A Final Howler, on Torture

Past practices were not in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person

Frank Sheed, of Sheed & Ward, was a publisher, theologian, and Hyde Park Catholic apologist. When critics debated with him, citing the wrongs of the Inquisition, he would reply, “It was worse than that.” Then he would fill in the gaps. The Church was and is the home of sinners as well as saints.

In recent posts I have pointed out three Thomistic howlers. In this post I’ll follow Sheed’s example and complete my series with a last howler. It’s no worse than the others, but far too many people today are inclined to go badly wrong in a way that we lament Thomas did not anticipate.

With the rediscovery of Roman law, the Middle Ages saw a fresh acceptance of torture. Torture was commonplace for secular authorities. The Church ineffectively tried to impose limits. Pope Innocent IV, in Ad Extirpanda (1252), insisted that torture not extend to the “maiming” of its victims.

Thomas largely bypassed this particular controversy. He did, however, discuss whether unbelievers ought to be compelled to accept the faith. In doing so, he distinguished between those who have never received the faith and those who have lapsed into heresy or apostasy. Of those in the first group, he writes that they “are by no means to be compelled to the faith, in order that they may believe, because to believe depends on the will,” although they may be compelled  “in order to prevent them from hindering the faith of Christ” (ST  II-II q. 10, art. 8).

But what of heretics and apostates? Here Thomas is harsh. “[They] should be submitted even to bodily compulsion, that they may fulfil what they have promised, and hold what they, at one time, received” (ST II-II q.10, art. 8).

“Bodily compulsion” suggests the torture that breaks the will. Such torture can come with execution. Indeed, centuries after Aquinas wrote, St. Thomas More twice approved of the burning of heretics at the stake.

Neither Aquinas nor More, of course, supplant the teaching of the Church. Vatican Council II, in a telling passage, insists that “whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, [and] attempts to coerce the will itself” belongs with the “infamies” that “poison human society” and “are a supreme dishonor to the Creator” (Gaudium et spes, n. 27). Never, of course, has any act so dishonored the Creator as the crucifixion of Christ. The cross was the very symbol of torture.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church forthrightly addresses the errors of the past. “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…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” (2298).

And yet the legitimate rights of the human person in regard to torture are widely at risk or worse. Some states, in practice, treat apostates from Islam as criminals subject to cruel punishment. Some Islamists treat Christians and others as infidels subject to cruel deaths.

Yet some Christians who condemn the treatment of Muslim “apostates” are themselves sympathetic to the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques, a euphemism for torture, against Islamists. Perhaps most Americans would accept the use of torture, even against innocent third parties, e.g. the families of terrorists, to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction here in the United States.

To return to St. Thomas Aquinas. In light of our developing moral insight and doctrine, he was simply wrong. That developed doctrine, to be sure, is at odds with the received opinion of much of today’s world. Perhaps, on reflection, the great irony is our surprise to discover that this is so. In any case, we dare not be surprised to learn that God’s mercy is in harmony with His justice.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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