Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin caused a stir last weekend by telling an audience, as part of her get-tougher approach to terrorism, that “[I]f I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”
It was a stupid and flippant thing to say; however, I thought some of the reaction from the Christian blogosphere was overly indignant. (Was it blasphemous to invoke baptism? Mildly. The climax of The Godfather was worse.) Part of the indignation stemmed from the presumption that waterboarding is intrinsically evil—making the allusion to baptism in the same breath particularly heinous. Church teaching clearly condemns torture, many said, and waterboarding is torture.
But I don’t know if it’s that simple. And so, given this occasion, I want to use this space to explore the question a little. All my musings are mine alone and do not purport to be the final interpretation of Church teaching or the official opinion of Catholic Answers.
First, a word about my approach. The practice of fine moral calculation in particular cases, which used to be called casuistry before that term became tainted, can sometimes resemble self-serving hair-splitting. But we mustn’t let that risk keep us from splitting hairs that require it.
For example, the Church condemns contraception. So, anything we do to prevent conception is immoral, right? Well, no. The Church specifically endorses periodic continence, in the right circumstances, as a means to regulate birth. Because not everything that looks like contraception, not everything that has the same end result as contraception, is in fact the sin of contraception.
If that seems obvious to you, it doesn’t to everyone. There are Catholics who reject the language of Humanae Vitae not because it’s too restrictive but because it's too permissive: to them, Natural Family Planning is just a euphemism for Catholic Contraception. Assisted reproductive technologies offer another area where small differences in the means make huge differences in the morality between superficially similar acts and outcomes.
In all such cases we must be careful not to be obtuse; or worse, to imagine that a failure to make distinctions is actually a sign of a purer faith.
So, on to waterboarding. This interrogation practice involves restraining a prisoner in a prone position and using water to simulate a drowning sensation. The aim is that this imposition of discomfort will motivate the prisoner to divulge important information. Catholics who oppose the practice frequently cite the Catechism’s definitive word:
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 (2298).
One thing that’s immediately unclear in this ambiguously worded and punctuated passage is whether torture is being defined (“torture, which we can identify by the following characteristics…”) or whether particular illicit forms of torture are being enumerated (“the kinds of torture that are contrary to human dignity are as follows…”), leaving room for licit forms. But either way, we can agree that Catechism unequivocally condemns physical or moral violence used to:
• Extract confessions. I think of the trials of the Elizabethan Martyrs, or the electro-shock used by the Soviets on Fr. Walter Czisek: coercion of the will to elicit a (usually false) admission of wrongdoing. No one can justify this, and no one, to my knowledge, seriously tries.
• Punish the guilty. This is an eccentric way to define “torture,” since we already have another term for this practice: corporal punishment. So is the Church saying that corporal punishment is intrinsically immoral? That would make ruler-wielding nuns, or my mom when she used to whack me with a wooden spoon, grave sinners. Scripture and Church history are likewise replete with the sanctioning of corporal punishment. So let’s provisionally conclude that all kinds of physical correction aren’t being condemned here, but rather those of a “torturous” or extreme variety.
• Frighten opponents. Physical violence for political intimidation is a hallmark of despots. Fear, as an end, seems hard to justify in most any case. It might be interesting to ponder whether these words applied to certain sporting events, in which intimidation through violence can sometimes be a tactic. But apart from that, we seem to be on solid and non-controversial ground here.
• Satisfy hatred. This is the broadest and most classic sense of torture: an instrument of vengeance or sadism. There is no end sought through the torturous act other than suffering itself, for its own sake. Again, there is no controversy about the immorality of such an act.
But does waterboarding appear on this list—if not by name at least by definition? I don’t find it there. That waterboarding may resemble some of the words and concepts in that passage isn’t good enough.
Since the Church does not specifically address it, how should we morally evaluate something like waterboarding, which is the practice of imposing discomfort on someone with the intention of eliciting proportionately important (e.g., life-saving) information to which one has a right in justice? To put it concretely: You know where there’s a bomb that’s going to detonate and kill innocents. I have a right to know that information. What means can I use to get it from you?
Catholic principles of self-defense say that one may use even lethal means to protect one’s life or the lives of innocents in the face of an unjust aggressor (CCC 2263-2265). It seems to follow, then, that in the same circumstances non-lethal corporal means are at least in-bounds. For is not a person who intentionally withholds life-saving information an unjust aggressor? Even if his aggression is by omission.
As with credit card offers and end-user agreements, of course, terms and conditions apply. Care must be taken to ensure that the good being sought through the acquisition of information is proportional to the means used to get it. It is necessary to guard against secondary motives (vengeance, for example; the desire to kill or harm as an end) creeping into one’s intentions. And there has to be reasonable hope that the means will be effective. (Some waterboarding opponents claim the practice is not effective. If this is true then it would be impossible to justify it. But since opinion is at least divided among those who are knowledgeable, for our hypothetical purposes we’ll stipulate to effectiveness.) All these conditions likewise apply to other cases where the Church teaches that physical violence can be justifiable.
To bring us around to a conclusion: Let us be careful not to be ruled by words.
If we take as a principle that “torture” is immoral, then we must be precise about what torture is and isn’t—just as we are precise about what “contraception” is and isn’t. Let us not presume that precision is just a cover for consequentialism or Cafeteria Catholicism.
If we want to call the practice of waterboarding (and other practices, both actual and imaginable, that are like it in kind) “torture” then we should—as Church tradition suggests and the Catechism’s ambiguous language permits—be open to the possibility that not every practice that has ever fallen under that blanket term is intrinsically immoral. Just as the term “birth control,” though typically used to refer to immoral contraception, can also be used to describe morally licit Natural Family Planning.
Either way you slice it, I think it’s both reasonable and permissible for a Catholic to hold that the practice of waterboarding, whether or not you classify it as “torture,” is not intrinsically immoral. That doesn’t mean it’s a prudent thing to do in any particular instance, and it doesn’t excuse comments like Palin’s. But it should preserve such a Catholic from equally flippant charges of heterodoxy.
 If you haven’t seen The Godfather: Michael Corleone has the heads of the Five Families brutally assassinated while the baptismal rite plays in the background. Also, why haven’t you?
 For Fr. Brian Harrison’s invaluable survey on torture and corporal punishment in the Catholic tradition, which space prohibits me from quoting, see here and here.