The current debate over torture revolves around a hasty judgment that has become American common sense and an axiom of public policy: that “on 9/11, everything changed.” Sept. 11, 2001, was a date on which tragic and traumatic events took place. The vivid horror of the airplane crashes and the revelation of a global terrorist network were startling. Certainly there are new dimensions to the terrorist threat, but in the heat of the moment people were easily, and I think unwisely, persuaded that Al Qaeda had altered all the rules.
In response, President George W. Bush declared “a war on terror,” and his administration made a host of decisions that broke with precedent. They made exemptions from the Geneva Conventions, permitted cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners and “enemy combatants,” allegedly established a string of secret prisons, sent captives to even less scrupulous foreign authorities and eavesdropped on innocent parties within the United States.
In a moment of moral panic, a whole fabric of restraints that had been established over the previous three centuries, and particularly since the Second World War, was cast off and a world of moral permissiveness opened up for the exercise of government power. Dostoyevsky had written, “If God is dead, everything is permitted.” In the war on terror, 9/11 supposedly changed everything, and anything was permitted to those in power. The threat from Al Qaeda was a new sort of challenge that required new sorts of responses. The sad fact is that, instead of giving those responses serious examination and careful definition, the Bush administration decided to violate moral and legal boundaries wherever it chose.
Theorist of the Inquisition
This sort of moral panic is not a new thing. A similar situation lay behind the Christian rationalization of torture in imperial Rome beginning with St. Augustine. Like a neoconservative, defined by Irving Kristol as “a liberal who has been mugged by reality,” Augustine became an apologist for state repression of religious dissent only after his own harsh encounters with reality. According to his premier biographer, Peter Brown, Augustine had begun as a liberal, convinced that heretics should be won over by persuasion. Persuasive evangelization, he believed as a young priest, honored the free will of the human being and was better suited to the proclamation of the Gospel. But in time, the failure of argument to win over the Donatists (a heretical North African group), the violence of the Circumcellions (the jihadis of their day) and the sack of Rome (psychologically the fifth-century equivalent of 9/11, though in magnitude a far greater event) compelled Augustine to urge the use of state power to suppress heresy. For that position, one historian has termed Augustine “the theorist of the Inquisition.”
In his book Augustine of Hippo (1967, 2000), Brown objects that however much a theorist Augustine may have been for the methods of the Inquisition, “he was in no position to be a Grand Inquisitor.” His own earlier convictions and social circumstances held him back from the extremes of others. Still, Augustine acceded to imperial law and practice, including physical coercion, and strengthened by his growing pessimism about fallen human nature, he insisted on the need for disciplina (what Brown calls “corrective punishment”) for the sake of social order and the good of the church.
Sad as it may be, Christian justification of coercion for spiritual and political ends began in the Christian West with Augustine’s teaching on the state repression of the Donatist heresy. Even so, the bishop of Hippo retained a sense of revulsion over torture that is seldom in evidence among today’s apologists for torture in the war on terror, who seem to relish working on “the dark side.” After a melancholy and, one senses, a highly conflicted reflection on the dilemmas facing a judge whose office requires torturing a possibly innocent suspect, he concludes, “Surely, there is something finer and more humane in seeing and detesting [the judge’s] wretchedness in this necessity and, if he be a Christian, in crying out to God, ‘Deliver me from my necessities.” (The necessities, in this case, were the cruel duties of his office.)
Las Casas: Human Dignity and Conversion
Augustine’s rationalizations heavily influenced the Middle Ages, but less perhaps than is commonly thought. For generation after generation, orthodox Christian pacifist movements, as well as heretical ones, arose to curb the Roman and Germanic military accretions to official Christianity, including forced conversion. Perhaps the first major shift in Western theology, however, came with the Spanish scholastics in the early modern period, beginning with the Dominican Fra Bartolomeo de las Casas (1474-1566) and his struggle to defend Native Americans against the violence of the Spanish conquest. His treatise The Only Way to Draw All People to a Living Faith rejected the view that religious opinions should be imposed by the use of force and returned to the earlier “liberal” view that persuasion and the example of a good life were the primary means to evangelize unbelievers.
In his defense of the Indians, Las Casas was the progenitor of the modern human rights movement. His views were later embraced by Spanish philosopher-theologians, especially Francisco de Vitoria (1492-1546) in his De Indis. According to Brian Tierney, the eminent medievalist and historian of canon law, nearly the whole of modern rights theory was anticipated by the late medieval tradition culminating in Las Casas and the Spanish scholastics. In their hands, this early rights theory was a weapon in a political campaign they lost. Their views were overwhelmed by the tide of absolutism that engulfed Europe and its colonies in the late 16th and 17th centuries.
Only in the late 20th century with Pope John XXIII’s encyclical letter on human rights, Peace on Earth (Pacem in Terris, 1963), and the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty” (Dignitatis Humanae, 1965) was the doctrine of religious freedom fully articulated in Catholic teaching. The declaration’s very first affirmation is especially relevant. “[Religious] freedom means that all are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that in matters of religion no one is to be forced to act contrary to his own beliefs.” The structure of the argument made by the council was essentially the two-pronged approach taken by Las Casas and the young Augustine: persuasion by argument and example is the proper means to win conversion, and gentleness, not force, is the way of Christ.
Contemporary church teaching on the use of torture and detention as tools in the war on terror is reflected by the treatment of the topic in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. According to the compendium, the church supports a “prohibition on torture” and rejects “the use of detention for the sole purpose of trying to obtain significant information for trial” (No. 404). While it does not speak of detention for the purposes of intelligence, a fair reading would suggest that extended imprisonment without charges for the sake of interrogation would also be excluded, especially where no trial was contemplated.
In a letter to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld dated June 13, 2006, Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando, Fla., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Policy, wrote to protest the Defense Department’s alleged consideration of proposals to exclude detainees from the protections of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits “cruel treatment and torture” as well as “outrages upon personal dignity.” Common Article 3 is so called because it appears in the three successive versions of the treaty. (Later in June the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that all detainees were subject to the protections of Common Article 3.) Bishop Wenski rested his argument, as did an earlier U.S.C.C.B. action alert in December 2005, on the inviolable dignity of the human person, the axiom that the end does not justify the means and a prudential judgment that torture does nothing to diminish the threat of terrorism.
Offenses in the Service of Truth
The culmination of the church’s rejection of the Augustinian doctrine of the use of the sword for spiritual ends, and with it the repudiation of torture, came in the Great Jubilee of the year 2000. John Paul II’s initiatives illuminate the religious underpinnings of contemporary Catholic teaching on torture. On the first Sunday of Lent that year, the pope held an extraordinary penitential service in Saint Peter’s Basilica in which he and leading curial cardinals prayed for forgiveness for “the errors of Christians in every age.” The first prayer of the service acknowledged “sins committed in the service of the Truth.” Among these were listed:
• sins of intolerance and violence against dissidents,
• wars of religion,
• acts of violence and oppression during the Crusades,
• methods of coercion employed in the Inquisition.
In preparation for this momentous event, when the church asked forgiveness for the sins of the previous millennium, a number of studies were produced by special commissions of scholars. The study group on the Inquisition eventually published its report in 2003. In the concluding essay of that volume, the author describes the teaching of Augustine and those who followed him as “a counter-witness and scandal.” Thus, under Pope John Paul II, the rejection of physical coercion reached its high point. Not only was the doctrine supplanted, it was confessed to be the source of many sins.
The ‘Supreme Emergency’ and the Cross
John Paul II also left us with a way to respond to those who insist that 9/11 changed everything and that the war on terror demands radical new rules or, more precisely, no rules at all—except winner take all. The answer of this survivor of both Nazism and Communism and a principal agent of the collapse of the Soviet empire is nonviolence. Writing in his encyclical Centesimus Annus (1991) on developments in Eastern Europe in 1989, the pope rejected the approach to international politics known as political realism and argued that the European order resulting from the Second World War “has been overcome by the nonviolent commitment of people who, while always refusing to yield to the force of power, succeeded time after time in finding effective ways of bearing witness to the truth…. May people learn to fight for justice without violence, renouncing class warfare in internal disputes and war in international ones.”
Though Pope John Paul asserted the right to defense against terrorism in his message for the 2002 World Day of Peace, “No Peace Without Justice, No Justice Without Forgiveness,” he argued that the basic way to fight terrorism was to attack its underlying causes, and that even in international affairs forgiveness is a necessary virtue.
As promoted by the Bush administration, the war on terror resembles the “supreme emergency,” the moment in a conflict when civilization itself is at risk. At that point, many argue, the usual laws of war may be set aside to prevent not just any defeat but a catastrophe for civilized life—the triumph of evil, as Mr. Bush might say. To those who believe today’s global terrorism constitutes such a supreme emergency, John Paul countered with the example of the ultimate victory of the Christian opponents of Communist oppression in Eastern Europe during the cold war:
These events are a warning to those who, in the name of political realism, wish to banish law and morality from the political arena…. It is by uniting his own suffering for the sake of truth and freedom to the sufferings of Christ on the Cross that man is able to accomplish the miracle of peace and is in a position to discern the often narrow path between the cowardice which gives in to evil and the violence which, under the illusion of fighting evil, only makes it worse.
Torture is one form of the violence that, “under the illusion of fighting evil, only makes it worse.”