A Cautious Man
April 27, 2009
Teaching Torture
Over at dotCommonweal, one of the writers "promoted" a comment to an earlier post about the Obama-Notre Dame kerfuffle (which we may get around to here, eventually). The commenter had asked, "What about torture?"

The reason I write this is that over the few weeks, but particularly this week, we as a people and country are witnessing a particularly salient “teaching moment” occur before us in the political sphere.

With the release of the torture memos and future release of the torture pictures in May…we have spread before us what must be considered at least a serious sin and participation in evil that if not addressed will continue and lead to - if not spiritual and moral, then our own existential disaster.

It’s just great that we as a Catholic Church are making our voice heard about the controversy over ND and Obama. Where are we in making the same kind of life issue arguments over a practice that is/has been developing NOW and has dire consequences for us all.

I am as “pro-life” as anybody… But lots of people like me and other Catholics I know would like to know why such energetic condemnations over the issue of abortion (in and of itself as a practice) but less energy and almost no pronouncement on other human dignity concerns…as if people who torture or accept torture as public policy would not also in a crunch turn to abortion if it suited their purpose/end.

It's not as if the U.S. Catholic Bishops have been silent on the issue of torture, it's just that they haven't been "noisy enough" to get people to pay attention. One Bishop can get full-court press coverage if he criticizes President Obama or gay marriage, but when the whole cohort of American Catholic Bishops issues a document on the immorality of torture, it's like a tree falling in a forest.

Last year, the Bishops issued a study guide, entitled "Torture is a Moral Issue" (link is a PDF of the 39 page document). As stated in the Introduction to that study guide:

Catholics enter into the public discussion of the great issues their society faces because they hope to contribute—in the light of faith—to resolving these issues. There is, in addition, the confidence that people of faith can contribute in highly positive ways to building up and transforming the world around them.

With that in mind, two basic convictions give shape to this discussion guide:

-- First, that torture is a moral issue, one that deserves to be understood and addressed by Christians.

-- Second, that an atmosphere of fear and desperation within society opens the door to the torture and abuse of prisoners, but that there is much Christians can do to help create a new atmosphere within society – an atmosphere in which respect for human dignity rules the day.

It seems to me that this point of view strikes at the heart of all of the rationalizations or word games which are coming from the pro-torture - excuse me, "pro-enhanced interrogation techniques" - side.

As an appendix, the guide reprints a letter sent in December of 2007 by the Chair of the International Policy Committee of the Bishop's Conference, to Congress when anti-torture legislation was under consideration. As stated in that letter:

We share the concern of lawmakers and citizens for the safety of U.S. soldiers and civilians serving abroad in these times of great uncertainty and danger. In the face of this perilous climate, our nation must not embrace a morality based on an attitude that “desperate times call for desperate measures” or “the end justifies the means.” The inherent justice of our cause and the perceived necessities involved in confronting terrorism must not lead to a weakening or disregard of U.S. or international law.

Among other documents referenced in the Study Guide is the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, issued by the Potifical Council for Justice and Peace at the Vatican, which states in Section 404 in no uncertain terms:

In carrying out investigations, the regulation against the use of torture, even in the case of serious crimes, must be strictly observed: “Christ's disciple refuses every recourse to such methods, which nothing could justify and in which the dignity of man is as much debased in his torturer as in the torturer's victim”. International juridical instruments concerning human rights correctly indicate a prohibition against torture as a principle which cannot be contravened under any circumstances.

Now, this is not an argument in favor of having religious views imposed on a secular society. However, when people in this country are wrestling with questions of right and wrong involving actions directly undertaken by our government in our name, I believe that some of the above advice should be more widely considered.

[Edited on 4/28/09] I should have looked for more recent material, about anti-torture efforts. For example, the name of the chair of the Bishop's Committee on International Justice and Peace is at the top of a long list of signatories of a letter issued by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, addressed to President Obama prior to the inauguration, asking for a ban on torture:

While we represent a wide diversity of America’s faith traditions, we all believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all human life. Respect for the dignity of every person must serve as the foundation for security, justice and peace. Torture is incompatible with the tenets of our faiths and is contrary to international and U.S. law.

We have enclosed a Declaration of Principles for a Presidential Executive Order banning torture which has been endorsed by religious leaders, and foreign affairs specialists and former military officers. We respectfully ask you to review this Declaration of Principles and issue an executive order on Inauguration Day or as early as possible. We believe such a step will help the United States to regain the moral high ground and restore our credibility within the international community at this critical time.



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