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.