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June 28, 2004



What does the Church say about corporal punishment?

If corporal punishment is okay in some circumstances then couldn't one argue that withholding information about an imminent terrorist attack is "crime" which can be punished using corporal punishment and then couldn't "leniency" (i.e. the cessation of corporal punishment) be shown if the terrorist conspirator comes clean and gives up the location of the bomb?

Wouldn't that essentially be torture?

I'm just throwing out a few hypotheticals...I'm not trying to argue in favour of torture at the moment.


We should also take into account that John Paul II has discussed torture in two of his encyclicals: Evangelium Vitae, paragraph 3, and Veritatis Splendor, paragraph 80.

The relevant passage from VS (which refers back to section 27 of Gaudium et Spes) reads:

"80. Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature "incapable of being ordered" to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church's moral tradition, have been termed "intrinsically evil" (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that "there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object".131 The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: "Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; 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, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator"."


I think people often underestimate what sort of "interrogation" it takes to break a stubborn and determined terrorist.

For example, Abdul Hakim Murad, a potential suicide bomber was apprehended by Phillipine authorities, who "interrogated" Murad--it is claimed--for 67 days. His interrogators broke his ribs (beating him with a chair and sticks), forced water down his throat, and put lit cigarettes on his private parts. He broke after this, and a threat to turn him over to the Israeli Intelligence Service (Mossad).


Murad was, and probably still is, a nasty, dangerous character. He's serving a life sentence. And the "interrogation" did avert a larger terrorist plan than 9/11.

But my questions to those inclined to NOT call this torture (since it was done presumably with "good intentions") are these:

What if the only thing that would have made Murad break was bringing in his daughter and "torturing" her before his eyes?

Can we redescribe her suffering in such a way that it isn't torture?

Would it then be justified?

Or are there some things we should not do, no matter what the consequences?

Jimmy Akin


You are putting your finger on one of the key ambiguities of the Catechism's discussion of torture (and, by extension, other magisterial documents discussing it): namely, there is no firm line that has been drawn in these documents between the pain inflicted by corporal punishment and and the pain inflicted by torture.

Indeed, there is no line drawn in them between the pain inflicted by non-corporal punishment and the pain inflicted by torture, since the Catechism and other documents count "psychological torture" as torture.

The fact is, all punishment (even just confinement) causes something unpleasant (i.e., painful) to happen. Further, the threat of punishment is key to deterrence. Unless one is prepared to write off all punishment and threat of punishment (which the Magisterium has not been prepared to do) then one will have to find some other grounds with which to distinguish legitimate punishment from illegitimate torture.

I can think of a number of grounds by which one might do so--e.g., causing excessive pain (i.e., pain that is disproportionate to the good to be achieved) or causing grave and permanent bodily or psychological damage. However, rather than proceding along such lines the Catechism principally concentrates its analysis on the question of motive. Motive is certainly relevant, but the analysis offered in magisterial documents thus far remains non-exhaustive of what does and does not count as torture.


The quote you offer from Veritatis Splendor is an excellent one for documenting the point I made about the Magisterium wanting the word "torture" used in such a way that torture is always wrong. Jamie also pointed out such a passage.

Unfortunately, these passages are limited in that they do not offer the kind of rigorous definition of torture that one would want.

Regarding the specific situation you propose, it would *not* be permissible in Catholic moral theology to torture or kill an innocent for purposes of putting psychological pressure on individual to extract information from him. This would be a violation of the rights of the innocent person and thus could not be done.

Eric Giunta

"I would be disinclined to make an ordinary magisterium argument concerning torture. It is not clear to me that the ordinary Magisterium ever significantly entertained the question of torture in its teaching."

What about the fact that the Church explicitly allowed torture to be used, in a number of Papal bulls? Doesn't this presuppose the fact that the Church at one time, for centuries actually, did not see torture as intrinsically evil?

And let's not beat around the bush. We know what kind of torture was allowed during the Inquisitions. And the Church saw nothing wrong with it.

Jimmy Akin

I tried to address this briefly in my remarks by noting that, while churchmen may have *assumed* torture was a legitimate evidence-gathering means, this is not the same as seriously reflecting on the question and then *teaching* that it is so. For a statement to move from the category of an assumption to the category of a formal teaching, such deliberation is required.

Thus one needs more than just instructions to use torture in magisterial documents. One needs evidence that deliberation was undertaken and a formal conclusion reached that torture is permissible.

Further, even formal teachings can be wrong--by definition--unless they are given under the protection of infallibility.

For infallibility to be engaged, the conditions named in LG 25 must be met (see my recent post on the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium), and that requires the bishops as a body to teach with a universal consensus that a single position on the question of torture is to be held definitively by the faithful, and we simply do not have that in the documents.

One may be able to point to passages in documents that reveal a widespread assumption that torture is permissible, but one can't show the kind of deliberation and consensus that would require the faithful to definitively hold that torture is permissible.

Add to this the problems we have noted in even defining the term "torture."


I suppose my question now is:

Are the actions taken by the Phillipine authorities against Abdul Hakim Murad, under the circumstances described (he had knowledge of a terrorist plot) properly considered to be torture?
(Let's stipulate that eventually Murad's injuries heal and that we give him what treatment he needs to resolve any psychological trauma.)


How's this for a definition of torture?

". . . the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions."

It's from Article 1 of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 1984.


This Convention has been acceded to by the Holy See in 2002.


Note that the convention is not only against torture, but also against "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment".

And it says

"2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political in stability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."



Here's a bit of evidence that JPII endorses the Geneva Conventions guidelines about Torture:


"Israelis and Palestinians can only think of their future together, and each party must respect the rights and traditions of the other. It is time to return to the principles of international legality: the banning of the acquisition of territory by force, the right of peoples to self-determination, respect for the resolutions of the United Nations organization and the Geneva Conventions, to quote only the most important. Otherwise, anything can happen: from unilateral rash initiatives to an extension of violence that will be difficult to control."

The relevant Geneva Convention is at this address:


It says:

"No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind."


If it means us to understand that having a particular motive is necessary for an act to count as torture then it might turn out that some acts commonly described as torture are in fact not torture...

It can't mean that without contradicting Veritatis Splendour, no matter what is meant by the word "torture", because torture is an intrinsically evil act like abortion. Intrinsically evil acts are evil because of the nature of their object. The motive (or intent) of the act is irrelevant. That is what "intrinsically evil" means.


And by the way, a bunch of paraphrases of your position are being tossed around as "Jimmy Akin's Position" in the comment boxes at Mark Shea's blog. I suggested to the commenter that if he wanted to paraphrase you and imply your endorsement of his paraphrases he should tell you about it directly. He seemed reluctant to do so, though I suppose he may have done so by email. The comment thread is here.


"...no matter what is meant by the word 'torture'...torture is an intrinsically evil act, like abortion."

Uh, Zippy, words mean things. If Zippy commenting on JA.O is what is meant by "torture" (and, if words do not mean things, then "torture" can mean anything one wants), then Zippy is committing an intrinsically evil act by commenting on JA.O.


Uh, Zippy, words mean things.

Right. So what does the Church mean by "intrinsically evil acts"? She means "acts which are evil by nature of their object, and which cannot be made licit by any intent or circumstance".

So if X is an intrinsically evil act, even if we know nothing else about it we know that it cannot be made licit by intent or circumstances.


Zippy, since "no matter what is meant by the word 'torture'", you just committed an intrinsically evil act.

(This is called "demonstrating absurdity by being absurd".)


(This is called "demonstrating absurdity by being absurd".)

Funny, when I have done such things, I've been called "being an ass."

If you'd like him to clarify his statements, that's one thing. If you're just taking him on for sport, that's uncharitable.

I took "no matter what is meant by the word 'torture'" to mean "no matter how one nuances their use and meaning of the word 'torture'" ... I think most folks in general conversation would do the same.


Speaking of uncharitable: "When I have done such things, I've been called 'being an ass'."

The absurdity: "No matter what is meant by the word 'torture'.

Me being absurd: Stating that commenting on JA.O can therefore be called "torture", and, hence, Zippy committed an intrinsic evil.

I was not taking him on for sport, nor was I asking him to clarify his statement, I was carrying his logic to its extremity.

I took "no matter what" to mean "no matter what".


Or, rather, I was carrying his words to their logical extremity.


Or, rather, I was carrying his words to their logical extremity.

Clearly, and without second thought as to whether or not he was saying something different, even after he clarified what it was he was trying to say once.


...you just committed an intrinsically evil act...

No, you aren't getting it. When the Church says that act X is intrinsically evil we immediately know some things about act X, even if we do not know what act X is specifically. We know, for example, that act X cannot be made licit by intent or circumstances: whatever it may be, it is evil because of the nature of its object.



"I know that many people think that we should be morally licensed to intentionally cause intense suffering in prisoners. They are wrong. Not only that, but the project to find loopholes, circumstances where causing intense suffering in prisoners as the moral object of our act is putatively licit, is itself a wicked project."

How do see Jimmy's article in light of this quote from your blog? Is his post a wicked project or is Jimmy trying to get a better understanding of "the pain inflicted by non-corporal punishment and the pain inflicted by torture"?

Take care and God bless,


Does anyone know the name of the papal bulls that Eric Giunta was referencing in his comments that refer to the use of torture?


How do see Jimmy's article in light of this quote from your blog?

Are you suggesting that Jimmy is trying "...to find loopholes, circumstances where causing intense suffering in prisoners as the moral object of our act is putatively licit"?

Because if you are, you could ask him if that is his objective in the post above.

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