Say no to torture, USCCB committee chair urges [CC]


Recalling the teaching of St. John Paul II on torture, the chairman of the US bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace expressed concern about recent political …



I agree that torture is wrong. However, I read that torture was used in the Inquisition, and heretics were burned at the stake with the apparent approval of the Church? How can the two seemingly contradictory teachings be reconciled?


As much as people loathe it, the use of torture is a prudential matter.


The times are different and torture was not used as much during the Inquisition as is commonly understood (during the 1800s books were written by men trying to attack the Catholic Church that invented many of the common myths about the Inquisition.) Some torture and burning did occur though and Pope John Paul II apologized for it. There is a good, objective, article on the subject here:


Saint John Paul II included physical and mental torture in his list of social evils that are “intrinsically evil” (No. 80). The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says the prohibition against torture “cannot be contravened under any circumstances” (No. 404).

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;

CCC #2297 Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures. They are morally wrong. Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity. 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


As pnewton has pointed out, the Church teaches that torture is intrinsically evil. Therefore, it cannot be considered a matter prudential judgement. St. John Paul II caught this in Veritatis splendor, and the second Vatican Council proclaimed this in Gaudium et spes.


Since Christ and many martyrs were (and still are) tortured to death, it makes sense that Christianity would condemn torture, defined as 'the infliction of severe pain to punish, to coerce or to derive sadistic pleasure" (I borrowed that definition from this website.)

Of course it’s a little hard to square with the historical reality that torture was very much a part of the judicial system of Christian Europe during antiquity and the middle ages. I’m not sure how to explain that, but a good place to start might be Foucault.

But I can’t seem to find where St. Paul spoke or taught about torture. Can anyone direct me to the appropriate scripture passages?


Gaudium et spes did not declare it intrinsically evil.

The papal bull Ad extirpanda explicitly allowed torture.

If all mental torture was criminal, this would include solitary confinement and prisons in general. Obviously this is silly.


According to St. John Paul II, Gaudium et spes did teach torture to be intrinsically evil. Since he was at the Second Vatican Council, and since he was the Pope of Rome when he declared, in Veritatis splendor, that torture is intrinsically evil in accordance with Gaudium et spes, I’ll accept his teaching.


And by doing do he put himself at odds with just about every Pope since antiquity. That’s not how the Church works.


I don’t like the idea of torture, but as a last resort to get information out of terrorists, I realize it may be necessary.


That is a matter of opinion. He did quote the Second Vatican Council in his encyclical. The Church does work through encyclicals and Church councils, as opposed to lay opinions posted on the blogosphere.


So just about every Pope since antiquity has addressed torture, and specifically taught that it is licit? Can you substantiate that claim? Furthermore, do you know better than St. John Paul II “how the Church works”?


It may not be able to put the genie back in the bottle once this ‘terrorist’ threat is over.


What are you trying to say?


Seems to me there are two genies and two bottles.

Genie No. 1: If this country countenances “torture” pursuant to the definition you offered, which is the infliction of severe pain in order to coerce, punish or to derive sadistic pleasure" in one context, then might that not be the first slide down a slippery slope in which it’s countenanced domestically and for political reasons? That seems a bit improbable, but when the executive department takes more and more power on itself and uses agencies of government politically (like the IRS) should we really doubt it?

Genie No. 2: Every person has his own idea of what “torture” is. An overinclusive “definition” cited in a previous post would absolutely preclude not only solitary confinement, but the conditions in nearly every prison or jail, and even the usual events of arrest and interrogation. It could even preclude acts of war designed not to kill but to destroy the enemy’s will to fight. If we accept overinclusion, will we eventually be obliged to, in effect, empty the prisons and make arrest “voluntary or not at all”?

The central problem is, and probably for some time will remain, that there’s no truly agreed “bright line test” as to what torture is and what it isn’t.


I already stated a Pope who wrote a Bull allowing torture. It was taken for granted by most Popes in the middle ages. St. Augustine allowed torture, though he had reservations. One can make an argument that many forms of torture should not be used, and I would completely agree. Condemning as torture as intrinsically evil, however, goes against Church tradition and leaves an opening for all sorts of ridiculous arguments, as I have already stated.

Words mean things, and using them improperly creates disastrous and unchristian consequences.

Can you substantiate that claim? Furthermore, do you know better than St. John Paul II “how the Church works”?

JPII was a great man, but not infallible in prudential matters like this.




How are our prisons and law enforcement officers inflicting severe pain to coerce, punish or derive sadistic pleasure? That sounds almost like slander.


That permitting torture in certain circumstances risks routinizing it and therefore making it appear morally acceptable. I think it’s important to keep an absolute prohibition on it otherwise we can no longer say we aspire to be a decent society. Torture has no place in our justice system.

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