“Just another guy with a blog.  No big whoop.”

September 15, 2009

Is Waterboarding a Sin?

That's one of the questions which came up on my "Open Line" radio show yesterday. I thought you might find interesting the 8-minute discussion about this issue that I had with the caller. I don't think he got the answer he was hoping for. What are your thoughts on this issue? (Click the picture to launch the audio.)


  1. As much as I like the Jack Bauer approach, I submit to the teachings of the church on this matter.

  2. This is enlightening, in a way, to hear more and more apologists say what you said. In the end everything must be seen in the light of Catholic or Christ's teaching and we have to be reminded of that. We often have an overriding philosophy that doesn't jive with that, like "all is fair in love and war" or something. We have to check those things against the law of God. No one, no cause is above that.

    In the example you gave we need only remember the early martyrs. We are not to be afraid of what can be done to us in this world only of what is to become of us in the next. That is a very, very hard saying.

    You were very kind and didn't come across as self-righteous which comes loudly across from others putting people off.


  3. I think this is not as bad as many other forms of torture, but its still torture. You aren't supposed to do it. It can't hold up to the same arguments that makes violent self defense allowable (or even an obligation). In short, when you consider the dignity of the human person, I know of no case where waterboarding could not be evil.

  4. So if you can't do evil doesn't this mean you cannot have a government since government can only be supported by the sin of theft?

  5. Patrick,

    Is spanking a child torture? It can be torture, but can it ever be good? According to your arguement, it doesn't matter if my intentions are good if it could become torture.

    The flaw in your reasoning is that you enter the discussion assuming that waterboarding = sin. I could just as easily enter a discussion saying that spanking = sin regardless of the intent. Once you add that absolute that a specific act itself is evil, there is no way out. That is why even the Catholic Church assigns knowledge and intent in many circumstances to an act before it is called sin.

    Please examine your reasoning on this before you end up a fanatic like Mark Shea, assuming your point of view on this is absolute and without error.

    Is putting someone in jail torture? Is playing a bag pipe torture? Is smoking in front of someone else torture? All of these can be good or evil depending on the intent. I don't understand (from a logical perspective) why you would say that intent doesn't matter when it comes to waterboarding.

  6. Thanks for your answer to this important question Mr. Madrid. I certainly can understand a lot better where one can be mislead to thinking torture should be self-defense.

    Secondly, thank you for not jumping on the caller and calling him names or riducling his position. Hey, we all need to be educated to understand even better what we think we know and understand.

    Lastly, could you please explain why if we are advocating for the forgiveness of the abortionists are are shielded by the law to commit heinous acts why can't we forgive these people who thought they were acting on our behalf? Why would we laud the Justice Deptartment in its investigation of CIA interrogators?

    If there were loop holes that allowed these men to act as they did, then the loop holes should be closed so that the law is clear. Launching investigations against these men is only OK so long as we investigate these abortionists.

    I hope I have made sense.


  7. PART 1

    This line of reasoning concerns me, because it seems incomplete.

    Before I say why, please understand my intentions here.

    I am not trying to worm out of submitting to the teachings of the Church on this matter.

    I am instead trying to know and respect them, by interpreting them correctly.

    Truth is not self-contradictory. Therefore I must interpret the teachings of the Church in a fashion which doesn't cause them to contradict one another, or reality.

    Each part of Church teaching must therefore be logically consistent with each other part at the current moment in time, and in all earlier moments in time.


  8. ...continuing...

    PART 2

    It seems to me that the argument against waterboarding is as follows:

    (1.) "Torture" is defined as any intentional inflicting of severe pain or fear on a prisoner;

    (2.) Waterboarding inflicts severe fear (panic reaction) on a prisoner;

    (3.) Therefore Waterboarding is a form of torture;

    (4.) Torture is intrinsically (always and everywhere under any conceivable circumstances) evil;

    (5.) One may never do an intrinsically evil thing, even to achieve a good result;

    (6.) Therefore, one may never torture;

    (7.) Therefore all instances of torture are sinful.

    This argument seems worrisome and incomplete to me, as I attempt to reconcile it with Church teachings.


  9. ...continuing...

    PART 3

    First, it gives me pause that clerics throughout the Church hierarchy, in ages past, supported or condoned secular authorities torturing, maiming, disabling, disfiguring, and abusing the corpses of foreign enemies?

    I'm not saying they ever dogmatically defined or even prudentially taught that all that stuff was okay.

    But I doubt one can read European history without coming to the conclusion that bishops were standing by as some of this stuff was going on, and regarding it to be Standard Operating Procedure, unopposed by the church of the time.

    I try to avoid historicism: I don't think we're better and smarter and wiser than our forebears just because we have iPods and they didn't.

    And I get suspicious when I see a "new teaching" without precedent in the history of the Church.

    Under what justification, then, did the Catholics of old carry out torture against enemies? Including some who were later canonized?

    If we were to hear their justification, would we find it easily refutable? Or would we find it difficult to point out exactly what the problem with it was?


  10. ....continuing...


    On a related note, what is the bright line separating "torture" from "uncomfortable prompting?"

    Spanking an unruly child is okay; is spanking a captured (and one presumes restrained) terrorist okay? Or does that deprive him of his human dignity? (Sounds pretty undignified to ME.)

    Assuming it's okay to spank a terrorist, but that it's not okay to gradually lower his limbs into a plastic-bottle-shredder as Saddam Hussein was known to do to his political prisoners, where's the bright line between the two?

    The most obvious bright line is that Saddam's technique produced long-term harm and disability, whereas a swat on the behind can encourage child to behave but does no lasting harm. Does that mean we must include "lasting harm" into our definition of "torture?"

    But, then, waterboarding does no lasting harm.

    Another approach:

    Some of the rights to which any human being is entitled, are forfeit when he violates the laws of man and God. With progressively worse violations, progressively more of these are forfeit. We may deprive a human being, created in the Image of God, of his LIFE, if he is guilty of sufficiently horrific crimes...and I suspect that there are instances where we are in fact morally obligated to do so.

    But which is a higher human right, the freedom of a person from pain or fear, or his freedom from being killed?

    Are we claiming that "torture" equals any imposition of severe pain or fear on a prisoner? If so, is his right to be free from such imposition higher than his right to not be killed? If not, and if capital punishment is not intrinsically evil, then doesn't that indicate that torture, as defined above, is also not "intrinsically evil?"

    Or conversely, if torture is "intrinsically evil," must we not then state that killing is intrinsically evil...not only in the form of capital punishment, but in the form of warfare?

    What becomes of the Just War Doctrine, if because of our teachings about the intrinsic evil of torture, we are forced, in order to remain logically consistent, to conclude there is no such thing as a just waging of warfare?

    And if we come to that conclusion, then we must conclude God instructed Israel to do evil things. THAT can't be right!

    In the end, then I am forced to conclude (tentatively, and provisionally, pending some later clarifying insight) there is either something wrong with our definition of "torture," or else there is something wrong with the statement that "torture is intrinsically evil."

  11. Heven't the time to listen to Mr. Madrid's answer, but I take issue with this:

    "In short, when you consider the dignity of the human person, I know of no case where waterboarding could not be evil."

    Really? What if the person in question is plotting to unlawfully destroy the lives and "dignity" of other human beings? Does he have a right to withhold that information? I think not. The state has a grave obligation to defend its citizens; accordingly, it may use, within certain limits, the means necessary to accomplish this task. What these limits are has never been defined by the Magisterium, but for 1,900 years it did not exclude torture of a much worse kind than waterboarding as part of the just means available to the state. It is going to take more than Patrick Madrid to explain why this stance should suddenly be completely and fundamentally changed.

    More 'modern' interrogation techniques used lawfully by police nowadays, which includes harsh and loud manners of speaking, may also be degrading and cause psychological distress to the person being interrogated. And this is the point of any interrogation - who in their right mind would believe that hardened criminals and terrorists would surrender any information by chatting over a coffee??? Of course there are reasonable limits to what forms of interrogation are lawful, but they are not defined by emotional and ad hominem arguments.

  12. Hmm, my "PART 1" post appears to be missing.

  13. If water-boarding is torture then the United States military is systematically and on a massive scale torturing its own service men and women who must be subject to this practice as a part of their training.

    Water-boarding is a fast, safe and extremely effective way to induce panic in subjects who undergo the practice. No harm is done. It looks scary and feels scary when you're experiencing it. Panic is usually induced in seconds. There is no danger of drowning no matter how prolonged the procedure. It sure doesn't feel that way though. It feels scary.

    Water-boarding is certainly not torture and in no way sinful so long as the person undergoing the practice is prevented from hurting themselves as a result of the induced panic.

    Some would call the practice torture because it is used by US Service men and women who are always evil in their eyes. Some because it was defended by a Republican administration who are always evil, too. Some because they identify with more with terrorists and don't like people being mean with Muslims.

    Water-boarding is exactly the kind of safe and effective means of changing a person's mind that should be used with terrorists in order to save innocent lives.

  14. I have listened to Patrick Madrid for many years(he is excellent) and agree with his interpretation of Catholic teaching most of the time. In this issue he is WRONG. Although is is true that the CCC says (2297) 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. That does not necessarily equate with sin. Furthermore and more IMPORTANT the CCC says (2267) Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

    If, however, NON-LETHAL MEANS(such as WATERboarding*this was added)are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. SO THE ANSWER TO THE MANS QUESTION SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SAME AS THE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION IS CARRYING OUT THE DEATH PENALTY A SIN AND IS IT IN LINE WITH CHURCH TEACHING. THE ANSWER IS THE SAME AND BOTH ARE IN LINE WITH CHURCH TEACHING.

  15. Wow Patrick, - you stirred up a hornet's nest. I fret this is an issue that only God Himself can solve one day when we meet the Lord and inquire...I am torn myself. I undertand the concept of not to do an evil act but an argument can be made that we are at war and this is what you do and how you fight in a just war vs. we are to always to live in accord with Christ and that means that we do not take the dagger to the Centurion's ear...I am confident of one thing, our Blessed Mother says: prayer, prayer, prayer! Through the discernment we get from the Holy Spirit, we hope to get it right.

  16. Wow Patrick, - you stirred up a hornet's nest. I fret this is an issue that only God Himself can solve one day when we meet the Lord and inquire...I am torn myself. I undertand the concept of not to do an evil act but an argument can be made that we are at war and this is what you do and how you fight in a just war vs. we are to always to live in accord with Christ and that means that we do not take the dagger to the Centurion's ear...I am confident of one thing, our Blessed Mother says: prayer, prayer, prayer! Through the discernment we get from the Holy Spirit, we hope to get it right.

  17. I have only been Catholic for a couple years now. What I love about Catholicism as opposed to evangelicalism is the tradition of the preservation of life. The Catholic church has the "just war" doctrine which teaches that military action is only condoned by the church if it will preserve more lives than it will destroy. I think water boarding falls into this category. The water boarding of one person can, and has, preserved thousands of lives without destroying a single one. Just one mans opinion.

  18. I have two sons, one a marine captain and one an army captain who have served two tours in Iraq. The Army captain is stil serving his second tour, a combat veteran who witnessed incredible sacrifice. In addition, I am a veteran. All of our special forces and combat pilots go through water boarding as a training exercise for what will happen to then if captured by the enemy. Also, one must admit that what we are dealing with are fallen human beings, jihadists, no uniform, who can indiscriminately kill any innocent human being while appealing to Allah.
    It pains me that so many of our Cathoic apologists are people who don't understand the nature of war. It is a horrible experience, and I could have told my drill instructor more than thirty years ago that my sleep deprivation and entrance into the gas chamber was torture to which he would have told me to make sure that I cleared and checked my protective mask before I took it off in the gas chamber, a requirement from basic training.
    I spent a time in Germany at Rottenburg, and visited the museum there where the inquisition was practiced. There were iron maidens, chairs with spikes and dunkers for bakers who did not weigh properly their bread. OK, it was Catholic law at the time. It was the middle ages, and by the same token, I want our enemies to know that we are a nation of laws and that we will make them uncomfortable just as we do to our own in training to protect our nation.
    Notwithstanding, I really like Patrick Madrids commentaries, and though I disagree with him on this point, it is prudential judgment, not Catholic doctrine.

    A fellow patriot

  19. David, if an unjust aggressor is detained to the point of being able to waterboard him, he is no longer a threat, and therefore should not be tortured OR put to death. He has already been rendered harmless if he is in custody.

  20. Was crucifixion torture? It served as the means of our salvation so without the cross, there is no easter. Seems like we have something good coming from the worse form of torture and death mankind could think of. Makes waterboarding look tame.

    So if lives are saved by waterboarding, creating fear in a terrorist, seems like it has to fit in somewhere for the salvatin of lives.

  21. "torture" is sinful. Torture is evil.

    Are we not dependent on our own country to keep us safe, and also in helping nations in poverty?

    Our country must do what it CAN to keep such events as 9/11 from happening. I watched from 28th street on 8th avenue as those towers burned and I cannot imagine the place of those people as they suffered their last moments. Was this the fault of our own country for not protecting us better?
    I truly think we must recognize seriously that torture is a grave sin, but when we put it in the context of saving our country from such greater evils from happening, I would think such torture as "water boarding" and "sleep deprivation" for information on 'pre-meditated murderous plans' doesnt fall under the category of "Torture", but as a form of self-defense. Given what these terrorist "plotting" people are capable of and what they 'most' clearly say they will do and do what they do, we better not take to many chances.

    The "self defense" point is a very severe aspect to this issue that is unknown because there are many people who try and ignore it for the sake of their 'witch-hunt' for the Bush Administration.

    I feel that 'certain' forms of"interrogations" are a form of self defense as a country, especially when we hold captive certain terrorist people who themselves are suggesting the plotting and planning of greater more evil things.

    But its interesting how most of those who I notice are very "outspoken" about terrorists interrogations as being unlawful and which must be stopped, are also rather 'quiet' about the "VERY" Legal murders, tortures, and crimes performed through abortion procedures which I think deserves much more attention when looking at both issues objectively as a whole. Its like some people are looking and complaining about a small fire burning a small empty house down in front of them, while behind them there is a huge building of people burning with no one looking their way.

  22. First, Patrick, I'm continually amazed by your ability to think and extrapolate on these issues on the fly as you do. Just a couple of points that I'd like to touch on.

    Your point as to where it crosses the line and becomes mental anguish is a key one, I think. Looking at it in that light, does it not drive the determination to an individual or case by case level as opposed to a blanket policy level? I believe it does and that seems to me where it should be. Much more difficult to manage, agreed, but it feels right. It puts (or forces) us more into the role of Christ in whose mindset we are always striving to achieve.

    Secondly,we seem to inevitably reach a point where we can see the line approaching or we have just crossed it and it becomes torture. You correctly pointed out that once we reach that point we must stop when we realize that, to go on would be to commit an evil act. This is where it gets really tough. It can literally tie my stomach in knots. I can feel the visceral righteousness of wanting to justify the evil act for the greater good and yet I know that would be crossing the line. As difficult as it is, this is the point where we must trust Jesus in His infinite Love and Mercy and back off to the safety of the moral high ground. It may taste and smell of defeat or surrender but we dare not lose the moral argument.

    I just seem to feel Jesus behind us when these decisions are presented to saying, "Trust me! Have Faith!".

  23. I think Paul in Cincinnatti was setting you up. He wasn't ready to concede anything or find some basis for agreement with you. His traps:

    1. Has the Church defined "torture" to include mental anguish as well as physical violence?

    2. Does waterboarding meet this definition?

    My own position is that the Church hasn't defined with the specificity of a military order or law what is and isn't torture. It's simply a matter of doctrine that torture is sinful. It's a matter of prudential judgment to determine when interrogration becomes torture. Not mentioned on your call nor in some of the replies, I would add there's an element of proportionality to determine if an interrorgation or disorientation method is a moral act be measured against the value of the information to be obtained. What I would consider moral for thwarting another 9/11 would not be used against a shoplifter.

  24. Patrick,

    For the most part, the responses here have been thoughful, and worthy of prayerful consideration. I have kept my CCC close at hand while reading them.

    I am interested in the idea of non-leathal means being used to render a person unable to harm others. Some here have stated that if a person is sufficiently in custody to be waterboarded, then such person is already sufficiently unable to harm anyone.

    A thought occured to me: If this person has information regarding impending harm to others, can that be interpreted to mean that this person still retains an ability to harm? If, by withholding the information, this person protects the ability of his/her associates to inflict harm (including possible death) on others, is it then morally permissable to use non-lethal means to extract the information, thereby rendering his/her plans impotent to do harm?

  25. Heven't the time to listen to Mr. Madrid's answer, but I take issue with this

    The internet in a nutshell!

    "I am far too busy to listen to the basis of the discussion! But I have got plenty of time to write sentence after sentence about why you are WRONG WRONG WRONG!"

  26. Mr. Madrid,

    While I agree that water boarding under the current situation, where there is no proportionate reason to engage in torture in the current war in Iraq (which I don't even think is a just war) it is not intrinsically evil.

    The reason you site, namely the dignity of the human person, does not eliminate the right of a public authority to administer torture if there is a just and proportionate reason (such as an imminent nuclear attack in an American city) in order to gain information to prevent it. The public authority of society does in fact have this right to prevent grave acts being committed to its citizens, provided that it is certain that the person is involved in such a grave evil. The Church historically has acknowledged this right. The error in your response is claiming that torture is intrinsically evil. For you or I to do it it would be, but for a public authority (such as government, law enforcement, etc.) it is lawful when the reason is proportionate. We find this with other matter such as drunkenness, where it is normally mortally sinful, for a grave and proportionate reason a man could be drunk and it not be sinful e.g. such as in the old moral manuals where a man is having surgery and anesthetic hadn't been invented yet, he could be made drunk to dull the pain and trauma of the surgery.

    That is where I felt the analogy in your response, that we have no right to torture a burglar fails, because we are not the public authority. This hearkens back somewhat to the Tiller case. The man should have been put to death for his crimes, but by the public authority (the state) not by a vigilante adding lawlessness and not justice to society.

    However, the current situation in my view does not constitute a just and proportionate reason to torture, since information that may be gained when it is not all clear what the information is or that there is a grave threat at hand can scarcely constitute anything just and proportionate.

  27. Patrick,

    To allow a coercive or violent action under the doctrine of just war, "the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain" (CCC 2309)

    There is no circumstance under which prisoners can satisfy these criteria. That they may have information about other aggressors poised to inflict "lasting, grave, and certain" damage can only be but a possibility. And that the information obtained by coercion will be useful in self-defense adds yet another layer of uncertainty.

    This interpretation is consistent with the church's teaching that "...prisoners must be respected and treated humanely." (CCC 2313)

    That members of the church have violated this teaching in the past does not invalidate it now.

    Thank you.

  28. A supposedly 'leading philosopher', Kwame Anthony Appiah, reckons the Catholic Church invented waterboarding:

    "Once, pretty much everywhere, beating your wife and children was regarded as a father's duty, homosexuality was a hanging offense, and waterboarding was approved -- in fact, invented -- by the Catholic Church."