the killing of an innocent human person, but killing in general is not necessarily immoral. Murder and other types of violence against the innocent are intrinsically evil, but killing in general and the infliction of suffering in general is not intrinsically evil.

In its narrow definition, torture is intrinsically evil, because it is defined as a type of violence against the innocent. And in this same narrow definition, torture is always gravely immoral, because it is by definition severe (in the circumstances). If an act of torture were reduced in severity, so that it was no longer gravely immoral, the act would not be defined as torture; but that act would still be intrinsically evil, because the moral object would be unchanged.

Torture, properly defined, is the direct and deliberate infliction of severe violence against the innocent. If a person is guilty of a serious crime, even the crime of terrorism, it is still immoral to torture them. For every guilty person is innocent beyond the measure of their guilt. No crime is serious enough to warrant treating the human person as if he or she were not a person at all, that is to say, in a severe inhumane manner. Each human person has the good human nature given as a gift from God. And so it is a crime against God and humanity to torture anyone.

In the case of an impending act of war or terrorism, which might be averted by obtaining information from a guilty person, torture is still not justified. The end does not justify the means. I argue that, in such a circumstance, some “pressure techniques” for obtaining information — far short of torture — would be moral. But I also know that fallen human persons tend to act emotionally in difficult circumstances. The likelihood of exceeding the limits of morality in such a case might make it more prudent for a nation to rule out all such interventions.

What are the moral limits on using pressure techniques to obtain urgent information that will save lives? The acts used cannot be intrinsically evil, nor can they inflict permanent physical or psychological damage, nor can they be inhumane, or “cruel and unusual,” or degrading to the human person. See the list of acts condemned by the Second Vatican Council, which I quoted above.

As a practical matter, I would suggest the following measuring stick for pressure techniques. If the same suffering were inflicted on your children, as young adults, would you be upset? If your child is in college, and he or she “pulls an all-nighter” (goes without sleep for a night), would you be upset? Not really. Your child has endured a difficulty, but it is not torture. The same can be said if a young adult endures bad food at school, or skips a meal, or goes camping and endures some difficult conditions. As long as your child is not in any real danger, and as long as the difficulty endured is passing and moderate, you are not upset and it is not torture.

So if pressure techniques to obtain information in urgent circumstances are used at all, the subject of the interrogation should be treated like a beloved (but perhaps also obnoxious) member of your own family. Love your neighbor as yourself.

{19:11} You shall not steal. You shall not lie. Neither shall anyone deceive his neighbor.
{19:12} You shall not commit perjury in my name, nor shall you pollute the name of your God. I am the Lord.
{19:13} You shall not slander your neighbor, nor shall you oppress him by violence. The wages of a hired hand, you shall not delay with you until tomorrow.
{19:14} You shall not speak evil of the deaf, nor shall you place a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear the Lord your God, for I am the Lord.
{19:15} You shall not do what is unjust, nor shall you judge unjustly. You shall not consider the reputation of the poor, nor shall you honor the countenance of the powerful. Judge your neighbor justly.
{19:16} You shall not be a detractor, nor a whisperer, among the people. You shall not stand against the blood of your neighbor. I am the Lord.
{19:17} You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but reprove him openly, lest you have sin over him.
{19:18} Do not seek revenge, neither should you be mindful of the injury of your fellow citizens. You shall love your friend as yourself. I am the Lord.

See my subsequent posts on this topic:
Is Torture intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral? Part 1
Is Torture intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral? Part 2

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

The Catechism of Catholic Ethics
available in print (paperback, 752 pp.) and in Kindle format.

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2 Responses to Is Torture Intrinsically Evil? Pope Francis on Just War and Torture

  1. Teresa says:

    I apologize for posting off topic but I just finished reading the post on about true and false private revelations. As someone searching for meaning and answers, I’m serious when I ask … Why would a person falsely claim a revelation? How does it benefit them? Is it for fame? for money? I guess I may be called naive but I truly don’t understand why someone would do this. (I had been reading Ned Dougherty’s website when I googled him and found your site.)

    • Ron Conte says:

      I think most false private revelations are from fallen angels, pretending to be Jesus or Mary. So the visionary might be fooled. But I also think that these false visionaries are fooled because of the sin of pride. They wish to be important, to be special. They use these messages to exalt themselves and obtain a large audience, and often this brings them much money as well.

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