Toying With Evil: May a Catholic Advocate Torture?

“Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils,” said Chesterton, “they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.”

Different political ideologies tend to have different ways of finessing and nuancing what, in Catholic thinking, is more bluntly called “mortal sin.” Conservatives are familiar with the ingenious ways that the Pelvic Left has found to rationalize it by either subjectivizing Goodness and Truth or by appealing to the notion that good ends justify evil means. The goal here is simple: legitimize more and more ways in which powerful people can have sexual pleasure, no matter the cost to anybody else. That’s why there’s abortion, whereby men make women pay for the fun, and women pass the bill onto their babies. That’s also why an economically prosperous subculture of gays can continue the push to force “gay marriage” on the culture. And that’s why there’s no-fault divorce. The big winners of the Sexual Revolution were adulterers, abortionists, and attorneys.

And now, according to Lifesite News, that very same ethos has made it possible for Richard Yuill to be awarded a doctorate degree from Glasgow University for arguing in his doctoral thesis that sex between children and adults is sometimes a positive experience for the children.

The reason a moral cretin like Yuill can now be taken seriously in the Leftist academy is actually fairly simple: Once you embrace one form of sexual sin on the basis that morality is subjective or that the ends justify the means, your own flawed logic demands that you support whatever fresh perversion rounds the bend. After all, if you try to tell Dr. Yuill that he’s advocating a violation of the immemorial moral code of humanity, you stand in grave danger of having your recently legitimized sexual sin called back into question as well.

In short, one justification for evil tends to lead to justifications for even deeper forms of evil. Artificial contraception leads to abortion leads to euthanasia leads to infanticide (currently being tested in the Netherlands in preparation for worldwide distribution) leads to the classification and murder of other “undesirables.” No-fault divorce leads to shattered families leads to redefinition of the family leads to gay marriage leads to further redefinition of the family out of practical existence. And so on.

Conservatives generally recognize all this and stand on guard against attempts to excuse and downplay pelvic sins precisely because they know where those sins lead. For this reason, few conservatives would fall for something like this imaginary editorial (written, say, in response to the claims made a couple of years ago that a drop in crime rates could be correlated to the rise of abortion):

Dr. Fritz Hubener was a rarity in Austrian 19th-century medicine. Against the dictates of the powerful Austrian Catholic Church, he advocated the right of women to terminate dangerous pregnancies, particularly when they were trapped in relationships with powerful, abusive men. One day, a woman named Klara came to him for medical advice. She was pregnant and frightened. Not the least of her fears was the manipulative fear of hell that had been put into her by cold and uncaring parish priest. She was a timid girl and not sure she was ready to be a mother. Dr. Hubener was, at present, the only one who knew she was pregnant besides her. He urged her to terminate the pregnancy, but in the end, out of her fear of hell, Klara declined. Eight months later, her son, Adolf Hitler, was born.

Some Catholics feel that abortion is evil. We will not argue the point. We will merely note that every reasonable person will agree that the cause of good would have been greatly advanced if Dr. Hubener had aborted Hitler that day. So even if you think abortion is evil, we can only reply that History abounds with examples of good actions furthering the cause of evil.

It wouldn’t take a conservative Catholic long to reduce the logic to dust. But when identical rhetoric comes from Right, things become less clear.

Take, for example, a recent piece by Michael Ledeen that appeared in National Review Online ( Excerpted from his book Machiavelli on Modern Leadership, the piece was titled “WWMD?: Machiavelli on how to deal with wounded enemies,” and told of one Henry Tandey, an English soldier who found the wounded Adolf Hitler on the battlefield in World War I and spared his life. It concluded:

Murder is surely evil, yet every reasonable person will agree that the cause of good would have been greatly advanced if Henry Tandey had killed Hitler in that trench. History abounds with examples of good actions furthering the cause of evil….

Not accidentally, the piece was published just a few days after a U.S. Marine was filmed shooting an unarmed, wounded man in a Fallujah mosque. Ledeen clarified his argument in a later post:

My point–Machiavelli’s point, actually–is that real decisions in real life are almost never easy, and those called upon to make those tough decisions have to be willing to “enter into evil.” Sometimes by doing that–as briefly as possible, he implores us–means doing things we know to be morally wrong. I gave the Hitler example because Machiavelli knows, as every grownup thoughtful person knows, that it is also possible to do the morally right thing, and by so doing, we unleash great evil. Life is tough. And the abstract moralists are not a very good guide for leaders, at least not all the time. Obviously I was trying to get people to think more deeply about the Marine in Fallujah….

Now there are several things happening here, and it’s vital to keep them separate. The first is that Ledeen is aiming to “think more deeply about the Marine in Fallujah.”

This, I believe, is a mistake. For the thing we should be thinking is actually quite simple: Wait until the investigation is over. If the Marine deliberately shot a wounded man, knowing that he was unarmed, the Marine did evil. If the Marine–in attempting to assess a difficult situation caused by enemy troops faking wounds and death in order to ambush our soldiers–mistakenly killed a wounded man, then he didn’t do evil. That’s it. That’s all.

But that’s not what Ledeen does here. Instead, he does two other things. First, he suggests that even if the Marine had committed cold-blooded, premeditated murder…well, is that really such a bad thing? And second, when we read the bold-faced text that is the actual core of his argument, he proposes that “grown up thoughtful persons” who are not “abstract moralists” should endorse a Machiavellian call to “enter into evil” and “do those things we know to be morally wrong”.

One can see only two possible ways to account for Ledeen’s linkage of the story of the shooting in Fallujah to his “enter into evil and murder the unarmed Hitler on the battlefield” argument. One possibility is that the writer was simply having an off day. Where he meant to say, “Sometimes mistakes are made on the battlefield,” he somehow inadvertently ended up saying, “Sometimes things we know to be morally wrong, such as cold-blooded murder of a man we know to be unarmed and wounded, are okay.” Charity bids me to hope that’s what happened since the other option is that he said precisely what he meant to say.

Ledeen is not a Christian, and so I don’t expect him to much care when St. Paul warns that those who say “Let us do evil that good may result” are “justly condemned” (Romans 3:8). (I’m skeptical that there’s room for this sort of thinking in Ledeen’s own Jewish tradition, but not being an expert on Jewish moral theology, I will not press the point.) However, I do expect a Catholic to follow St. Paul and Church teaching on the subject. So I was surprised to read conservative Catholic pundit Linda Chavez writing in much the same vein just a week or two later in her article, “It’s time for a rational debate.”

Chavez’ stated purpose is to open “rational debate” about what does and does not constitute torture. Is sleep deprivation torture? Is missing a meal torture? Confinement? Extended interrogation?

That’s a perfectly reasonable question and would certainly be beneficial–if that’s where Chavez went with her article. But instead, she argues for torture using logic strikingly similar to that used by Ledeen.

First, Chavez criticizes the International Committee of the Red Cross for accusing the United States of torturing enemy combatant prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and asks: “Does that mean U.S. interrogators are sticking needles under inmates’ fingernails and attaching electrodes to sensitive body parts? Or are they merely beating prisoners senseless? Hardly.”

Basic message: Rest assured the ICRC is blowing everything out of proportion. We’re just talking about legitimate coercive techniques used by all law enforcement officials.

But then, Chavez goes on to describe techniques that do sound like they could, though not necessarily, constitute torture under certain circumstances (“solitary confinement, temperature extremes, and using ‘forced positions’ to obtain information”).

At this point, it would indeed be reasonable to raise the question, “When are such things torture and when are they legitimate?” After all, a “forced position” can range from, “Put your hands over your head” to being forced to squat for twelve hours. It’s precisely here that we need to have the discussion so that we can distinguish, say, legitimate “forced positions” from torture.

But Chavez doesn’t raise that question. Instead she asks, “[I]f such methods are ‘torture,’ is the United States justified in using them anyway?”

Mark that: Even if it is torture, can’t we do it anyway?

For a Catholic, there is no “rational debate” on that question, for the Church has answered it definitively. Gaudium et Spes (no. 27) condemns torture categorically:

Furthermore…whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as…torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself…all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.

And if that is not clear enough, an “abstract moralist” named Pope John Paul II quoted that same passage in Veritatis Splendor 80, calling torture (of any kind) one of “a number of examples of…intrinsically evil” acts.

Chavez, however, does not consult the teaching of the Church. Instead, she passes on to a recitation of various horrors perpetrated by the murderous thugs of Radical Islam and declares:

[W]e are forced into debating the moral parameters of torture because of the very nature of our current enemy. The United States is not at war with a conventional army, but with men whose aim is to kill innocent civilians in the most horrific manner possible.

Note the shift in the argument. At the beginning of the article, we were not debating the moral parameters of torture at all. That’s because there’s nothing to debate. Torture is “intrinsically evil.” Period. We were (initially) going to debate the definition of torture. But now, Chavez argues, in effect, “Our good ends really do justify use of evil means against this enemy because, well, this enemy is different.” How, precisely, the current enemy is so different from past enemies–Nazi torturers and murderers, North Korean torturers and murderers, Japanese torturers and murderers, Viet Cong torturers and murderers–that torture is now justified, Chavez does not say.

Instead, she moves to a laundry list of atrocities committed by radical Islamists–ranging from 9/11 to the beheadings of innocent people like businessman Nick Berg, and asks: “Would we have been justified in using whatever means necessary, if he might have led us to rescue Berg?”

As difficult as it may be to accept emotionally, the answer to that question is, “No.” Plain and simple. By no means, ever, at any time, in any circumstance, in any world, may we commit grave sin that good may come of it. Romans 3:8 makes this abundantly clear, as does the entire Catholic moral tradition. And that goes a fortiori for calls to use “whatever means necessary.” We cannot torture people for the Greater Good. We cannot–even for a noble end–cut off the fingers of their children while they watch. We cannot subject them to unmedicated dentistry on for the purpose of, we hope, gaining vital intelligence. We cannot rape their wives before their eyes because you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. We cannot stick needles under inmates’ fingernails, attach electrodes to sensitive body parts, or beat prisoners senseless because we’re good guys who mean well. We cannot turn blowtorches on a prisoner’s back, suspend him from hooks until he passes out from screaming, castrate, gouge eyes, or employ many other devices wrought by the fertile imagination of fallen man–even if 20 of the finest ethicists money can buy say it will all work out well in the end. Those who embrace such an ethic are, according to the word of Almighty God, “justly condemned.”

Here Chavez misses an opportunity to turn to Church teaching to answer the question about torture. Instead, she approvingly quotes Andrew C. McCarthy, a former chief assistant U.S. attorney who wrote in Commentary that we need to create “controlled, highly regulated, and responsibly accountable conditions” to obtain information from enemy combatants. “Under such a system, the government would have to apply to a federal court for permission to administer a predetermined form of non-lethal torture.”

Happily, the tortures I describe above are non-lethal, so we can all relax. And, as we know, the court could never, say, legislate that a whole class of human beings is deprived of the most fundamental human right, such as the right to life.

Finally, just like Ledeen, Chavez then concludes this astounding piece of moral reasoning by writing:

The ICRC does not appear to have uncovered anything approaching real torture. But perhaps it’s time we put aside our squeamishness on this issue and opened a genuine debate about exactly what methods a humane society is justified in using to save innocent lives.”

In other words, the call for torture now issued, Chavez, in the supreme irony, crushes the “rational debate” she started out asking for. Just as Ledeen ridicules the “abstract moralists” and suggests that no “grownup thoughtful person” could dissent from his calls to “do those things we know to be morally wrong”, Chavez pooh-poohs the “squeamishness” not of those who won’t define torture (Chavez never actually discussed defining torture), but of those who stand in the way of “non-lethal torture” or use of “whatever means necessary”.

And so Chavez has, by the end of her article, ended up very far afield from what she set out to discuss. Beginning with the contention that we must be very clear about what torture is and is not, she then leads not to a discussion of how to distinguish legitimate forms of coercion from torture, but to, “[I]f such methods are ‘torture,’ is the United States justified in using them anyway?,” to the suggestion of using “whatever means necessary,” to a call for “non-lethal torture” (leaving up to the imagination what “whatever means necessary” might entail). And refusal to entertain such a drifting piece of reasoning is labeled “squeamishness”. Such a strange argument can, again, only be viewed in one of two ways. Either we can again charitably assume that a trained writer temporarily had such a difficult time thinking clearly that she accidentally drifted from saying we need to define torture to saying we need to accept it or else she wrote exactly what she meant to write.

For a Catholic, the fact that something is “intrinsically evil” ought to be enough to end the debate. Indeed, it should suffice as a granite and immovable rebuttal to this entire line of argument since nobody, Left or Right, has the right to even consider the notion, “Let us do evil that good may come.”

But the pains and penalties of sin (by which we mean “risking the everlasting fires of Hell and eternal damnation”) aren’t the only reasons no Catholic should support the use of torture. It is also worth noting that right here in this world a culture’s adoption of torture–even the “non-lethal” variety, and even in times of emergency–is a formula for social catastrophe.

For it–like legal abortion–is a slippery slope leading to, among other things, the creation of a special class of people–men like Charles Graner–who truly enjoy this sort of work and are good at it. Reward such work and create a special department in the government for it, and people like that tend to find ways to continue plying their special skills, even when they’re no longer wanted by the state that once supported them. Just ask the victims of the quasi-mafia, quasi-KGB operatives who are doing very well in the post-Soviet era of gangsterism in Russia.

And as Chavez, Ledeen, and McCarthy make clear, Americans are themselves toying with these ideas. Already, according to ABC News, “U.S. military panels reviewing the detention of foreigners as enemy combatants are allowed to use evidence gained by torture in deciding whether to keep them imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba” ( And that includes “even…the data…from questionable practices like torture by a foreign power.” How do we rationalize this? Easy. We argue, in the words of Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Brian Boyle, that enemy combatants “have no constitutional rights enforceable in this court.”

This is precisely Ledeen’s implication when he argues that that, at any rate, “the Marine did not shoot a PRISONER. He shot an enemy combatant.” This means what? In translation, it apparently means that “enemy combatants” have no legal rights and therefore, as torture proponents argue, no human rights. So is Ledeen really saying that killing a wounded “enemy combatant” you know to be unarmed is not murder? Ledeen doesn’t say. He merely suggests. And so he leaves us with another statement that charity compels us to regard as a hopeless muddle rather than suppose that Ledeen is really saying that the fundamental right to life does not apply to wounded unarmed men, so long as they belong to a certain legal class.

Ideas have consequences and, for the Right as well as the Left, one justification for evil tends to lead to justifications for even deeper forms of evil. Ledeen tells us with brutal clarity: “I know there are forms of torture that are both disgusting and counterproductive, and they should be rejected. But I’m quite prepared to believe that there are slightly less disgusting yet significantly more productive methods that we should employ.” But what’s to stop us from progressing from “slightly less disgusting forms of torture” to truly disgusting torture, so long as it’s “productive”? Our corn-fed American goodness that protects us from original sin and its effects? Given that this does not seem to have done the trick with Roe v. Wade, Catholics should hesitate to endorse this line of reasoning, on pain of eternal death.

Likewise, Chavez and McCarthy, influential figures on the Right, assure us they want to limit this intrinsically evil practice to ‘non-lethal’ forms of torture (much as we were once assured by the Pelvic Left that only first trimester abortions were under consideration). Those who are squeamish about where this could lead are effectively dismissed, again, much as opponents of abortion were laughed at for saying this would surely lead to infanticide and euthanasia.

But the slippery slope is slippery indeed and Ledeen is already offering both pleas for torture by “slightly less disgusting methods” and what amounts to a plea for the realpolitik utility of cold-blooded murder of unarmed wounded soldiers on the grounds that sometimes we have to “enter into evil” and do “those things we know to be morally wrong.” And besides, they’re “enemy combatants”, not people with rights. So in their case, you don’t necessarily have to call it “murder” just as you don’t have to call the killing of the unborn murder.

The problem is that, naturally, the question will then arise: If murdering unarmed and wounded enemy combatants is okay on the battlefield for a good end, why not enemy combatants who are being detained? If a way can be found to make even disgusting methods “productive”, then why not apply them–even if they are potentially lethal–in order to extract vital intelligence (and to eliminate future difficulties from War Crime Tribunals staffed by tiresome abstract moralists instead of grownup thoughtful persons)? After all, we’ve already granted that both torture and murder are sometimes necessary, for the sake of the Greater Good.

And already our government has approved the use of evidence obtained through torture, since people in certain special legal classes–like the unborn or enemy combatants–are therefore without human rights at all.

How far down the slope will conservative Catholics be willing to slide before they recognize that they too can be lulled into making excuses for intrinsic evil and mortal sin? The next few years will tell us. My prayer is that the Right will learn from the mistakes of the Left and not repeat their sins of justifying the commission of evil for some Greater Good. My fear is summarized in the words, “If men say these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

Or, as another expert in realpolitik said long ago:

True-hearted Men, they will not be corrupted. We of Minas Tirith have been staunch through long years of trial. We do not desire the power of wizard-lords, only strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause. And behold! in our need chance brings to light the Ring of Power. It is a gift, I say; a gift to the foes of Mordor. It is mad not to use it, to use the power of the Enemy against him. The fearless, the ruthless, these alone will achieve victory. What could not a warrior do in this hour, a great leader?”

What indeed?


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