The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture brings back with renewed force the debates of the previous decade about the use of torture in fighting terrorism. The three main conclusions I draw from the report are that first, the CIA’s use of torture in fighting terrorism was far more widespread than previously known; second, that torture was never effective in eliciting information for capturing active terrorists; and third, that the CIA deceived many, including the public and even the president, about both of these facts. Defenders of the techniques even now say that they kept us secure.
Insofar as the debate deals with the morality of torture, it proceeds on consequentialist grounds: was torture really effective in stopping terrorism? Obscured is the position that torture is intrinsece malum — always, everywhere, inherently wrong. This is the position of the Catholic Church, articulated in the Second Vatican Council document, Gaudium et Spes, the Catechism (1994), and Pope Saint John Paul II’s great encyclical on morality of 1993, Veritatis Splendor.
The Church acknowledges its own complex past on the matter, having sanctioned torture in the Middle Ages. The contemporary Catechism says this:
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.
Let us pray indeed.
For an excellent explication of the Church’s views, including a historical perspective, see this article in 2010 by Steve Colecchi in America. For an excellent natural law argument against torture, see this piece by Chris Tollefsen.