"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Why her condemning torture doesn't discredit the Catholic Church

You may well ask: how could anybody suppose that it does? Unless you inhabit the peculiar world of ecclesiological polemics, you would suppose that her coming to recognize that torture is intrinsically immoral is a fact that can be cited in favor of the Catholic Church. Since I do inhabit that world, however, I have come to expect the opposite supposition. So far, my expectations have been met. I want here to respond accordingly.

Ever since the bill proposing to regulate our government's treatment of captured terrorism suspects became a hot topic in Washington, the morality of torture has been hotly debated in the Catholic blogosphere. For the most part, the debate has been instructive and I have little to add to it. But one of the spinoffs in the anti-Catholic blogosphere has been the argument that the Catholic Church's development of doctrine on the topic of religious freedom, and specifically its implications for the use of torture for any purpose, effectively discredits the claim to infallibility made by her own teaching authority.

The argument comes in two stages. First, and in keeping with an approach that had been common since the time of St. Augustine, some medieval and early-modern popes approved the torture and/or execution of heretics—in some cases even ordering secular rulers to do such things; if so, then the Church's coming to learn the wrongfulness of such things shows that those popes were wrong. Second, they were wrong in such a way as to discredit the claim that the "ordinary magisterium" of the Catholic Church is somehow infallible.

While the first stage is sound, the second doesn't follow and is in fact unsound. But some forms of the argument are more sophisticated than others and merit a deeper response than has so far been given. One good example of how the argument can be mounted comes from traditional Anglican priest Matthew Kirby over at The Continuum.


(1) If a Church or communion of Churches authorises, condones and engages in an activity with virtual unanimity through its official organs of authority over an extended period of time, this constitutes a definitive teaching affirming the moral goodness of that activity.

(2) It is not possible for the Catholic Church as a whole to be in error in a definitive teaching on moral matters, any more than in matters of Faith.

(3) Therefore, a definitive teaching established by the process outlined in (1) cannot be in error if the said “Church or communion of Churches” is equivalent to “the Catholic Church as a whole”. [1 + 2]

(4) The RCC officially and generally authorised, condoned or practised torturous examinations and executions for religious ends over an extended period of time.

(5) Therefore, the RCC definitively taught that such torture was morally right. [1 + 4]

(6) Such torture is, in fact, morally repugnant.

(7) Therefore, the RCC definitively taught error on an important moral matter. [5 + 6]

(8) Therefore, the RCC is not the whole Catholic Church. [3 + 7]

Part of what irritates me about that argument is the ecclesiological agenda behind it, which is to argue for a "branch theory" according to which the Roman, Orthodox, and Anglican communions are each and equally "branches" of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church and that none is "the" Catholic Church. The implication, of course, is that the name the Catholic Church uses for herself—i.e., 'The Catholic Church'—is deceptive. Since nobody cares that I and other Catholics find that implication deeply offensive—indeed, branch theorists would unctuously assure us that we oughtn't to be offended—I shall begin simply by pointing out that hardly any Orthodox or Catholics profess the branch theory and that many Anglicans don't profess it either. That's a problem for branch theorists because, if their theory were true, then the premises out of which it logically falls must have belonged to the faith of the undivided Church of the first millennium; and if so, then one would have a right to expect that it would actually be professed by more than one party in the putative branch that's only existed since the 16th century. But leave that problem aside for the moment: the logic of Kirby's actual argument against Catholicism is of more immediate interest.

The argument is logically valid, i.e. the inferences all go through. Modestly enough, Kirby asserts that the only premises that might be questioned are (1) and (4). I'll give him (4), which I don't think is reasonably dubitable. The only question, therefore, concerns (1). And I'll answer it now: (1) is false, unless qualified in such a way as to remove its sting.

Of course the Catholic Church doesn't teach (1) or anything like it, let alone infallibly teach it. The relevant statement taught is more like this: "Heretics should be punished with torture and/or death if their being so punished is necessary for the common good." Call that statement 'HP' for short.

Between the fourth and eighteenth centuries, most popes and prelates believed HP. Even St. Thomas Aquinas believed it. But the Church's development of doctrine has it that the torture and execution of people for their religious beliefs is a violation of their consciences, which is intrinsically evil inasmuch as it violates one of the most basic of human rights. Whatever the ostensible benefits, Therefore, it is never necessary to serve the common good by doing such an evil that good may come. That is what the Western-European wars of religion and the rise of popular government taught the Church even though should it have been obvious much earlier than that. Therefore, the antecedent of HP is always false, and churchmen of the past were wrong to believe it. But since HP itself is a material conditional, the falsity of its antecedent makes it trivially true. So even if HP does meet the criteria for having been infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium, it is trivially true.

But in point of fact, HP does not meet the Catholic Church's criteria for having been infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium (ITOM). Even though HP is a remote application of moral principles pertaining to the depositum fidei, it is not itself such a principle and in fact relies, like geocentrism, on an empirically mistaken belief to get where it goes from such principles. Therefore, HP does not belong to the sort of subject matter to which ITOM applies. Therefore, it's not ITOM.

Since Kirby used to frequent Pontifications, he knows what I've written there about the development of doctrine, on this particular topic and others, as well as about the related topic of the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium. Those writings show that what some critics of the Catholic Church, including some Catholics themselves, think are the relevant criteria for ITOM are nothing of the kind. The definitive way of identifying something as ITOM is the way the Church herself does it. Any other way is just begging the question.
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