Friday, June 01, 2007

Torture Definition

Well, I'm glad everyone (so far) is against torture. I believe I need to defend the definition I used in the article, however. Without an objective, clear definition of the essence of torture, (and you admitted the Church definition was flawed,) the term can be twisted to suit even the objectives of the Bush administration. Because with that definition, you can use violence to extract information from someone.

Based on the responses I received, I found that this definition was the only one that I could use to fend off attempts to justify torture under "coercion of obedience." St. Thomas was pulled into their arguments to justify torture.

As one person said, "
That's why I believe it certainly isn't as cut and dried as the pope condemning contraception, which has ALWAYS and everywhere been condemned. In this case, we have a LOT of people saying that this is OK, including Thomas: "On the other hand, there are unbelievers who at some time have accepted the faith, and professed it, such as heretics and all apostates: such should be submitted even to bodily compulsion, that they may fulfil what they have promised, and hold what they, at one time, received."

My response was
"Thomas, great as he was, was still wrong in some areas. I believe this is one of them. 
He says “Bodily compulsion.” Does this mean compulsion of the will through the body,
or does he mean that compelling the body is the same as compelling the will?
I do not think he means the latter. But consider the ramifications of either

Another grad brings St. Thomas into it:
You say that "The will is formed, not coerced, through threat of the
consequence of evil actions."
Well, Thomas says exactly the opposite:

"The greater power should exercise the greater coercion. Now just as a city
a perfect community, so the governor of a city has perfect coercive power:
wherefore he can inflict irreparable punishments such as death and mutilation.
On the other hand the father and the master who preside over the family household,
which is an imperfect community, have imperfect coercive power,
which is
exercised by inflicting lesser punishments, for instance by blows which do
not inflict irreparable harm. (

My response:

If I may be so bold, St. Thomas seems to define coercion as
"the environment that exists when people choose not to commit an evil act
due to the knowledge that punishment will be meted out for a choice contrary
to the purpose of free will." Coercion in the physical realm, such as forcing
a cork into a bottle, or forcibly disarming a madman, is a different entity
than coercing self-free-willed human behavior, freely willed behavior being
something that necessarily comes from within.

Any coercion of a human act is intrinsically a directly willed
attempt to force the will or intellect. Creating an environment where people are
accountable for their actions is not a coercion of free will. We were born into
such an environment, and it is necessary for every legitimate government, and its
laws, to reflect this universal order of nature. As I said, torture, by its
definition, is not used as punishment, but is always a means to an end.

As you can see, if torture, as the Catechism (not the Church) says, includes
"The use of physical or moral violence [what about psychological violence?]
to punish the guilty," then there is no legitimate use of corporal or capital
punishment for any crime. (Both of these punishments are allowed by the Church.)
Thomas' definition of coercion seems really to be a definition of "correction" or

Semantic arguments are necessary. Without them, heresies get started. Without them,
heresies are never overturned. I will send the anonymized dialogue to you, Colin,
and to anyone else who solicits it. It offers a view of what kind of things people
are saying, and why this definition is necessary. I'm not using this definition
to be anal-retentive, to take a jab at the Church, or to be "holier-than-thou."
I'm using this definition because I believe it is the only accurate definition.
Because I believe it is the truth, and the truth needs to be embraced whenever it is



Fezzick said...

The reason I'm a stickler on this point is NOT because I think you're anal-retentive or trying to take a jab at the Church.

I definitely think that discussion of the semantics is necessary, don't get me wrong. It just seems to me that, in order to reprimand Catholics for disagreeing with the Church's definition of torture, you'd need to use the Church's definition to prove them wrong. The Catechism's definition, flawed as it is, is the closest thing we have. The fact that I personally like yours better doesn't change the fact that it can't be used authoritatively.

Geoff said...

I think I see more of where you're coming from now. If I read you right, you're saying I should've written two separate articles: one to try to wake up Catholics who totally ignore even the Catechism's official definition, and one to clarify the true nature of torture, and suggest a new definition for the Catechism in that second article.

In retrospect, I can somewhat see where you're coming from. "Wait, this guy is saying the Church teaching on torture is wrong, but still says that torture is wrong, but for a different reason." I can see how that could confuse the reader and/or diffuse the focus.

On the other hand, I kind of view it in the sense of the reader saying, "Wait, the Church has a teaching on torture? What? This definition is even more strictly defined and clearer?" In that sense, it could come along like a reality combo punch.

But in either case, it's not something I gave much thought to in writing the article. Perhaps I should have, but like any other writing, you never really know how you can write something better until it's already written and people critique it.

But the good thing about critique is that you can take what you've learned and apply it to future works.

In looking at Sylvia's commentary, I noticed a flaw within my own argument (not the main thesis, thankfully, but a secondary point regarding prisoners and the use of force to keep them in prison.) See if you can find it.

lover of beauty said...


I have been reading this discussion with great interest. Keep up the good work. I really think you should get into socio-political journalism.

Mostly though, I just wanted to say thank you for your comment on my blog. I've been a bit wary about letting people know I have it, as it has been a vehicle for improving my writing and defining some of my deepest thoughts, feelings, motivations, etc. But I'm beginning to want to air these things more in public, and the fact that you read with approval something I had to say gives me heart and hope. Thank you!

Yes, melancholics are an interesting set, aren't they? :)