In a New York Times column today , Mark Oppenheimer reviews the controversy surrounding former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen’s efforts to square waterboarding with Catholic moral doctrine. Mr. Thiessen has some ill-informed views, and Mr. Oppenheimer seems to have failed to do his homework.

First error: Thiessen mishandles the principle of double effect.

The principle of double effect tries to distinguish the goal or intention of an action from its likely outcome. Let’s say that a woman’s life is threatened by a cancerous tumor in her uterus”and she is also pregnant. The principle of double effect allows us to distinguish between what the doctor intends to do as he removes the cancerous tumor, which is to cut it out, from what he foresees to be a result, which is not just the removal of the cancer but also the likely spontaneous abortion of the fetus.

St. Thomas applies this principle to self-defense, not because killing an unjust aggressor is wrong, but because Jesus seems to prohibit killing in self-defense when he tells us to turn the other cheek. Here is how the reasoning works. A man attacks me in the dark. In order to protect myself, I grab a pipe and hit him over the head. I intend to defend myself, but I foresee that the hard blow may well kill him.

There are two important constraints to the principle of double effect.

First, double effect can never be used to justify an intrinsically evil act, and for the obvious reason that intentionally undertaking intrinsically evil acts cannot, by definition, be justified. John Paul II was crystal clear on this point in Veritatis Splendor . So let’s go back to the examples. There is nothing immoral about removing cancerous tumors. There is also nothing immoral about killing assailants who pose an immediate threat to innocent life (again, the moral problem for St. Thomas rests in self-defense, not using lethal force against aggressors.)

Waterboarding? If it is torture, then it is immoral in itself. Double effect can’t change that fact.

Second, the key test for the proper use of double effect is to determine if it is possible to separate intention from outcome. What if the fetus is viable? If so, then the doctor can remove the child, send him or her to neo-natal care, and then turn to the job of cutting out the cancer. What if the assailant does not die? I can call and ambulance, and hopefully save his life.

On precisely the point of distinguishing intention from outcome, Thiessen gives double effect a bad name. As Oppenheimer reports, Mr. Thiessen argues, “the intent of the interrogator is not to cause harm to the detainee; rather, it is to render the aggressor unable to cause harm to society.” In effect, Theissen is saying, “I’m sorry to inflict pain on you my dear Sheik, but I’m not really intending to do so, I just want information.” The spurious reasoning is obvious. What is intended is exactly what is intended”to inflict pain for the sake of extracting information. Imagine an abortionist saying, “I didn’t intend to kill the fetus; rather, the procedure was done solely to render it unable to cause psychological harm to the mother by remaining alive.” Or closer to home: “We didn’t intend to kill tens of thousands of people in Hiroshima; rather, the nuclear blast was solely for the purpose of persuading the Japanese to surrender.” These are exculpatory pseudo-distinctions.

Finally, Oppenheimer lets a howler go by. “Mr. Thiessen points out, correctly,” we read, “that the church does not forbid specific acts.” Huh? Last I checked the Church forbids quite a few specific acts: abortion being an obvious example. Thus the Catechism: “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion” (#2271). I find myself wondering: which part of every doesn’t Thiessen understand? It is true that the Catechism treats torture as contrary to human dignity, not specifying that all acts of torture are intrinsically evil (#2297). But the emphasis certainly falls on the side of prohibition, not permission.

The Catholic Church gives a great deal of leeway to public officials when it comes to the determining conditions for the legitimate use of force to forestall evildoers and protect the common good (see the Catechism, #2309), but the Church does not write a blank check. Intrinsically evil acts are never justifiable, and actions that assault human dignity are censured. Furthermore, the Church certainly does not endorse the corrupt use of double effect that Thiessen puts forward.

R.R. Reno, senior editor at large of First Things , is a professor of theology at Creighton University.

Articles by R. R. Reno


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