Editorial: Ends and means

The report released by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee on the so-called “enhanced interrogation methods” used by the Central Intelligence Agency from late 2001 to early 2009 has been simultaneously defended and criticized by lawmakers, both for its content and for the conclusions it reached. 

Citing poor information gathering, not all observers and experts accept the contents of the document, which fast became known as the “torture report,” as factual. This editorial board opts to not pass judgment on that issue. What is important to note, however, is how all too many critics of the report apparently find no fault with what it presumes to make public — that is, that torture at the hands of CIA intelligence agents actually occurred. Rather than a reaction of horror and astonishment, the argument is made that the methods of torture were justified because it prevented would-be terrorist attacks. 

The problem with this excuse, however, is to say that the end justifies the means. And using the argument that the end justifies the means has never been tolerated by Catholic moral teaching. Of course, the end of the process is an important part when it comes to assessing whether a process or action is moral. 

Take, for example, a story of Belgium’s dowager Queen Fabiola, who died earlier this month. The widow of King Baudouin, Queen Fabiola was a devout Catholic who, it was said, urged her husband in 1990 publicly to oppose the legalization of abortion. Whether it was her influence at play or not, the king said at the time that under then-Belgian law his consent was required for any law to take effect. If he tolerated this law, he then would be the means to an immoral end, and, as a Catholic, he would not put himself in such a position. None other than Pope St. John Paul II hailed the king’s decision, as opposition to abortion is solid Catholic moral teaching. 

The king chose to oppose the law by withholding his constitutional consent. If, however, he had opposed the law by urging the assassinations of Belgian politicians favoring abortion, he would have gone way too far. Had he hypothetically called upon people to murder these politicians, and abortion had not been legalized, the end would have been good: no abortions. But the means would have been immoral.

The moral of the story, therefore, is that in any situation, the means are acts on their own, and they must be judged as to their morality. Torturing prisoners has never been acceptable under American law. The Constitution in fact forbids any form of “cruel and unusual punishment.” This prohibition came when people probably felt that torture could produce truthful information, a claim repeatedly rejected in this current case by U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, himself once the victim of torture.

American constitutional rule against torture rested on the belief, still supposedly a bedrock of our legal system, that such techniques in criminal investigation, whatever the crime, negate any person’s human dignity and rights of conscience. In our increasingly secular and anti-religious society, we have too many examples now of diminishing human dignity and of coercing people into going against their consciences. And, always, they stand on the grounds that the end justifies the means.

It is undeniable: Terrible things happen, such as the tragedy on 9-11 that destroyed so many lives, and they must be prevented. But for Catholics, the end never justifies any and all means. Some things are just wrong.     

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor