Educational Resource

The Problem With Torture: Excerpts from Pope Benedict XVI's World Day of Peace Message, 2006

Year Published
  • 2011
  • English

Study Guide - Chapter Two


Revisiting Paul's Writings

Bless those who persecute (you), bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Have the same regard for one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not be wise in your own estimation. Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, on your part, live at peace with all. (Romans 12:14-18)

Torture is much discussed and debated today in the media and in the courts. Questions have been raised, even in cartoons, as to how to define torture, and what constitutes torture. Some argue over what constitutes cruel and inhumane, while others say, Ill know it when I see it. And some, who might have dismissed a given practice as torture, have quickly changed their minds when it was done to them.

The 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture defines torture as any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person to obtain information or a confession, and where such an act is allowed by a public official. The International Red Cross defines torture as existence of a specific purpose plus intentional infliction of severe suffering or pain. Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions prohibits that prisoners of war be subjected to violence to life and person, in particular  mutilation, cruel treatment and torture, . . .outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment. But what does our faith say about torture?

Catholic social teaching today opposes torture in the treatment of any detained or imprisoned person. For the Church is convinced that every human person bears a God-given dignity; respect for that dignity must always be present. The Church also is careful to point out that torture is illegal, prohibited under international law.

Pope Benedict XVI talked about this in September 2007, when he addressed an international congress of Catholic prison ministers. Means of punishment or correction that either undermine or debase the human dignity of prisoners must be eschewed by public authorities, he said. Immediately he added the following statement, which incorporates a quote taken from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church: The prohibition against torture cannot be contravened under any circumstances (No. 404).

Torture raced to the center of public attention in 2004 when startling photographs depicting prisoner abuse by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were published and broadcast widely.

While our primary, immediate concern in this discussion guide is about the possible use of torture by the U.S. government, an organization known as the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC) reminds us that torture currently is practiced by more than 150 governments of the world. Those who are tortured include the apolitical and the politicized, says TASSC. In chapter 4 of this discussion guide, well listen to the voice of a survivor of torture who was taken captive because her work with poor children in Latin America was considered suspicious.

We thought the word was gone. We thought torture belonged to a foreign language. We were wrong, write Rose Marie Berger and Joseph Ross, the editors of a book of poems and paintings about torture titled Cut Loose the Body (American University. Washington, D.C. 2007).

Is it surprising that in our third millennium torture has emerged as a matter of great public concern? Perhaps not, and well discuss the reasons why as this chapter unfolds.

It surely isn't surprising either that Catholic leaders speak out about torture. Why? First, torture is a moral issue for the Church. Second, as a participant in its surrounding world, the Church wants to contribute to society in positive ways, by sharing insights and values related to the most pressing matters of the times.

With that in mind, take a look at this statement on torture found in the Catholic bishops of the United States November 2007 statement on Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship:

The use of torture must be rejected as fundamentally incompatible with the dignity of the human person and ultimately counterproductive in the effort to combat terrorism (No. 88).

Let us begin this discussion of torture by weighing-in on the moral/ethical dimensions of the present discussion; and asking if there are ways Christians can help to create a new climate in society; a climate that is hopeful and confident, and less ready to allow room for practices such as torture in the combat against terrorism.

One leading Catholic commentator on torture observed, War always makes ethics hellish. Yes, but what about that? In this age of terrorism, is it possible for a nation to act upon the world stage in ways that demonstrate respect for human dignity, and are consistent with the Gospel?

As our discussion commences, briefly ponder the following questions. They may help to start the wheels of the mind spinning as we look into an issue that is a sign of our times.

Can respect for the human dignity of all co-exist with an acceptance of torture in the interrogation of prisoners taken in the fight against terrorism? Why or Why not?

Why should the Christian community study and address the issue of torture?

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks inside U.S. borders September 11, 2001, Americans experienced an unfamiliar sense of vulnerability. Millions anxiously asked, What next? They wondered if a sense of security could be re-established for themselves and their families.

Think back to your own strongest feelings and concerns during the period after the 9-11 attacks:

Did you experience fear, sadness or anger? Were you less optimistic?

Did you spend more time with those you care about most? Did you take more time to serve others?

Did you pray more? What did you pray for?

Did you feel hopeful?

Some might say that a new era began with 9-11. With the dawn of this new era, many felt shaken. People assessed and reassessed priorities.

And people shared an interest in knowing how their nation would respond to developments that seemed virtually to have shifted the ground under their feet. But as the months and years unfolded, it became clear that people wouldn't always agree about what was the right way to respond to terrorism.

The birth of this unique new era was accompanied by unique new questions. Many people undoubtedly felt that, while we had questions, we didn't have answers. There were questions like

What is the right way to deal with an enemy whose very location is incredibly difficult to discover?

What gives rise to terrorism?

Are there effective, moral means of self-defense against potential terrorist attacks?

How might a nation learn where terrorists plan to stage their next attack and what form an attack might take?

With questions like those, its no wonder that intelligence-gathering became a major focus, not just for government and intelligence agencies, but for society in general. For a rather long period of time after 9-11, intelligence-gathering became an intense object of media scrutiny. People wanted to know as much as possible about how intelligence-gathering works.

Intelligence-gathering for the sake of national security undoubtedly is an essential government function. Is it possible, though, to take some wrong steps in the process of seeking accurate answers to questions related to our security?

Today, the Church's position on interrogational torture is absolute: It may never again be used, Jesuit Father John Perry wrote in a February 2006 article published by Catholic News Service. While the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes it clear that torture is a grave sine which violates the Fifth Commandment (No. 2297), Father Perry noted that sadly, our current position does not reflect a long, robust tradition against torture. He said that for centuries the Inquisition used torture in the course of interrogations when judicial inconsistencies existed, and some 17th century writers on moral issues devoted many pages in their treatises on torture to discussion of procedural questions.

But Catholic teaching on torture developed over the centuries so that in his 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor Pope John Paul II included physical and mental torture in his long list of social evils that are not only shameful (probra), as they are declared to be by the Second Vatican Council, but also intrinsically evil, Father Perry wrote. This condemnation, he said, was the culmination of teaching against torture by the papal magisterium that increased in severity through the course of the 20th century. Father Perry is the author of Torture: Religious Ethics and National Security (Orbis/Novalis 2005).

There are many means of intelligence-gathering, and it is pursued in many settings. Among them are detention centers where prisoners are questioned: prisoners of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or of actions against terrorist cells around the world. What methods of obtaining information from these prisoners were to be permitted?

Society's current debate over torture relates directly to how detainees are interrogated. What forms does the debate take? Here are a few positions on torture:

Some argue that the painful treatment of a few extracts information that saves the lives of many.

Some counter that torture doesn't work, that tortured individuals say whatever they think their captors want to hear.

Attention sometimes shifts to a specific approach to interrogation; a debate ensues about whether a particular practice indeed constitutes torture. The practice called waterboarding, or simulated drowning, is an example of this.

Some find torture unfortunate but believe that desperate times call for desperate measures.

Others believe torture is counterproductive, that for every insurgent tortured, 100 new insurgents rise up.

Some call attention to how torture affects those who impose it, asking: Doesn't this practice degrade our own personnel?

Some say that torture raises the risk that our own forces will be tortured if captured.

What constitutes torture? Here's the full definition written in the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1984:

For the purposes of this Convention, 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.

The U.N. Convention said that  no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

This U.N. Convention, known as CAT, took effect in June 1987 after ratification by twenty nations. The United States signed it in April 1988, and ratified in October 1994.

Of course, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights also says that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. And the Geneva Conventions of 1949 prohibited physical or mental torture and any other form of coercion against prisoners of war.

Torture assumes many guises, from electric shocks and burning with cigarettes, to sexual humiliation in various forms, even rape. Detainees may be threatened by attack dogs, or told that unless they cooperate their family members will be harmed. Detainees may be beaten, deprived of sleep, hooded for long periods. The list goes on of ways that pain is caused or that detainees are terrorized. And some parties to the debate argue, as we said, that some practices under discussion do not actually constitute torture. Or they may argue that when torture has occurred, it was inflicted by misguided individuals whose actions were unauthorized.

Is torture an acceptable means of gathering information sought for our own self-defense in the age of terrorism? In a June 2006 letter to then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Florida cautioned that the nation must not embrace a morality based on an attitude that desperate times call for desperate measures. Bishop Wenski, writing in his capacity as chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on International Policy, said, In a time of terrorism and great fear, our individual and collective obligations to respect the dignity and human rights even of our worst enemies gains added importance. Our nation must treat its prisoners as we would expect our enemies to treat our own military personnel.

If you had the opportunity to participate in a meeting of national leaders discussing national security, what would you say about torture?

Catholic Voices: What They Say About Torture

Torture is not easy to define, butas our U.S. Supreme Court stated regarding pornography common sense usually knows torture when one sees it. (Archbishop Edwin OBrien of Baltimore, Md., speaking Oct. 13, 2007, to a Vatican-sponsored course for military ordinaries and chaplains in Rome)

The code of the warrior exists not only to protect the innocent and to ensure that combatants conduct themselves in a manner consistent with the principles of discrimination in the prosecution of war and of proportionality, but also to protect the warriors themselves, to guard against the invisible wounds of battle that oftentimes affect warriors psychologically and spiritually the rest of their lives. Torture is an immoral option not only because it denies dignity to fellow human beings, but because it saps the humanity from those who employ it. This psychological dynamic is reflected in [Vatican Council II's] Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: (Such infamies) do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. (Father Louis Iasiello, a Navy chaplain, in the February 2006 Viewpoints package published by Catholic News Service)


For Discussion: Perspectives on Torture

The two passages below are offered for your reflection, analysis and discussion.

The fathers of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council in the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes [ Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World] pointed out that not everything automatically becomes permissible between hostile parties once war has regrettably commenced. As a means of limiting the devastating consequences of war as much as possible, especially for civilians, the international community has created an international humanitarian law.

International humanitarian law ought to be considered as one of the finest and most effective expressions of the intrinsic demands of the truth of peace. Precisely for this reason, respect for that law must be considered binding on all peoples. Its value must be appreciated and its correct application ensured; it must also be brought up to date by precise norms applicable to the changing scenarios of today's armed conflicts and the use of ever newer and more sophisticated weapons.

Pope Benedict XVI reiterates the Vatican Council II teaching that not everything becomes permissible once war commences. Are there actions in times of war that instead of furthering peace, actually prolong or intensify the fighting and violence?

It is a constant temptation in the face of unjust bloodshed and targeted death-dealing wreaked upon us to lash out in response, to take off the gloves, to play by new and tougher rules; we so easily become exactly like that which we hate.

In the years since I walked through Ground Zero, moved to tears by pain and courage, I have become ever more convinced that vehement rhetoric and misguided response to the repulsiveness of terrorist murder is creating a nation and a world where the genius of the ancient Christian (and secular) moral tradition on war and violence has been lost. The rise of torture as a legal form of interrogation is inarguable evidence of a terrible mistake we make in our battle against a terrible enemy.

Yet pacifism has no special message to offer in the face of terrorism or suicide attacks, and so we come finally to some form of just-war thinking in our struggle against the murderous shard of Islam that desires the death of the West.

I suggest that Al Qaeda and its fellows are criminals and should be treated that way, and our police and armed forces be equipped with resources and weaponry to control and bring to justice criminals who would harm the common good.

I suggest that just-war theory, for all its flaws and manifest limitations, is the most helpful and moral system we have in judging when and how to fight back against those who would murder the innocent.

I suggest that just-war theory is crucial especially to us, as a check against our own worst impulses.

And finally I suggest that the greatest victory of all for bin Laden and his fellow killers would be to turn us into the sort of killers they are, men who have abandoned the moral and rational constraints that have evolved through the centuries in the Christian tradition about war.

We have a responsibility to counter terrorism in a way that is consistent with the Gospel.

Father Malloy suggests it is possible to respond to terrorism in a way consistent with the Gospel. Discuss his proposal.

Under the Just War tradition outlined in the Catholic bishops of the United States statement The Harvest Of Justice is Sown in Peace (1993), the following criteria must be met before lethal force may be used:

Just Cause: force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil;

Comparative Justice: the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other;

Legitimate Authority: only duly constituted public authorities may use deadly force or wage war;

Right Intention: force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose;

Probability of Success: arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success;

Proportionality: the overall destruction expected from the use of force must be outweighed by the good to be achieved;

Last Resort: force may be used only after all peaceful alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted.

The Story of Cardinal Van Thuan: Making Hope Resound

A Christian is a living Credo, continuing Jesus work here on earth and making the song of hope resound in the midst of the worlds trials.

Those words were written by Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan when he was imprisoned by communist authorities in Vietnam. They are found in his book, Prayers of Hope, Words of Courage.

What could make the song of hope resound in the world today?

In his 2007 encyclical on hope, titled Spe Salvi , Pope Benedict XVI recalled the Vietnamese cardinal, who died in September 2002. The pope wrote, The late Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, a prisoner for 13 years, nine of them spent in solitary confinement, has left us a precious little book, Prayers of Hope. During 13 years in jail, in a situation of seemingly utter hopelessness, the fact that he could listen and speak to God became for him an increasing power of hope, which enabled him after his release to become for people all over the world a witness to hope (No. 32).

Cardinal Van Thuan, born in 1928, was jailed by Vietnam's communist regime in 1975 after becoming archbishop of Saigon, later renamed Ho Chi Minh City. He never was tried or sentenced; he spent thirteen years in solitary confinement. In 1988 he was released, but communist authorities would not allow him to function as archbishop. In 1991 he fled to Rome, after a Vietnamese government official suggested he leave. In Rome he went on to head the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Cardinal Van Thuan long wore a pectoral cross and chain he had constructed in prison from wood and electrical wire, and hidden from his guards. Speaking in Los Angeles in 2000, he said he wore the cross and chain not because they are reminders of prison, but because they indicate my profound conviction, a constant reference point for me: Only Christian love can change hearts; neither weapons, nor threats nor the media can do so."

A cautionary note related to hope to its loss, that is found in Pope Benedicts encyclical on hope. He said, Our daily efforts in pursuing our own lives and in working for the world's future either tire us or turn into fanaticism unless we are enlightened by the radiance of the great hope that cannot be destroyed even by small-scale failures or by a breakdown in matters of historic importance. If we cannot hope for more than is effectively attainable at any given time or more than is promised by political or economic authorities, our lives will soon be without hope (No. 35).

People who have hope live differently, Pope Benedict wrote.

How in our fearful times can we remain hopeful? That question was posed in 2001 by Cardinal Godfried Danneels. It is a crucial question, he proposed, because "hope is not located somewhere at the edge of human existence: it is its heart. If it is hit, the person dies." Cardinal Danneels, Archbishop of Mechelin-Brussels, Belgium, spoke about this at Jesuit-run John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio, shortly after the attacks of 9-11.

The cardinal asked, May we still hope? There is, he observed, so much war and violence, genocide, unemployment, crime and terrorism. Thus, a sort of existential angst hangs in the air, and humankind wishes to fight back. But do we always choose the right weapon? The cardinal, responding to his own question, said, Often we become cold, businesslike, cynical or even indifferent. The real solution lies elsewhere. It is hope.

How important is hope? Living by hope and conveying hope to others is of the essence, Pope Benedict XVI proposed when he visited the United States April 15-20, 2008. He called upon seminarians and young people at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., to invite others, especially the vulnerable and the innocent, to join you along the way of goodness and hope.

The pope spoke powerfully at St. Joseph's about what happens when people encounter mind-sets which stifle hope and situations in which respect for human rights is lacking. Recalling his youth in Nazi Germany, he said,

My own years as a teenager were marred by a sinister regime that thought it had all the answers; its influence grew, infiltrating schools and civic bodies, as well as politics and even religion before it was fully recognized for the monster it was. It banished God and thus became impervious to anything true and good.

Does the power to destroy remain in the world today? Yes, Pope Benedict said. To pretend otherwise would be to fool ourselves. Yet it never triumphs; it is defeated. This, he said, is the essence of the hope that defines us as Christians.

With that in mind, the pope took care to note that when the whole Church, in its great, annual Easter Vigil liturgy, cries out to God for our world, it is not a cry from despair or fear, but a cry with hope-filled confidence. The Church cries out: Dispel the darkness of our heart! Dispel the darkness of our minds!

Is the virtue of hope an important factor in strategies for dealing with terrorists? How do you think that a strategy developed in an atmosphere dominated by hope would differ from a strategy developed in an atmosphere dominated by fear?

The use of torture in the treatment of prisoners or of people considered to be enemies is opposed in Catholic teaching. In the Church's eyes

Torture violates a human persons God-given dignity.

The end does not justify the means; torture is a moral issue.

Torture violates international humanitarian law.

The torture and crucifixion of Jesus, and the torture and abuse of many saints down through history also are never forgotten by the Church. What do we learn from the interrogation, flogging, and crucifixion of Jesus? How does the torture of Jesus and many saints remind us of our nations response to threatening developments in the world today?

Some think that a sense of desperation began to influence peoples thinking in the period after 9-11. What do you think?

The Catholic Church always wants to contribute to the world in positive ways and to help cast light on the most pressing issues of the times. That is why the Church and her people enter into the public discussion of an issue such as torture.

What constructive contribution do you think the Christian community or its individual members can make to the conversation about key issues our nation faces, such as its response to terrorism?

Concluding Prayer

From now on, Lord,
Help me to bring your love everywhere:
to schools and hospitals,
to marketplaces and theaters,
to press and television.
No one should be deprived
of the environment of love.
Lord, love is the means you want me to use
to bear witness to you,
or you would have shown me another way.

(From Prayers of Hope, Words of Courage,
by Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan,
Pauline Books, 2002)

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