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No. 118 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program July 2005


by Brian W. Harrison

Part I. The Witness of Sacred Scripture


The disagreeable subject of torture is one that has been conspicuous by its absence from contemporary Catholic theological studies. While a considerable amount has been written about the related theme of capital punishment over the last half century by its opponents and defenders, torture, if mentioned at all in recent Catholic publications, tends to be discussed only from non-theological standpoints: philosophical, psychological, criminological, juridical or political. Why this should be so is not immediately evident, especially since the new millennium has brought with it a recrudescence of public interest and controversy about harsh interrogatory practices as a result of the various new kinds of violent scenario that have afflicted the world since September 11, 2001. The controversy has, of course, directly affected the United States, as a result of the much-publicized instances of maltreatment of prisoners in American military prisons in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib.

One possible reason for this near-silence on the part of theologians may be the great difficulty involved in the ethical evaluation of a concept which (unlike that of capital punishment) defies every attempt at precise definition. The very adjectives we need in order to designate the degree of pain that will be understood to constitute torture ("severe", "extreme", "grave", "agonizing", etc.) are themselves highly flexible and subjective. Moreover, a given act of physical aggression will often be totally unendurable for one person, but bearable for another. The fact is that the direct, voluntary infliction of pain encompasses a spectrum ranging from the light spanking of a child at one extreme to the most hideous, sadistic barbarities imaginable at the other, without any clear cut-off points or divisions occurring anywhere along the way. Moreover, when we include mental or psychological pain within the definition of torture, as is generally done today, these elements of vagueness and subjectivism are increased enormously.

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.

The theological problems arising in this are area can be put fairly simply. First, how has this great ‘disconnect’ – this astonishing contrast between the beliefs and attitudes of Christians today and yesterday respectively about the ethics of torture – arisen historically? And secondly, is there any discernible continuity across the centuries in the Church’s official doctrine regarding this matter? Or has she simply contradicted her own magisterial teaching? This essay represents a preliminary effort to explore these questions. I shall follow the classical procedure of examining in turn the witness of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium, and then, on the basis of these sources, offer some tentative theological conclusions.

This first part of our study is devoted to the biblical data regarding the direct infliction of severe bodily pain. Included here are only those passages of Sacred Scripture which arguably may have some bearing on the moral evaluation of such infliction. Thus, simple historical accounts of floggings, etc., are not included. The passages cited below are probably not exhaustive in regard to this topic; however they do appear to this writer to be the principal relevant biblical texts and should be sufficiently representative as a basis for a useful commentary.

A. Old Testament: 1

A1. Gn 19: 24-25. Yahweh rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from Yahweh. He overthrew these towns and the whole plain, with all the inhabitants of the towns, and everything that grew there.

A2. Ex 9: 8-10. Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, "Take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and before the eyes of Pharaoh let Moses throw it in the air. It shall spread like fine dust over the whole land of Egypt and bring out sores that break into sores on man and beast all over the land of Egypt. So they took soot from the kiln and stood in front of Pharaoh, and Moses threw it in the air. And on man and beast it brought out boils breaking into sores.

A3. Lv 10: 1-3. Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, each took his censer, put fire in it and incense on the fire, and presented unlawful fire before Yahweh, fire which he had not prescribed for them. Then from Yahweh’s presence a flame leaped out and consumed them, and they perished in the presence of Yahweh. And Moses said to Aaron, "That is what Yahweh meant when he said: ‘In those who are close to me I show my holiness, and before all my people I show my glory’". Aaron remained silent.

A4. Lv 20: 1-2a, 14. Yahweh spoke to Moses; he said: "Tell the sons of Israel: . . . The man who takes a woman and her mother to wife: that is incest. They must be burnt to death – he and they: there must be no incest among you.’"

A5. Lv 21: 1a, 9. Yahweh said to Moses: "Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: . . . ‘If the daughter of a man who is a priest profanes herself by prostitution, she profanes her father and must be burnt to death.’"

A6. Nb 16: 33-35. [The rebels Korah, Dathan and Abirah and their families] went down alive to Sheol, they and all their possessions. The earth closed over them and they disappeared from the midst of the assembly. At their cries all the Israelites around them ran away. For they said, "The earth must not swallow us!" A fire came down from Yahweh and consumed the two hundred and fifty men carrying incense.

A7. Dt 5: 1, 22: 23-24. Moses called the whole of Israel together and said to them: . . . "If a virgin is betrothed and a man meets her in the city and sleeps with her, you shall take them both out to the gate of the town and stone them to death; the girl, because she did not cry for help in the town; the man, because he has violated the wife of his fellow." (Cf. also Lv 20: 2-5; 27; 24: 15-16; Nb 15: 32-36; Dt 17: 2-6; 21: 18-21 for other offences punishable by stoning.)

A8. Dt 5: 1, 25: 1-3. Moses called the whole of Israel together and said to them: . . . "If men have any dispute they must go to court for the judges to decide between them. . . . If the one who is in the wrong deserves a flogging, the judge shall make him lie down and have him flogged in his presence with the number of strokes [lit. ‘stripes’] proportionate to his offence. He may impose forty strokes but no more, lest the flogging be too severe and your brother be degraded in your eyes."

A9. 2 Ki 1: 9-10. (Context: King Ahaziah, angered at being rebuked by Elijah for his idolatry, sends fifty soldiers to capture the prophet.) [T]he captain went up to him and said, "Man of God, the king says, ‘Come down’". Elijah answered the captain, "If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and destroy both you and your fifty men". And fire came down from heaven and destroyed him and his fifty men.

A10. Pr 13: 24. The man who fails to use the stick hates his son; the man who is free with his correction loves him.

A11. Pr 23: 13-14. Do not be chary of correcting a child, a stroke of the cane is not likely to kill him. A stroke of the cane and you save him from Sheol.

A12. Pr 29: 15. The stick and the reprimand bestow wisdom, a child left to himself brings shame on his mother.

A13. Si 30: 1, 9, 11-13. A man who loves his son will beat him frequently, so that in after years the son may be his comfort. . . . Pamper your child, and he will give you a fright; play with him, and he will bring you sorrow. . . . Allow him no independence in childhood, and do not wink at his mistakes. Bend his neck in youth, bruise his ribs while he is a child, or else he will grow stubborn and disobedient, and hurt you very deeply. Be strict with your son, and persevere with him, or you will rue his insolence.

A14. Si 33: 27-30. Yoke and harness will bow the neck, for a criminal slave there is the rack and torture. Keep him occupied, or he will idle; idleness teaches all sorts of mischief. Keep him at his duties, where he should be; if he is disobedient, clap him in irons. But do not be over-exacting with anyone, and do nothing contrary to justice.

A15. Si 42: 1-2, 5. These are the things you should not be ashamed of, and do not sin for fear of what others think: of the Law of the Most High and the covenant, of a verdict that acquits the godless, . . . of gaining from commercial transactions, of disciplining your children strictly, of lashing a wicked slave till you draw blood.

A16. Si 48: 3-4. (cf. A9 above.) By the word of the Lord, [Elijah] shut up the heavens; he also, three times, brought down fire. How glorious you were in your miracles, Elijah! Has anyone reason to boast as you have?

A17. 2 Ma 7: 1-2 (and rest of chapter). There were also seven brothers who were arrested with their mother. The king tried to force them to taste pig’s flesh, which the Law forbids, by torturing them with whips and scourges. [The brothers are all then put to death with extreme cruelty for their refusal to comply. The king, Antiochus Epiphanes, is referred to as an "inhuman fiend" (v. 9), a "cruel tyrant" (v. 27), and as an "unholy wretch, bloodiest villain of all mankind" (v. 34). Nevertheless, the sixth brother’s dying words to the king are these: "Do not delude yourself: we are suffering like this through our own fault, having sinned against our own God; the result has been terrible, but do not think you yourself will go unpunished for attempting to make war on God" (vv. 18-19). Likewise the seventh: "As for you, sir, who have contrived every kind of evil against the Hebrews, you will certainly not escape the hands of God. We are suffering for our own sins; and if, to punish and discipline us, our living Lord vents his wrath upon us, he will yet be reconciled with his own servants" (vv. 31-33)].

B. New Testament

B1. Mt 5: 38-39. You have learnt how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well.

B2. Mt 18: 32-35. (Parable of the ungrateful servant): Then the master sent for him. "You wicked servant," he said, "I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me. Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you?" And in his anger the master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debt. And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.

B3. Lk 9: 52-56. (Cf. A9 and A16 above.) [The messengers] set out, and they went into a Samaritan village to make preparations for [Jesus], but the people would not receive him because he was making for Jerusalem. Seeing this, the disciples James and John said, "Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to burn them up?" But he turned and rebuked them, saying, "You do not know what spirit you are made of. The Son of Man came not to destroy souls but to save them". (The last words in italics, omitted in most recent versions, are found in some important manuscripts and were included in the Clementine Vulgate and all traditional Catholic translations thereof for many centuries, as well as the Protestant KJV.)

B4. Lk 12: 47-48. (Parable of the wicked servant): The servant who knows what his master wants, but has not even started to carry out those wishes, will receive very many strokes of the lash. The one who did not know, but deserves to be beaten for what he has done, will receive fewer strokes. When a man has had a great deal given him, a great deal will be demanded of him.

B5. Lk 22: 40-43. (Can a crime "deserve" death by torture?) But the other spoke up and rebuked [the unrepentant thief]. "Have you no fear of God at all?" he said. "You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it: we are paying for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong. Jesus," he said, "remember me when you come into your kingdom." "Indeed, I promise you," he replied, "today you will be with me in paradise."

B6. Jn 2: 14-15. [I]n the Temple [Jesus] found people selling cattle and sheep and pigeons, and the money changers sitting at their counters there. Making a whip out of some cord, he drove them all out of the Temple, cattle and sheep as well, scattered the money changers’ coins [and] knocked their tables over.

B7. Jn 8: 4-5, 7, 10-11. (Cf. A7 above.) "Master, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery, and Moses has ordered us in the Law to condemn women like this to death by stoning. What have you to say?" . . . As they persisted with their question, he looked up and said, "If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." . . . "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" "No one, sir," she replied. "Neither do I condemn you," said Jesus., "go away, and don’t sin any more."

B8. Ep 6: 1, 4. (Cf. A10-A13 above.) Children, be obedient to your parents in the Lord – that is your duty. . . . And parents, never drive your children to resentment but in bringing them up correct them and guide them as the Lord does.

B9. Rv 9: 1, 3-6. Then the fifth angel blew his trumpet, . . . and out of the smoke dropped locusts which were given the powers that scorpions have on earth: they were forbidden to harm any fields or crops or trees and told only to attack any men who were without God’s seal on their foreheads. They were not to kill them, but to give them pain for five months, and the pain was to be the pain of a scorpion’s sting. When this happens, men will long for death and not find it anywhere; they will want to die and death will evade them.

B10. Rv 11: 3-5 (Cf. A9 above.) But I shall send my two witnesses to prophesy for those twelve hundred and sixty days, wearing sackcloth. These are the two olive trees and the two lamps that stand before the Lord of the world. Fire can come from their mouths and consume their enemies if anyone tries to harm them; and if anyone does try to harm them he will certainly be killed in this way.

Observations on the Above Scriptural References

1. Torture as coercion of the will. It seems noteworthy that there is very little reference in Scripture to torture in the most common sense of the word, namely, the infliction of severe pain as a means of coercing the will (i.e., with a view to extracting new information or a confession of guilt from the sufferer, or forcing him to commit an act commanded by the torturer). Nearly always, the infliction of pain is narrated (or prescribed) as a punishment for offences already committed. The one clear exception is the torture "with whips and scourges" of the seven faithful Jewish brothers by the tyrant Antioches Epiphanes in a vain effort to get them to eat pork (2 Maccabees 7: 1-2). The threats of death by even worse torture also prove to be in vain, and the heroic brothers, together with their mother, suffer accordingly.

The sacred writer’s moral evaluation of this atrocity is not quite as unequivocal as might appear at first sight. To be sure, this rare biblical instance of torture in today’s common ‘will-coercing’ sense is presented by the author of Maccabees as deeply wicked qua human action: the king is roundly condemned for his impiety and cruelty (cf. the various epithets cited in A17 above). On the other hand, the brothers themselves, while denouncing the king, interpret their suffering per se as a kind of just purgation of their own sins – the Lord’s disciplinary "venting of his wrath" upon those servants of his who, having endured their brief torment, will shortly "drink of ever-flowing life by virtue of God’s covenant" (v. 36). The king’s wickedness, then, is seen to consist above all in the fact that he is striving against the true God and attacking his faithful servants, not primarily in the extremity, per se, of the torments he inflicts.

Apart from this passage, the New Testament mention of "torturers" (cf. B2) may refer to torture in this will-coercing sense, but could also imply simple punishment. In any case, no moral disapproval of the kind of action being carried out by these "torturers" is suggested by Jesus in this parable.

2. Infliction of Pain as Punishment As regards the remaining Scriptural passages, wherein the infliction of corporal pain is presented as a punishment for offences already committed, they can conveniently be classified into three groups, dealing respectively with: (a) punishments (actual or anticipated) inflicted by direct divine intervention; (b) those administered by human authority in accordance with a public norm of law; and (c) those administered privately by a father to his son.

2a. Divinely inflicted pain. (Cf. A1, A2, A3, A9, A16, B3, B9, B10.) Usually (the exceptions being A2 and B9, the plague of boils in Egypt, and the apocalyptic scorpions’ sting), these passages speak of a miraculous fire that causes (or is anticipated to cause – B3, B10) death by burning to those who have offended God. It is not difficult to see here a certain conceptual continuity or relationship with the eternal fire of Sheol/Gehenna adumbrated already in the Old Testament (e.g., Si 21: 9-11) and repeatedly emphasized by Jesus in the Gospels (Mt 25: 41 and many other passages). Indeed, the difference between temporal and eschatological punishment appears relatively slight in Nb 16. For just before the divine fire consumes the remaining Israelite rebels as they attempt to flee (cf. A6 above), the leaders and their families have all descended "live into Sheol" (v. 33), which is presented as located literally beneath the earth.

Far from displaying any kind of reserve, hesitation or embarrassment at God’s use of a human instrument to inflict the torment of death by burning, the ancient Jewish commentator unselfconsciously exults at such divine vengeance wrought through the prophet: "How glorious you were in your miracles, Elijah! Has anyone reason to boast as you have?" (cf. A9 and A16 above).

A marked contrast in this respect is found in Jesus’ rebuke to the over-zealous ‘sons of thunder’, James and John, when, with their background knowledge of Old Testament history, they see our Lord – or even themselves as his disciples – in the role of Elijah, and so quickly anticipate fire from heaven to consume the unbelieving Samaritans (cf. B3 above). Indeed, if the traditional (though now disputed) Vulgate reading of Lk 9: 55 is authentic, the rebuke is severe indeed, making it clear that this kind of vindictive "spirit" does not come (or at least, no longer comes) from God. For "the Son of Man came not to destroy souls but to save them." It is true that the remaining New Testament passages in this category (cf. B9 and B10) imply that God Himself endorses the pain being inflicted. But, quite apart from the fact that these passages, like so much of the Book of Revelation, are very probably not to be taken literally, their context is in any case not the normal course of human history, but rather, the quasi-eschatological end-times, in which Christ is depicted as Judge rather than Savior.

2b. Infliction of pain as a legally prescribed penalty. (Cf. A4, A5, A7, A8, A14, A15, B2, B4, B5, B6, B7 above.) Here we are considering the Mosaic law’s prescriptions for the death penalty, stoning being the most common method (cf. A7, B7), and for two sexual offences, burning (A4, A5). For lesser offences, flogging with a maximum of forty strokes was prescribed (A8, A15), while the rack may have been used later for punishing slaves (A14).2 Imprisonment was obviously not a practicable alternative for dealing with malefactors among the itinerant Hebrews during Moses’ lifetime, and was used only temporarily, while an offence was still under investigation (cf. Lv 24: 12; Nb 15: 34).3 Nevertheless, in spite of the extreme harshness of burning, stoning and flogging, judged in the light of today’s Western humanitarian standards, it is important to note that at least the beginnings of that typically modern outlook are already discernible in the Mosaic law. While limiting a flogging to a maximum of ‘only’ forty strokes may well seem to us a pretty small mercy, the reason given for this in Dt 25: 3, is highly significant: the punishment is to be limited not only "lest the flogging be too severe", but also lest (in consequence) "your brother be degraded in your eyes" (cf. A8, and also the last sentence quoted in A14). The idea of the culprit’s human dignity, affected by his humiliation (not just his physical pain), and requiring respect on the part of his fellows, is clearly linked here to the question of due proportion in administering punishment. We shall return to the further implications of this idea in due course.

Jesus clearly builds on this Old Testament foundation of a nascent, minimal recognition of the need for moderation in chastising one’s fellow men made in God’s image. The New Testament data furnishing some kind of basis for a moral evaluation of such penal practices are not abundant, but significant. On the one hand, we find no direct or outright condemnation of the aforesaid Mosaic punishments as being intrinsically unjust or evil. It would be implausible to try reading any ethical censure into Jesus’ mention of temporal torture in the parable of the unforgiving debtor (Mt 18: 34), in view of his immediate comparison of this treatment with that to be meted out in eternity by "my heavenly Father" (cf. B2 above). The same can be said of the floggings referred to in the parable of the wicked servant (Lk 12: 47-48, cf. B3), particularly in the light of our Lord’s own action narrated in Jn 2: 15 (cf. B6). It seems plain from the text that his "whip" was used to strike the money changers themselves, not only the animals – and with considerable force. (On the other hand, it also seems relevant that here, the formal object of Jesus’ action – the finis operantis – is not the infliction of pain as such, to be suffered by the merchants as a vindictive penalty, but rather, their expulsion from the temple as rapidly as possible: the faster they move, the less pain they suffer!) As regards B5 above, very little can be inferred – given the dire circumstances of the dialogue – from Jesus’ failure to contradict the penitent thief’s affirmation that his crime "deserves" death by the torture of crucifixion. Nevertheless, the absence of any such comment is at least worth noting; for if it had been a high priority of our Lord, as the new Lawgiver, to excoriate all such treatment, for any crime whatsoever, as a horrendous per se violation of human rights and dignity (as nearly all Westerners would say today), it is at least conceivable that, even in extremis on the Cross, he might have uttered something along those lines.

On the other hand, Jesus’ explicit revocation (cf. B1) of the ancient ‘eye for eye and tooth for tooth’ principle in order to resolve interpersonal conflicts (cf. Mt 5: 38-39) certainly points toward a more lenient treatment of offenders against public order as well, with mercy tending to prevail over a crude and brutal form of justice. The clearest concrete example of this new attitude is of course the Lord’s clemency toward the woman taken in adultery (cf. B7 above), although, once again, it needs to be noted that he does not use this occasion for any generalized condemnation of the death penalty – even for this relatively minor kind of offence, and even by the very brutal method of stoning – as being per se unjust.

2c. Pain inflicted as paternal chastisement. (Cf. A10, A11, A12, A13, B8.) Here too we see a significant difference between Old and New Testaments. The earlier repeated emphasis on the need for frequent paternal beatings of wayward sons speaks for itself. And the ancient masculine reserve towards even levity or playfulness with children (cf. A13) is probably reflected in the spontaneous reaction of the male disciples who try to keep little children from ‘bothering’ our Lord (cf. Mk 10: 13). Their attitude, however, is immediately corrected by an "indignant" Jesus, who makes a point of relating the children’s innocence to that of "the kingdom of God", as well as embracing and blessing them (Mk 10: 14-16).4

The only New Testament passage which deals ex professo with parental discipline of children (cf. B8) apparently reflects this new attitude on the part of Jesus. Parents are to "correct" their children, but on the other hand should never "drive them to resentment". Certainly, this is a long way from any prohibition of the corporal punishment of children, but the omission of the earlier explicit precepts in that regard, together with the addition of a new precept for parents which sees things more from the child’s point of view, amount to an important change of emphasis.

Synthesis and Conclusion

If we wish to synthesize and summarize Sacred Scripture’s evaluation of voluntary pain infliction, especially from the diachronic standpoint of its progressive development over more than a millennium of biblical history, the following points arising from the above data and observations would seem to be most noteworthy.

First, in the only Scriptural passage (2 Ma 7) clearly dealing with torture in the most common sense of that word in Western history, namely, extreme pain threatened and inflicted for the purpose of coercing the will, we find that the horrendous instance of that practice narrated in the said passage is reprobated in no uncertain terms by the sacred writer: it is "inhuman", "cruel" and "unholy" (cf. A17). On the other hand, we saw that this ethical condemnation is qualified by two circumstances: first, by its being directed primarily at the unjust end pursued by the torturer and only secondarily at the terrible means by which he pursues that end; and secondly, by its being directed only at the human agent of this suffering, for, at a transcendent level of causation, the same suffering is interpreted as having a just, divinely-approved purgative or expiative purpose in preparing the heroic Jewish brothers for their eternal reward. Therefore, especially in the absence of any clear New Testament reference to torture inflicted for such purposes, the negative biblical evaluation of this practice as such, found as it is only in 2 Maccabees, is not quite unequivocal. However, it is certainly true – and important – to say that, at the very least, Sacred Scripture nowhere authorizes or endorses will-coercing torture in any shape or form.

On the other hand, the infliction of grave physical pain as punishment, even unto death, for offences already committed is clearly depicted as morally just in principle in the Old Testament; for it is explicitly prescribed in the Mosaic Law for malefactors, and is also sometimes inflicted – temporally, not just eschatologically – by direct divine causation. However, we find already in the Old Covenant a brief recognition of the seminal principle that disproportionate torment offends against the culprit’s human dignity, "degrading" or "disgracing" him in the eyes of his fellows (cf. A8, Dt 25: 3). Jesus as New Lawgiver then develops this principle notably. First, he disapproves the physical brutality of the Mosaic lex talionis in the interests of a higher ethic of patience, gentleness and forbearing in the face of injury or insult. In the same vein, he responds firmly in the negative on the only two occasions narrated in the Gospels when he is directly invited to approve or facilitate the actual infliction of a grievously painful death which, according to Old Covenant precedents, would be entirely just and appropriate (cf. B3, B7 above). True, our Lord never teaches or even implies that such chastisement is per se unjust; in fact, he himself fleetingly inflicts physical pain on those profaning his Father’s sanctity and honor in the temple. Indeed, paradoxically, the New Testament’s markedly greater emphasis on the need for clemency toward evildoers on the part of their fellow men is accompanied by much clearer and more frequent warnings than in the Old Testament of the far worse torment – the eternal ‘worm’ and ‘fire’ of Gehenna – decreed by divine justice for the finally impenitent.

Reconciling the tension between God’s mercy and his justice – the stark opposition between Heaven and Hell – has of course long been recognized as a difficult theological problem from our limited human vantage point, and in the final analysis is probably one of the ‘mysteries of faith’ which we will never understand fully, at least in this life. However, the other seeming inconsistency – that between the extreme severity of God’s own eschatological chastisement and the temporal clemency by and for human beings which Jesus both preaches and practices – is possibly best resolved in terms of the two reasons he himself gives, respectively, on those two key occasions already referred to (cf. B3, B7).

First, the Gospel spotlight broadens the Old Law’s range of ethical evaluation so as to highlight now the flaws in those who seek to inflict corporal punishment, as well in those who putatively deserve it. "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone" establishes the inappropriateness – indeed, hypocrisy – of too much suffering being administered in the name of justice by one who is himself a sinner – as we all are. (Cf. also Mt 7: 1-5 about first ‘removing the plank’ from our own eye, etc., and B2 above, the parable of the unmerciful steward.) Secondly our Lord’s rebuke to the ‘sons of thunder’ (at least in the older Vulgate version of B3 and many others) – "The Son of Man came not to destroy souls but to save them" – emphasizes that the present course of human history, unlike the end-time of the parousia, is the time for patience, forgiveness, and repeated opportunities for repentance and reform. Here the parable of the wheat and the darnel is also highly relevant: let us not be too quick and ruthless in ‘weeding out’ the latter; for we might "uproot the wheat along with it" (Mt 13: 29). If even he who will eventually come ‘to judge the living and the dead’ now practices this patience and forbearance toward evildoers, then a fortiori his disciples should do likewise. Mutatis mutandis, the same principles will apply in the smaller, but equally important, theatre of the home (and the school), in regard to the discipline of wayward children.

These biblical principles would seem to lay the foundation for a coherent account of the gradual development of Catholic doctrine on the ethics of inflicting of bodily pain. First, there is no evidence of approval in either Old or New Testaments of torture for the purpose of coercing the will. Then, as regards similar extreme pain as punishment for offences already committed, the fullness of revelation in Christ, without ever reaching the point of condemning such penalties as absolutely and intrinsically unjust, emphasizes mercy and forbearance – taking account of both the human sinfulness of the judge and the human dignity of the malefactor – to the maximum extent compatible with preserving public order in a society formed by Gospel principles. The eventual abolition in practice of these extreme measures from such a society in accordance with a changing common estimation of the needs of both human dignity and public order remains, therefore, in fundamental harmony with the fullness of biblical revelation. The requirements of mercy merge, for practical purposes, with the requirements of justice.


1. All Scriptural citations in this essay are from the Jerusalem Bible.

2. Translations other than the JB do not generally include "rack" in Si 33: 27. Possibly some other kind of confining device is referred to here. Perhaps not quite qualifying as torture was the extended and severe discomfort of being confined in the stocks. While not prescribed by the Mosaic law, this was subsequently practiced in Israel (cf. Jr 20: 2; 29: 26), and in other societies in biblical times (cf. Ac 16: 24).

3. After their settlement in the Promised Land, the Israelites supplemented the corporal penalties originating in the desert with imprisonment. The latter is frequently mentioned, for instance, in 2 Ch 16: 10; 18: 26, Jr 37: 15-16; Ezra 7: 26; Ne 3: 25. Imprisonment was also commonly practiced in other ancient Near Eastern pre-Christian societies, for example, Egypt (cf. Gn 39: 20-23), the Philistines (cf. Ju 16: 21), Assyria (cf. 2 Ki 17: 4), and Babylon (cf. 2 Ki 25: 27; Jr 52: 11), as well as in New Testament times by both Jews and Gentiles. Of course, conditions in ancient prisons were generally so harsh (often replete with chains, irons, stocks, rats, lice, lack of light and air, miserable food, no sanitation, etc.) that an extended stay in prison could very well be considered a variant form of torture.

4. Are the books of Proverbs and Sirach in "error", then, in teaching that the thrashing of boys, administered with some severity and frequency, is a necessary condition for their future rectitude as adults? Not necessarily. Given the cultural conditions and social expectations of that time, when frequent physical suffering and the harsh corporal punishment of criminals were universally accepted as normal aspects of life, such teaching may well have reflected the practical folk-wisdom of popular experience. In a society where a father’s stern corporal punishment of his sons was expected as normal discipline, its absence may well have been frequently perceived as weakness, and so have tended to lead in practice to rebelliousness and insubordination on the part of adolescent males.

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