Who Speaks for the Church?

I. Shawn McElhinney, whose blog Rerum Novarum I rather like and read rather often, has taken a position regarding the torture question that strikes me as grounded in reasons that are, for him, uncharacteristic. In a series of posts he has made an argument to the effect that it is not, in fact, the teaching of the universal and Ordinary Magisterium that torture is per se wrong, in spite of what Veritatis Splendor may have to say on the topic. His argument, in outline, goes something like this:
The teaching of the Church in the Ordinary Magisterium is indefectible.

Significant theologians, including John Paul II and, even more significantly, Benedict XVI when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger and, thus, an essential influence on the writing of Veritatis Splendor, have made it clear that certain teachings, when they impinge on matters involving prudential judgments about contingent matters of fact in the temporal realm, are not indefectible.

Historically, the Church has actually required the use of torture:
The past sanctioning of torture by popes and councils -going so far as to command kings and princes under pain of excommunication with matters of heresy when these undermined the common good of society- means that torture itself cannot be "intrinsically evil" unless the doctrine of indefectibility is contradicted.
Hence, in order to preserve the doctrine of indefectability, we must conclude that the teaching of Veritatis Splendor is not indefectible with regards to the moral status of torture.

Hence, torture is not necessarily per se wrong, and

In fact, given what the Church has done historically, we must conclude that torture is actually morally required under certain circumstances.
This argument is valid, but it is not sound. (For those who may not be familiar with these technical terms, an argument is said to be deductively valid when it is not possible for its conclusion to be false when all of its premises are true, and an argument is said to be deductively sound when it is both valid and all of its premises are in fact true.) The difficulty lies not in the structure of the argument, but in its reliance on historical facts of dubious interpretation to carry its conclusion through.

In particular, we may note that if it is possible for Veritatis Splendor to be mistaken about the moral status of torture because of the possibility of an appeal to fallible prudential reasoning, then it is equally possible for earlier documents "requiring" the use of torture to be mistaken in their use of prudential judgments to argue for the moral licitness of torture in defense of the common good. This renders the premise regarding the appeal to the alleged historical facts regarding earlier uses of torture either false or hopelessly ambiguous, and this vitiates the soundness of the argument.

It is worth noting at this point that the premise claiming that earlier "popes and councils" actually "sanctioned" torture is in itself hopelessly vague, even independently of its use in this particular argument. We are not told who these popes were, or which councils, or the circumstances under which they are being said to have "sanctioned" torture, or even what the alleged sanctions were other than threats of excommunication for "heresy". It ought to go without saying that this kind of premise is utterly useless if for no other reason than its manifestly controversial nature.

Even putting aside the difficulty of this particular premise, however, it is perhaps even more important to note that the language of Veritatis Splendor is as unambiguous in its condemnation of torture as the interpretation of earlier history regarding the alleged "sanctioning" of torture is ambiguous. So there is one point on which Shawn is quite right: either there has been a mistaken prudential judgment made somewhere, or the indefectibility of the Ordinary Magisterium is on the line.

Here it is essential to see that the judgment of Veritatis Splendor, that torture is per se immoral (or, "intrinsically evil", as Shawn puts it), is not a prudential judgment, but a judgment about matters of faith and morals, the very domain in which the Ordinary Magisterium is regarded by faithful Catholics as indefectible. The judgments of earlier "popes and councils", however, to the effect that the use of torture is the correct way to safeguard the common good, are clearly matters of prudential judgment, matters in which the Ordinary Magisterium is not regarded as indefectible.

So what Shawn has shown, if anything, is that if we are to regard the Church's Ordinary Magisterium as indefectible, we must take Veritatis Splendor to reflect the infallible teaching on the moral status of torture, and we must regard the actions of earlier "popes and councils" who threatened folks with excommunication for not using torture as misguided attempts to safeguard the common good. This is not what he intended to show, however, which is why I regard the argument as "uncharacteristic"--I think he is usually a little more careful than this, and his arguments are often sound as well as valid.



I will respond to what you have written soon. In the meantime though, I thank you for the civility of your tone and every evidence of seeking to make actual arguments for your position. (That is so rare these days alas.)
Scott Carson said…

Thanks again for your comment, and for all the hard work you do at your own blog. While we may end up disagreeing on this--even if only a little--I think we are pretty much on the same page about most things, and it is good to know that there are such able defenders of our faith out there as you evidently are.
Dave said…
Hi Scott,

I believe I bypassed this objection in a brief comment on this issue that I made at Against the Grain.

I argued that even if various Church pronouncements on this matter are not magisterial, it is still an implausible state of affairs for the Church to have offered widespread sanction for this sort of thing (some sense of the word "torture" or "interrogation" - definition is crucial here) in the days of the Inquisition (even by St. Thomas Aquinas, if I am not mistaken), if, in fact, it is intrinsically evil.

That would mean that the Church sanctioned (even if only "non-magisterially") intrinsic evil, which would be akin to its sanction today of, say, abortion, or infanticide.

I make similar arguments regarding capital punishment and nuclear war.
The Church has clearly sanctioned capital punishment in the past, and even today acknowledges that states have the right to permit it. Therefore, it cannot (like all war) be intrinsically wrong. That's more clear-cut, but there is still some analogy.

I think the Church either does, or comes darn close to, condemning nuclear war, in Gaudium et spes 80 ("Total warfare"). This may not be "magisterial" (I don't claim to know all the fine "canon lawyer" details), but even if it isn't, it remains the case that scarcely an orthodox moral theologian can be found who thinks that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are justifiable. So I think it is almost (but not quite) the case to speak of the "Mind of the Church" on that issue.

Bottom line: I think it is possible to envision some sort of "Mind of the Church" even if it is not technically magisterial, when there is a widespread consensus.

If you think that Church sanction of limited torture in the past was not magisterial, can you give me other examples where the Church sanctioned intrinsic evil and then later reversed itself? I don't find that plausible at all.

As far as I know, it never historically happened: not in its teachings (the Church never sanctioned, e.g., slavery, did it?). This is one reason I am a Catholic, because of the solid record on moral issues.

In Him,

Dave Armstrong
Dave said…
I agree with what Fr. Brian Harrison wrote, in a letter to Crisis magazine, in September 2005. It's consistent with my argument. I quote in part:

". . . we will search Scripture, Tradition, and the pre-Vatican II Magisterium in vain for any condemnations of torture (e.g., flogging) as a punishment for duly convicted delinquents, or as a means of extracting life-saving information from terrorists or other known enemies.

"Fellow Catholics, I submit that we have a problem here. For the development of Catholic doctrine over time is supposed to flow harmoniously from what was taught 'always, everywhere, and by all,' according to the classic criterion laid down by Vincent of LĂ©rins. The Church is not supposed to be able to invent new doctrines out of whole cloth.

". . . our divinely authored Judeo-Christian constitution not only fails to prohibit the infliction of severe bodily pain, it explicitly invokes divine authority in mandating such practices: flogging, stoning, and even burning sinners to death (cf. Lv 20:1, 14; 21:1, 9).

". . . Also, if we are going to quote one ecumenical council (Vatican II) against torture, we cannot overlook the fact that another ecumenical council (Vienne, 1311-12) legitimized it.

". . . Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium are clear that capital punishment, whatever authoritative prudential judgment may be made by the Church regarding its applicability under modern conditions, is not intrinsically evil. But how is this coherent with the contemporary teaching that torture is intrinsically evil? Is being flogged—even with the biblical 39 stripes (cf. Dt 25:2-3)—really a fate worse than death?

". . . I do not pretend to know the answers. I ask for help. The only positive contribution I have to make at this stage is to suggest that Mark Shea is mistaken in claiming that 'the Church has answered' this question definitively against torture. The word 'definitively' applies only to infallibly proposed teachings of the Magisterium (either ordinary or extraordinary). And I believe few if any orthodox theologians would regard the conditions for infallible teaching as being verified in the texts cited by Mr. Shea (Gaudium et Spes 27 and Veritatis Splendor 80)."


Fr. Harrison provides copious biblical documentation sanctioning various forms of "torture" or infliction of pain, in a lengthier article:


In Part II he presents the evidences from Catholic tradition. He sums up:

"The fact is that in the course of nearly two millennia, no infallible teaching either for or against torture (for any purpose whatever) had ever been laid down by the Church in either her ordinary or extraordinary magisterium. What we have seen is a disappointing magisterial silence during the patristic period, followed by a merely authentic magisterial teaching (cf. B1) against confession-extracting torture which prevailed in the late first and early second millennia. But this was then obscured, in theory and in brutal practice, for another half-millennium by an opposing sententia communis theologorum which was endorsed up till the 18th century by even saints and Doctors of the Church. Meanwhile, the per se liceity of severe pain-infliction as punishment for known offenders was constantly and universally upheld without the perceived need for specific magisterial interventions.

". . . 20th-century Communist and Nazi regimes, along with many other petty dictatorships, especially in Latin America, Asia and Africa – not to mention any number of proscribed terrorist and criminal organizations – had been clandestinely refining, and ruthlessly applying, any number of new and horrendous torture techniques.

That, I suggest, is essentially the kind of torture contemplated and condemned by Vatican II, and then subsequently branded by John Paul II, as one example of "intrinsically evil" practices among others, when he quotes the Council word for word in Veritatis Splendor #80 (cf. B12 above)."


He makes a number of excellent, insightful points in Part II: too complex to summarize. I urge everyone interested in this issue to read his articles, if for no other reason than their encyclopedic scope.

In Him,

Dave Armstrong
Scott Carson said…

First off, let me just say that it's great to have you commenting here--I've been a fan of your blog for a long time.

You touch on what I believe to be the most important points in this debate, but I certainly agree with Shawn McElhinney that we have to proceed carefully here or else we risk attributing a contradiction to the Church's Magisterium.

I suspect that what we will find, if we examine the documents closely, is that this issue is not unlike the teaching on usury, which has also been pointed to as a case in which the Church contradicted herself. As a professional apologist, I'm quite sure that you know the full story on that one, and are as familiar as anybody with the reasons why it is not a case of change in teaching but development of doctrine.

In the case of torture, as I pointed out in one of my earlier posts, the difficulty, it seems to me, is not so much in determining the moral licitness of torture, but in determining what sorts of acts fall under the concept of torture, just as in the case of usury it is not a question of the moral licitness of usury but of what sorts of practices are nowadays constitutive of usuriousness.

At any rate, I thank you for your comment, and especially for your clear and concise survey of Fr. Harrison's work. And I thank you, too, for all your hard work at Cor ad Cor Loquitur--one of the very first blogs I put into my blogroll when I began An Examined Life over a year ago!
Dave said…
Hi Scott,

Thanks for your very kind remarks.

I think what you have written is right on. I'm confident that the truth of the matter is along the lines of what you suggested, and that is a welcome common ground.

Would you agree that Mark Shea's strong polemics on this issue are not helpful at all? I would like to see him exercise a great deal more charity towards those who have a different opinion. Having often been subject to wild, uncharitable judgments myself, I know that it does no good to further constructive discourse.

That's not to say that those who differ from him have been perfect in charity, either. But he seems to be the highest profile voice (non-clergy) in the current stink.
Apologists who are excessively, erroneously dogmatic do my profession no good!

We already have several negative stereotypes to overcome (know-it-alls, academic pretenders, etc.). Mark's behavior (wholly apart from the merits of his case) does not help the apologetic endeavor at all, in my opinion.

In Him,

Dave Armstrong
Scott Carson said…
Hi Dave

I agree that Mark Shea seems to have taken this issue perhaps a little too personally, or something. I discuss it a little here, but I'm not really all that sure what is going on with him. In general he seems like a fine apologist, and I quite agree that the secret to being a very good and very successful apologist is to keep things professional, or at the very least unpersonal. I think you do a particularly good job of that, and I think Shawn McElhinney does too--in general I would have said the same of Mark Shea, but this episode has been rather startling for me. It is true that he has had a lot to deal with, and someone who has the sizeable readership that he does is bound to draw some unsavory types to the comboxes. In some ways I'm rather lucky to have such a small audience!

I just posted a response to your response:

On Torture and General Norms Revisited--A Response to Scott Carson

Sorry for the delay but I have been swamped with a lot of stuff including an upcoming posting on the New Deal and historical revisionism to post before the election (the latter posting is heavily detailed and finished but I shelved it to deal with your response first).

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