Power corrupts

A few days ago, in the comments on this post, Bill DeHaas mentioned the April 24 episode of the EWTN "news" program The World Over, which featured the Rev. Robert Sirico -- introduced by host Raymond Arroyo as "a prominent Catholic intellectual" -- discussing the ethics of torture (or, rather, "aggressive interrogation techniques"). A 24-minute clip of that conversation is now available for viewing on the Acton Institute's Web site. The Acton Institute for the study of Religion and Liberty is Fr. Sirico's project; its namesake is Lord Acton, who (as Mr. DeHaas reminded us) is remembered for having observed that "absolute power corrupts absolutely," though the context of this remark -- opposition to the dogma of papal infallibility -- is less well remembered.

Much of Sirico's most recent conversation with Arroyo on EWTN is embarrassing, if not downright appalling. Their discussion of the Notre Dame commencement speech controversy ("This is a little like Ahmadinejad speaking at Yeshiva University!" Arroyo cries. In fact, Sirico might have pointed out, it's really more like President Obama speaking at Yeshiva University) includes a craven attempt to smear Georgetown for honoring Vice President Biden's support of the Violence Against Women Act. Arroyo smirks as he introduces a clip of Biden's speech at Georgetown, in which Biden says: "My dad would say no man has a right to raise a hand to a woman under any circumstances other than self-defense."

Arroyo laughs incredulously. "Does that mean if she's running at me, I can hit her with a baseball bat? What does that mean?! It's a very odd formulation." No, it isn't. It's completely rational, in fact. But Fr. Sirico doesn't say so. Arroyo then cuts to a clip of Biden describing domestic violence as "the ultimate abuse." Back to Arroyo, who says indignantly, "I know what the ultimate abuse is: it's called abortion." Sirico concurs, and says, "When you hear Vice President Biden speak, or Speaker Pelosi speak, you hear the rattlings of Catholic children who never went on in their formation to become Catholic adults."

I will not dispute the suggestion that Biden and Pelosi would benefit from another look at the Catechism, especially on the subject of abortion. But if they are "rattling" children, what does a properly formed Catholic adult sound like? At about 7:50, Arroyo responds to Sirico's condemnation of Biden and Pelosi:

ARROYO: Many people will then come in and say, "Wait a minute, but they're against torture, and they're for immigration..." These are all prudential judgments, as opposed to this abortion question...

SIRICO: Which is intrinsically...

ARROYO: ...Which is always gravely evil.

SIRICO [simultaneously]: ...intrinsically evil.

ARROYO: And how is it defined by the Church?

SIRICO: There's a difference between something that is intrinsically, by its nature, evil and something that may be problematic, depending on certain circumstances, that requires prudential judgment.

If I had to guess what a well-catechized Catholic adult would have to say about the morality of torture, I would expect it to bear some resemblance to what we find in the actual Catechism, which discusses torture under the heading "Respect for Bodily Integrity" -- which itself falls under Article 5, the Fifth Commandment, "You Shall Not Kill," along with abortion.

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. Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.

2298 In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors.

Given the clarity of this teaching, Sirico's take on the morality of torture, beginning about 9 minutes into this clip, isn't quite what you might expect. Details after the jump... 

I'd like to believe someone at the Acton Institute will be moved to remove the video from their website, so I've gone to the trouble of transcribing this part of the conversation. There are a lot of people justifying the actions of the Bush administration in dishonest and/or morally bankrupt terms right now, and most of the time I think it may be best to ignore them. But it's different, I think, when the person in question is wearing a Roman collar, and is introduced as a "prominent Catholic intellectual" -- and when what he says is aired on the Eternal Word Television Network and is ostensibly an explication of official Church teaching. In that case, I think it's important for us to know what's being said.

ARROYO: Let's move on to the big story of the week, which we've been hearing again and again, about these enhanced interrogation techniques that came to light because of CIA memos that were released to the public, made public this week...

SIRICO: Some CIA memos.

ARROYO: Some CIA memos. Not necessarily the result of these interrogation techniques...

SIRICO [simultaneously]: ...[inaudible] the whole context.

ARROYO: Exactly. What is the Church's position on these techniques? Not all of them would be classified as torture.

SIRICO: Yeah. I think you have to make a distinction between what is called "aggressive interrogation" and torture. Torture, as I understand it, is where you have bodily harm, or you bring a person to death, or that death or permanent physical disability result.

It's interesting that Sirico's understanding of "torture" seems to be much more specific than the "physical or moral violence" specified in the Catechism. In fact, Sirico's understanding seems drawn not from Church teaching, but from the August 1, 2002 Jay Bybee memo: "Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent to intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." The discussion continues:

SIRICO: Waterboarding, which doesn't sound like very plea-- I know that I was threatened with that earlier in the evening... [laughs]

ARROYO: No, I said I wouldn't waterboard you!

SIRICO: Well, actually I'm from Brooklyn.

The fact that I don't understand the content of their jokes doesn't change the fact that they are joking. About waterboarding. On EWTN.

SIRICO: Um... My understanding is that a lot of intelligence officers have been through this, if you've ever known anybody who's been in the SEALs, as I have, they have been through sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and other things. So I think you have to make those distinctions. You also have to make a distinction with regard to ethics and morality, and a distinction with regard to legality and effectiveness. You know what I think would be very helpful, is if we took and adapted some principles of the just war theory and applied it to aggressive interrogation techniques. So it would be a matter of the competent authority; it would be a matter of the proportion. I would also add immediacy, because what makes it urgent to resort to real physical agression is whether there's a ticking bomb, or there's a kid in storage who's going to suffocate.

What?

ARROYO: Well, this is the other question. The other thing that came to light this week is that, as a result of these interrogation techniques, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others who were masterminds in the 9/11 plot and subsequent plots, revealed there was a terrorist activity network in place in Los Angeles that was apparently broken up, and several other attacks were scuttled and cells broken up as a result. Given that result, and the grave danger to a large number of people, does that then qualify as an ethical, under some cases, type of interrogation?

SIRICO: I know that the indispensable principle is that you can never do evil that good may come from it. But the question is whether roughing up somebody, even severely, is an evil in itself, if they possess information that they have no right to possess, in effect. The Church's default stance is always nonviolence. But that doesn't mean that the Church is pacifistic, and that's why we have a principle like the just-war principles, guidelines on how to engage things with proportionality, with limitation. So this is very lamentable, and I don't think, in terms of the current debate that's going on, that we have all of the chips on the table to make -- at least, I don't have all the chips on the table to make a kind of solid moral evaluation. There's going to be the juridical process that's going to have to go, and one hopes that's going to be less political than it is juridical.

ARROYO: Mm-hmm. Agreed.

I can agree on that final point, too. It would certainly be a disgrace if political motivations were allowed to obscure strict principles of justice, legality, and ethics. At least we can rest assured that properly catechized Catholic adults won't stand for such an outrage.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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