Saturday, January 03, 2015

Why Waterboarding is Torture

UPDATE: Welcome to those of you who have been conveyed here by various Facebook and blog conversations. Thanks for giving my humble blog your attention. I welcome you to leave comments, but I request that you do so in Christian charity. I am not interested in being a host to character assassination, slander, accusations of heresy, or even snide or condescending commentary. It's my house and my dinner table, and I invite you to come, eat and drink, but not to abuse your fellow guests. Grace and peace be with you all.

I'm sure that some who are coming here are already not happy with me. Please understand that I am offering this post not as a way to slap anyone down as a "heretic," declare myself to be a superior Catholic (as if), or to take sides in some of the spats that are currently raging on Facebook or elsewhere. My role as a deacon and as a theologian (if I can claim that title with only an MA in theology and a desire to pursue a terminal degree) is to present the teachings of the Church in a way that is accessible, and one way of being accessible is by being charitable. So please take my post in the spirit in which it is offered—as a desire for your edification and aid.

As a deacon, I am charged to present the Church's official teaching, not my own opinion, and that is was I endeavor to do.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I appreciate Jimmy Akin's careful analysis of the issue of torture and waterboarding. I also mention that I disagreed with his definition of torture as "disproportionate violence." While this is useful for his argument, it does not match the operational definition used by the Church in Its doctrine on torture.

However, while I have qualms with the particulars of Jimmy's argument, my biggest concern is that it engages in a line of reasoning that does not follow the mind of the Church as expressed in its own documents, and that is what should concern the average lay Catholic—the mind of the Church as expressed in its official documents. In addition to scripture (which must also must be read following the mind of the Church as its authentic interpreter), the primary reference on matters of faith and morals Catholic laity should be the Catechism. While it is not exhaustive and it in itself is not an infallible statement of doctrine, it relies heavily on Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture in its formulation, including the dogmatic and irreformable doctrines of the faith.

To determine the status of waterboarding, we should then be looking at these documents first to establish the basis on which the Church makes moral judgments. Apart from the claims of some Catholic moral theologians,* the Church teaches that there are three elements or sources of morality: the object, the intention, and the circumstances. These elements are outlined in  the Catechism of the Catholic Church 17501761, and in more condensed form in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church 367–369.

The object is the act in and of itself. The intention is the "movement of the will toward the end (the first goal of the action). The circumstances (which include consequences) are secondary elements of an act that can increase or decrease the moral goodness or evil of an act or increase or diminish responsibility. Intention and circumstances cannot change the nature of the object, so if the object is evil in itself, intention and circumstance do not change that fact.

The specific prohibition against torture is in CCC paragraph 2297: "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" (condensed formula in the Compendium 477).

So the operational definition of torture, according to the Church, is "use of physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred." It is morally wrong because it "is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity." In other words, it treats a person as a thing and not as a person.

There is no notion of proportionality inherent or implicit in this definition. There is no degree of physical or moral violence involved. At very least, waterboarding falls under the category of moral violence, as it terrifies the subject into believing that they are drowning (which, in fact, is true). To deny that waterboarding is not physically violent is to undermine the very definition of violence. It requires physical force to carry out the activity (restraint and suppression of the subject's ability of defense). And the purpose of the act is stated clearly to distinguish violence that might be used in licit ways (for example, physical violence used to remove a diseased organ).

So by the Church's simple definition of torture in the Catechism (the Church's official statement of Catholic doctrine, albeit incomplete), waterboarding is torture, and torture is wrong because it treats persons as things rather than people. It treats them with utter disregard for their human dignity.

St. John Paul II outlined clearly in Veritatis Splendor 80 that torture constitutes in intrinsically evil act, which  "on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances" are "incapable of being ordered to God."

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stated in an address to the Twelfth World Congress of the International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care, stated that the prohibition against torture "cannot be contravened under any circumstances." In this statement, he was quoting directly from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church section 404, which itself quotes an address by St. John Paul II to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

There are other questions that people ask concerning self defense and warfare that, while legitimate questions, simply don't negate the clear teaching concerning torture. These questions, too, are addressed in the Catechism in the very same section as the definition of torture above. (See 2263–2267 on legitimate defense and 2307–2317, with particular emphasis on 2313.)

Now I responded in my previous post to the objection that the doctrine on torture is not infallible, and thus is a matter of prudential judgment. That does not allow us to dismiss a teaching—only to determine how it will be applied. I don't see many ways to apply a teaching that states that "the prohibition on torture cannot be contravened" aside from simply not engaging in torture or proposing its use. Looking for another way to define an activity to carve it out from under the umbrella of torture is certainly not applying a teaching but finding a way to ignore it. For an explanation of why some moral teachings are not infallibly defined, see this blog post from 2010.

A lot of people have been quoting from an essay by Fr. Brian Harrison to claim Catholic support for torture under limited circumstances. The essay did in fact present such an argument. However, he has since retracted that position. Below is his statement concerning his former position as to the legitimate discussion of the question by moral theologians,§ which he requested to be posted by Mark Shea.
However, having now become aware that Pope Benedict himself has personally reiterated this particular statement of the Compendium, I wish to state that I accept the Holy Father’s judgement on this matter, and so would not defend any proposal, under any circumstances, to use torture for any purpose whatsoever – not even to gain potentially life-saving information from known terrorists.
He adds
Indeed, I do not normally read this (or any other) blog, mainly because I think disputes in the blogosphere tend to generate more heat than light – especially since they so often involve intemperate, unsubstantiated, anonymous – and therefore cowardly – attacks on persons and reputations.
Now, some people fault Fr. Harrison for even considering this question. I don't because that is a moral theologian's job. Even if his conclusions are incorrect, he has to engage the questions until there is a clear statement that the matter is settled. In this case, he did exactly that. Once he saw that the Holy Father had already spoken on a subject, he withdrew his proposal.

Updated: Dave Armstrong has pointed out in the comments that Fr. Harrison has not actually retracted his position. See the comments for his explanation.

That is what it means to think with the mind of the Church. When we find ourselves out of line with the Church's thinking, we reform our thoughts. I have had to do it many times since I returned to the faith, and I'm always under reform. That is, in essence, what it means to be Catholic—to be ever in a state of conversion more and more toward the heart of Christ. 


Here are some USCCB resources concerning torture. Specific mention is mad of waterboarding in chapter 2 of the linked PDF, where the issue of the "definition of torture" is used as a tactic to justify an act that is in fact torture.

In terms of the rather deceptive descriptions about how waterboarding is often presented, the document states, "And some commentators consider even the term 'waterboarding' euphemistic—a term that they say does not fully call to mind the reality of a simulated drowning.

If you describe simulated drowning as dunking, sipping, splashes of water in the face, or anything that minimizes what is actually done, then you are mischaracterizing the actual practice. Here's how the CIA described it:

In this procedure, the individual is bound securely to an inclined bench, which is approximately four feet by seven feet. The individual’s feet are generally elevated. A cloth is placed over the forehead and eyes. Water is then applied to the cloth in a controlled manner. As this is done, the cloth is lowered until it covers both the nose and mouth. Once the cloth is saturated and completely covers the mouth and nose, air flow is slightly restricted for 20 to 40 seconds due to the presence of the cloth… During those 20 to 40 seconds, water is continuously applied from a height of twelve to twenty-four inches. After this period, the cloth is lifted, and the individual is allowed to breathe unimpeded for three or four full breaths… The procedure may then be repeated. The water is usually applied from a canteen cup or small watering can with a spout… You have… informed us that it is likely that this procedure would not last more than twenty minutes in any one application.
So that's hardly "dunking" or sipping or just splashing water in someone's face. It is controlled drowning. The physical effects are hypoxia, elevated heart rate and blood pressure and can cause a "fear-induced heart problem." Subjects often vomit, which can result in inhalation and asphyxiation.

Here's a list of resources concerning the use torture:

If you would like to see the opinions of SERE trainers and professional interrogators on the use of torture, please see the following:

Concerning the difference between how SERE training employed waterboarding and how it was used in real life, there's this:

The IG Report noted that in some cases the waterboard was used with far greater frequency than initially indicated, see IG Report at 5, 44, 45,103, 104 and also that it was used in a different manner. See id. at 37 (”The waterboard technique was different from the technique described in the DOJ opinion and used in the SERE training. The difference was in the manner in which the detainee’s breathing was obstructed. At the SERE school and in the DoJ opinion, the subject’s airflow is disrupted by by the firm application of a damp cloth over the air passages; the Interrogator applies a small amount of water to the cloth in a controlled manner. By contrast, the Agency interrogator… applies large volumes of water to a cloth that covered the detainee’s mouth and nose. One of the psychologists/interrogators acknowledged that the Agency’s use of the technique is different than that used by in SERE training because it is ‘for real’ and is ‘more poignant and convincing’.”) The Inspector General further reported that "OMS contends that the expertise of the SERE psychologist/interrogators on the waterboard was probably misrepresented at the time, as the SERE waterboard experience is so so different from the subsequent Agency usage as to make it almost irrelevant. [c]onsequently, according to OMS, there was no a priori reason to believe that applying the waterboard with the frequency and intensity with which it was used by the psychologist/interrogators was either efficacious or medically safe.” Id. at 21 n.26.

Here are some first-hand descriptions of how it feels:

And as it turns out, the DOD had been trying to eliminate use of waterboarding because it induces "learned helplessness."

For a history of Waterboarding:

A competing theory among some Catholic moral theologians is Proportionalism, which considers whether a particular act will result in greater good consequences or whether some proportionate reason is present for justifying an act. They essentially undermine if not dismiss the existence of intrinsic moral evil and moral absolutes. The position is soundly condemned in Veritatis Splendor 76. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI has also spoken against this moral theory.

§ Note that he positions this as a legitimate discussion among moral theologians—not as a public debate among faithful Catholics concerning what the Church teaches officially.
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