A reader writes:
As you may know, in the blogsphere there is a heated controversy among Catholics over the morality of torture. Mark Shea is regarded as the camp leader that asserts that that torture is objectively evil, and the other camp that think it is more of a subjective/relative issue. While I would certainly be interested in your take on it, I was thinking more about dubiums. What are they, how they get started/submitted and, seeing much controversy over this (and personally being confused and torn to boot), whether one would be warranted in the case of torture, and what would/should it look like.
I haven't been keeping up with this debate, including what Mark has written about it, so I am not in a position to comment on anything a particular person has written. I have briefly chatted with Mark about the matter, and my impression is that his position is within the permitted range of Catholic moral thought on this, though his is not the only position within the permitted range of Catholic moral thought.
I've discussed the question of torture before, and would not be opposed to doing so again, though since that is not the meat of your question, I'll save that for another time.
As to the question of dubia (Latin, "doubts"), I can say the following:
Dubia are a kind of response that the Holy See has used for some time in clarifying various questions concerning doctrinal, moral, or disciplinary matters. The term dubia is the plural of dubium ("doubt") and is used as shorthand. Technically, a response given in this form is known as a Responsum ad Dubium ("Response to a Doubt" or, more colloquially, "An Answer to a Question"). These are written in a Q & A format where the question is the doubt that is posed and the answer is the response to it.
Various Vatican dicasteries (departments) issue dubia within their own realm of competence, such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issuing dubia on questions of faith and morals, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issuing them on liturgical matters, and--back when it had actual authority--the Pontifical Biblical Commission issuing them on what could be taught regarding various biblical questions.
In the case of a dubium on torture, the relevant dicastery would be the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It would be from there that any dubium on the moral status of torture would be issued.
Unfortunately, I don't see any such dubium being issued in the near future. There are basically three reasons for this:
1) Lack of standing to pose the dubium
Unlike Catholic Answers, the Holy See is not in the business of running a Q & A service. They don't have an equivalent of our "Apologists' Line." Wish they did; but they don't. To avoid being overloaded with questions from the one billion faithful on the planet, the Holy See thus doesn't officially entertain questions from any ol' ordinary person.
Generally, for a dubium to have any hope of receiving an official response, it has to be posed by a bishop. "Did a bishop ask it?" is the minimum threshold question for getting a dubium off the ground. Even then, that's not enough. More is needed (see the next two numbered points).
Dubia can also be initiated by folks in the Holy See itself (e.g., as when JP2 requested that Pre-16 issue one on the status of the teaching of Ordinatio sacerdotalis), but here we're still dealing with a case of in-house Vatican bishops initiating or at least approving a dubium before it can proceed.
If an ordinary lay person were to send a letter asking the CDF about the moral status of torture he might get a letter back from a lower-down official, possibly referring him to a moral theologian for assistance, but whatever the response would be, it would not have been run past the pope, would not have received his approval, and would not engage the Magisterium of the Church.
2) Lack of substantial controversy
Even when a bishop asks for a clarification on something, a response is not guaranteed. Among the other conditions that must be fulfilled for a dubium to be forthcoming, the Holy See must perceive that the question is sufficiently pressing that it warrants an official response.
I don't see them thinking that on the torture issue. The question of the moral status of torture and what precisely constitutes torture is a pressing question for (some) Americans, but I see no evidence of that in the world at large. Those countries that routinely use torture do not have raging public controversies about it, and many are not Catholic any way (many, in fact, are Muslim), and in Europe the question is considered to have such an obvious answer that there is a reflexive response to it when attention (rarely) is given to it.
The fact that some blogs are discussing the question would not affect this point. The blogosphere is so far off the radar at the Vatican that it is perceived dimly as just something occurring on the Internet (which is itself dimly perceived; the Holy See is headed by a generation that does not have deep and broad experience of the Internet, even if some of them now use e-mail; some folks at the Holy See actually do read blogs, but not the highest leaders from what I can tell). Since the blogosphere is largely (not exclusively) dominated by English-speakers and since it is still a relatively small phenomenon (despite its ability to bring down Dan Rather), the controversy on some English-speaking, American Catholic blogs would not be regarded as of sufficient moment to warrant the CDF formulating an official response and getting the pope's sign-off on it.
3) Lack of clarity
Even when there is enough controversy or other pastoral reason that gives a question sufficient force to warrant an official response, and even when it is being asked by a bishop, the Holy See also has to feel that it has an answer to the question that would be worth contributing.
They don't want to be wrong, and this is particularly keenly felt when it comes to matters of faith and morals.
As a result, the Holy See would not respond to a dubium on torture unless it felt that it had a carefully thought-out and correct answer to offer, and my sense is that on this question they do not feel they have this.
There have been a number of statements in Magisterial and semi-Magisterial documents condemning torture, but these do not offer technical definitions of what torture is, and having a good definition is a precondition for formulating a solid response to finely posed moral questions on the topic.
If Rush Limbaugh were commenting on the situation, he might--in his own characteristic idiom--refer to such brief condemnations as acts of "drive-by Magisterium" that condemn torture in a brief manner that does not pause to explain in technical detail what torture is or allow finely-tuned moral questions to be answered about it.
While one would find such a characterization by Rush to display "a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable," such Magisterial acts express a deep moral intuition that torture is wrong, but they have not thus far meditated on this intuition to the point that technical questions can be answered about it.
And, in fact, this is often the way topics are first broached by the Magisterium. Rarely does one find an issue addressed in a fully articulated form on the first go-round.
Instead, the Magisterium often signals the direction it is going, or even the conclusion it intends to reach, but it allows and--indeed--desires moral theologians to hash out the question so that Catholic thought on the issue can mature to the point that the Holy See can examine the reflections of orthodox moral theologians and formulate an official response that has been cross-examined and will stand the test of time.
It wants that cross-examination and testing of the answer to occur on a lower level than that of the official response, because if they rushed out an official response that had not been cross-examined in this way then someone might point out a fatal flaw in it later on.
And this is good managerial practice. When a manager in an organization--someone charged with making a decision on an important matter--is considering what decision should be made, it is wise for him to hear out his juniors as they debate the issue before he gives a ruling.
That's what the Holy See likes to do with doctrinal and moral questions that are being freshly posed or posed in a new way. They let theologians and moral theologians kick the question around so that the issue can be thoroughly explored before they weigh in and issue a binding statement.
There are cases, of course, when questions are being raised that so threaten settled principles that this isn't possible, but it strikes me that--to the extent the question of torture is even on the Vatican radar at present--this is what they are letting moral theologians do.
The truth is that at this point we don't have a good definition for torture--one that will allow it to be distinguished from other uses of the infliction of pain (mental or physical) to ensure compliance with various goals--and so at present moral theologians have the liberty to hash out the question until the issue matures to the point that, should it be warranted, an official response would make sense.
We do, after all, need a sensible way to distinguish torture from the efforts of the state to deter crime by putting people in prison (something that is not pleasant and thus involves a form of pain) or the efforts of parents to keep their four-year olds from rushing out into the street by giving them a swat on the fanny (ditto on the pain).
All of which is to say that I don't see the conditions for getting a responsum ad dubium on this question being fulfilled at present: We in the blogosphere (unless we are a bishop) don't have the standing to pose the question, there isn't a major controversy on this topic on a global scale, and the issue is not sufficiently mature to allow the posing of an official answer.
So the best we can do is what bloggers do best: "Discuss amongst yourselves."
If folks are interested, I can try to offer further thoughts in the future, but this blog post has gone on for long enough.