It was the development of the Inquisition in the thirteenth century, as an offshoot of the Crusades, that led both ecclesiastical and civil courts to adopt the practice of torture in order to secure confessions. A series of popes permitted torture (Innocent IV, Alexander IV, Clement IV) even though the actual practice was hedged with protocols. The human price paid in such a seething world of pervasive suspicion and unchecked authority was incalculable — something to remember in our time.
The forms of torture are gruesome to recount. Even the words are chilling on the page: the rack, branding, flogging, hanging, sleeplessness, the thumbscrew. Or in our time: electric prods, simulated drowning, sexual assault, deprivation of food and water and light, assault with noise, forced use of drugs — the sadistic creativity of human beings appears boundless. Yet ironically the evidence is overwhelming that facts or data gained under torture are almost always unreliable, that torture often functions as a form of intimidation, both individually and collectively, rather than a search for truth. In other words, torture is a form of terrorism. And again it appears to do far more harm to its agents than they ever imagine; as with all violence, its victims are everyone.
For two centuries, since the Enlightenment, a consensus has developed in international law and in Church teaching that torture violates the inherent dignity of the human person, that it degrades any society that tolerated it, that it disrespects fundamental human freedom, and that it directly abuses the image of God in the human person. Yet torture raged on in the USSR, Italy, Spain, Germany, Algeria, South Africa, China, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile — this last as I know well, having carried microfilm copies of evidence of torture during the Pinochet regime in Chile to the United States for eventual translation and publication.
And in America. With absolute respect for the intelligence, police, and military agents charged with fending off and solving such crimes as the September 11 murders, it is inarguable that we are, as a nation, since 2001, engaged in torture ourselves — beatings, sleep and sensory deprivation, forced nakedness and humiliation, hooding, simulated and real attacks by guard dogs, sexual abuse, water torture. In our military prisons, in CIA prisons, in hidden prisons we sponsor, in nations to which we have “farmed out” prisoners for torture, we have violated international law and Catholic moral teaching.
There are three major Christian perspectives on war and violence that have evolved in the last two millennia: pacifism, the “just war” theory, and what I might call the crusading impulse. Somewhere among these three approaches, I suggest, is a way to defeat murderous Islamic terrorism without ourselves becoming the very enemy we battle.
For the first four centuries of Christian history, the pacifist option prevailed. The teaching of Jesus as given in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel and in His fundamental teaching about love, mercy, and forgiveness seemed self-evident. He warned that those who lift the sword will be punished by the sword. Furthermore, He did not resist His enemies and He forgave those who had persecuted Him. The early Church, which well knew periods of intense persecution itself, celebrated the example of Saint Stephen and the other holy martyrs who went to their deaths without resistance. From the fifth century on, however, pacifism became a minority position within Christianity, and so it remains today, when only such small groups as the Catholic Worker movement and Pax Christi oppose all war.
As for just-war theory, while Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero all pondered the matter, a Christian theory of war did not develop until after the major change of status of Christians in the Roman Empire in 313 (when Christianity became one of the two state religions of the Roman empire) and 416 (when imperial military service was reserved for Christians alone). Saint Ambrose in the fourth century argued that defense of the Empire coincided with defense of the faith. Saint Augustine, who saw the state as the only bulwark against barbarian chaos, argued that wars were just when waged on behalf of the state. By the Middle Ages, Christian theologians were so disturbed by the constant resort to warfare among rival Christian armies that they developed such creative ideas as the the Peace of God, which exempted certain people and places from violence (clerics, nuns, women, children, churches, embassies), and the Truce of God, which created exempt times from violence (Saturday morning to Monday morning, Advent to Epiphany, Septuagesima to Pentecost).
It was Saint Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth century, who argued that war could be moral and that one could kill in self-defense, and his teaching became the mainstream of Christian thought on the topic. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin accepted the morality of a just war, and the vast majority of Catholic and Protestant writers still defend just-war theory today. The modern theory stipulates that war is legitimate if it involves just cause, legitimate authority, last resort, right intention, non-combatant immunity, proportionality, and humane treatment. This makes great sense, in that it forces combatants to examine intent and conscience; but there has never been a war yet that satisfied every stipulation, and I suspect there never will be.
Finally there is the crusading impulse, which harks back to the year 1095, when Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade against militant Islam, ostensibly to open access to the Holy Land for Christian pilgrims. But immediately violence raged out of control; Jews were slaughtered, French and German peasants destroyed in combat, and in 1099 the Catholic armies slew every Muslim and Jewish resident of Jerusalem — man, woman, and child. Eight more failed crusades over two centuries spilled blood across the Middle East, leading finally to the Inquisition, and proving only, perhaps, that claiming God to be on your side in war is beyond foolish and uncomfortably close to blasphemy.
In the years since I walked through Ground Zero, moved to tears by pain and courage, I have become ever more convinced that vehement rhetoric and misguided response to the repulsiveness of terrorist murder is creating a nation and a world where the genius of the ancient Christian (and secular) moral tradition on war and violence has been lost. The rise of torture as a legal form of interrogation is inarguable evidence of a terrible mistake we make in our battle against a terrible enemy.
I believe that the crusading impulse, with its telltale rhetoric of good and evil, its willful ignorance of distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, and its utter lack of moral accountability, is to be rejected outright. The Crusades were failures, and such military misadventures masquerading as God’s army will always be failures. I believe that Christ, the Prince of Peace, calls us, to be agents of peace and reconciliation in the world. Pacifism as a Christian stance will always attract those who seek to follow their Lord in purity of heart. For other Christians, pacifism will remain a model, a signpost, a kind of moral compass.
Yet pacifism has no special message to offer in the face of terrorism or suicide attacks, and so we come finally to some form of just-war thinking in our struggle against the murderous shard of Islam that desires the death of the West.
I suggest that Al-Qaeda and its fellows are criminals and should be treated that way, and our police and armed forces be equipped with resources and weaponry to control and bring to justice criminals who would harm the common good.
I suggest that all the criteria just-war theory brings to bear on violence are crucial to winning this struggle, especially in a time of continued escalation in the potency of weapons. I suggest that just-war theory, for all its flaws and manifest limitations, is the most helpful and moral system we have in judging when and how to fight back against those who would murder the innocent.
I suggest that the just-war theory is crucial especially to us, as a check against our own worst impulses. And finally I suggest that the greatest victory of all for bin Laden and his fellow killers would be to turn us into the sort of killers they are, men who have abandoned the moral and rational constraints that have evolved through the centuries in the Christian tradition about war.
War is hell. But so are pogroms, concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, and massive violations of human rights, and so are attacks like that which slew thousands of people on the holy earth where I walked six years ago. We have a responsibility to counter terrorism in a way that is consistent with the Gospel. That is the charge laid upon us not only by the innocent victims of terrorists, and by the generations who fought and died in defense of the very freedoms the terrorists would steal, but by the Christ himself.
Father Edward Malloy, C.S.C., a regent of the University of Portland and recipient of the University’s Christus Magister Medal in 2005, is a noted scholar, author, and teacher of moral theology. He was the president of the University of Notre Dame from 1987 to 2005. This essay began in a talk he gave on The Bluff in 2007.