Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Third Degree

I'm doing some research on torture, for a variety of reasons. Now that the US has been outed as a nation that includes torture among its official practices, it behooves us, the citizenry, to learn something about the activities engaged in under our name, by our government.

Here's a bit that relates to a conversation in another thread, about the general beneficence or malignancy of the Catholic Church, which has a long history of applying the most appalling torture techniques imaginable (don't click on that link if you are easily disturbed). How, I have been wondering, did Christianity morph from its origins as a radical Jewish sect, based on love and charity -- how did Christianity become a leading purveyor of such authoritarian horror?

Here's a passage from the valuable book A Question of Torture, by Alfred W. McCoy, which is mostly about the torture practices of the US since WWII:


With the rise of Christian Europe, the use of torture in courts of law faded for several centuries. Torture was antithetical to Christ's teachings and so, in 866, Pope Nicholas I banned the practice. But after a Church council abolished trial bhy ordeal in 1215, European civil courts revived roman law with its reliance on torture to obtain confessions-- an approach that persisted for the next five centuries. With the parallel rise of the Inquisition, Church interrogators also used torture for both confession and punishment...By the fourteenth century, the Italian inquisition used the strappado to suspend the victim by ropes in five degrees of escalating duration and severity--a scale preserved in modern memory in the phrase "the third degree" to mean harsh police questioning.

Interesting etymology! Also interesting is that the strappado was apparently practiced by the North Vietnamese on John McCain, and also at Abu Ghraib. Some traditions never go out of style, apparently.

The impact of judicial torture on European culture went far beyond the dungeon, coinciding with subtle shift in theological emphasis from the life of Jesus to the death of the Christ--a change reflected in artistic representations...of his body being scourged, tortured, and crucified. From limited details of Christ's agonies in the gospels, medieval artists..."approximated these grisly violations with the unerring eye of a forensic pathologist", creating an image of the pain inflicted on his battered body that mimed, and may have legitimated, the increasingly gruesome legal spectacle of torture and public execution.

Note that the Christian powers inherited a tradition of torture from the Romans, eventually condemned it, and then reintroduced it several centuries later. This undercuts any attempt to explain Christian torture as a holdover from pagan times, or that it was simply not recognized as evil.

Here's a very lengthy and detailed review of the problem of torture in Catholic theology, from something called the "Oblates of Wisdom" (part 2). Amazing stuff, I am always in awe that there are people in the modern era who think like this (and of course, however medieval their ideas may be, they have a website for them). Tortured logic, to say the least, as they try to square up a couple of millenia of inconsistent teachings.

Another reason for our reluctance to address this issue theologically may be a sense of uneasiness, not to say embarrassment, about the prospect of re-opening old wounds. For while the shudder-evoking practices that we qualify as torture are generally excoriated on all sides today, every student of Catholic history and theology knows they were endorsed for many centuries by the most respected theologians (including saints and doctors of the Church), and by the highest ecclesiastical authorities. And yet the issue cannot simply be side-stepped forever. After all, at the very heart of Christianity itself lies the infliction of horrendous pain – the passion and death of the world’s Redeemer. The central icon of our faith – the Crucifix – is a terrible instrument of torture.

Well, yeah. I didn't want to mention that, so glad you did, Fr. Harrison. If I happen to go a bit further and say that there is something deeply fucked up about worshiping a torture device I won't be making a terribly original observation.

3 comments:

Michael said...

It might be worth while for you to read Hugh Trevor-Roper's "The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries." Here's a useful extract:

"Judicial torture had been allowed, in limited cases, by Roman law; but Roman law, and with it judicial torture, had been forgotten by the Dark Ages. In the eleventh century Roman law has been rediscovered in the west, and torture had followed it back into use. In 1252 Innocent IV, by the bull Ad Extirpanda, had authorized its use against the Albigensians. By the fourteenth century it was in general use in the tribunals of the Inquisition, and it was used, particularly, in cases of witchcraft, where evidence was always difficult to find. In 1468 the Pope declared witchcraft to be crimen exceptum and thereby removed, in effect, all legal limits on the application of torture in such cases. It was not, as yet, used by the secular courts; and Lea points out that certain of the more extravagant and obscene details of witches' confessions do not, at first, appear before secular tribunals, but only before the tribunals of the Inquisition. In other words, they were obtained only by the courts which used torture. But the distinction between lay and clerical practice did not last for long. At the time of the Renaissance the medieval Inquisition was everywhere in decay and, north of the Alps at least, the secular courts had taken over many of its functions. Thus cases of witchcraft in Germany and France were judged by secular lords who had higher jurisdiction. But at the same time the procedures of Roman law were adopted in the criminal law of all countries of western Europe except England. Thus England alone escaped from the judicial use of torture in ordinary criminal cases, including cases of witchcraft."

The real cause of the revival of torture was accordingly not Catholicism per se, but rather the revival of Roman law, which as Nick Szabo has observed, has many good points as to its substantive jurisprudence, but is procedurally deeply flawed. Torture is needless to say a procedural rather than a substantive aspect of Roman law.

English common law never provided for judicial torture, and that is why it was never used as a means of extracting testimony in common law courts. Cases of high treason in England came before prerogative courts and there torture could be used; but such cases were rare, and the prerogative courts were hated for their Romanizing tendency generally. They were one characteristic of the pre-Cromwell monarchy and the Cromwellian dictatorship (which introduced torture in witchcraft cases) that was abandoned at the Restoration.

It is in American administrative and regulatory law that Romanizing tendencies are today most notable. The tribunals applying this law, and the agencies that make it, are almost entirely the creation of the past seventy-odd years, during which the size and scope of government in this country has been so greatly expanded at all levels. If torture is to creep into use in domestic procedure (as opposed to dealings with foreign unlawful combatants) it will be as a consequence of that expansion of government. Any government so essentially limitless that it can do all the things earnest liberals want it to do FOR people is also going to be capable of doing things TO them that those earnest liberals won't like.

goatchowder said...

A long post that slowly tortures the point and finally (sorry, can't resist) nails it at the end.

I grew up in a Catholic household. Every Sunday for 45 minutes we'd have to sit and stare at a nearly-naked man being tortured to death. Yeah, of course that's a seriously twisted and fucked-up thing to do. And I think it has a certain Pavlovian effect upon adolescents too; I wonder if there's any correlation between Catholicism and BDSM.

I could understand why people would be attracted to, say, the uplifting positivism and hopefulness and activism of African-American gospel churches, but Catholicism always seemed to me have a gloomy, fatalistic, morose, hopeless, dour kind of aroma to it. It seems to me like a religion destined to induce depression.

I don't know if the dead guy on a stick is a symptom or cause of that, but it definitely seems related somehow.

It's worth noting that the original, peaceful Jewish sect didn't use a cross as their symbol. They used a fish, which has been revived by modern-day Christian evangelicals.

mtraven said...

goatchowder: the dour sadomasochism of the Catholic Church is unpleasant to us, but seems to have given it some sort of strength and staying power. Like it or not, it is part of the core of Western civilization and its creepiness is part of us.