For Catholics, There’s Something About Torture


Vatican City

Vatican City

Source: The Huffington Post

By Associate Professor of Religious Studies, College of the Holy Cross

For many American Catholics, there’s something about torture: something that makes it complicated and difficult to discuss.

With the publication of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report, national debate finally seems to have shifted from whether “enhanced interrogation practices” constituted torture. Now the question seems to be not only what we should learn from this period in recent American history but what we should do about it: particularly what we should do about those in power who gave sanction to such heinous acts in the name of defending America and its values.

As far as Catholic values are concerned, the position regarding torture is quite clear. The Catholic Catechism considers and condemns torture under the broader rubric of “You Shall Love Your Neighbor as Yourself” and the 5th Commandment “You shall not kill” . Section 2297 of the Catechism states explicitly that “Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.”

Indeed, in the Catechism torture is explicitly placed alongside kidnapping, hostage taking, and terrorism. This is by no means a politically weighted list–it simply reflects clear Catholic teaching on a number of pressing and difficult moral issues.

Some of the best writing against torture can be found in Catholic periodicals. So, it would be wrong to say that the Catholic response to American torture and torturers has been an all-encompassing silence.

But torture has met with silence in some Catholic circles that are concerned with torture’s blood brother, terrorism. Catholic Islamophobia can run deep and talk about the apocalyptic nature of the “Muslim threat” often echoes themes that would be familiar to medieval Crusaders and their clerical supporters. For some Catholics, it seems relatively unproblematic to believe that Muslim bodies have less a right to integrity than Christian ones.

In other circles, there has been a response, but it has been rather muted. The Catholic Bishops Council of America does have a page on Human Rights/Torture. Included is testimony from Richard E. Pates, Bishop of Des Moines, urging the release of Senate report on the CIA. Las Cruces Bishop Oscar Cantu was also quoted by Vatican radio saying the most recent revelations reveal how the CIA has “betrayed the nation’s values.”

But American Catholics are still waiting for a comprehensive response from the Catholic hierarchy to the report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. And this is something American Catholics should rightfully expect, since we have grown accustomed to our bishops being quite vocal in their calls to resist other violations of justice on the part of America’s government.

Perhaps one reason for such a range of responses has to do with the Catholic Church’s long history of being complicit in torture. The Catholic Catechism confesses this history with only slight qualification, acknowledging that the Church itself often did not protest the “cruel practices commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order.” Of course, the history of the Inquisition shows that there was a veritable theology of torture and confession–deeply disturbing but also deeply Catholic.

More recently, the Catholic Church has been implicated in supporting governments, particularly in Latin America, that practiced torture. In fact, one of the more complex and controversial aspects of the career of Jose Mario Bergoglio was whether he himself did enough to prevent torture of two of his brother Jesuits during Argentina’s “dirty war” in the 1970s.

For American Catholics to confront American torture, we have to confront our own tortured and torturing history as a church.

And this history brings us to what is a perennial issue for Catholicism: its connection with political power.

For decades in the United States, the Catholic Church worked hand in glove with the Democratic Party. Over the last two decades, that relationship has changed, and the American Catholic hierarchy–as well as many individual Catholics–has displayed a greater comfort with the politics and policies of the Republican Party.

This close connection makes condemning torture under a Republican administration an act that involves a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance. Not surprisingly, among some Catholics the response is not to define things like waterboarding as torture, but to define them away. I have yet to read a defense of rectal feeding as a corporal work of mercy, but I would not be surprised if to stumble across one among Catholic torture apologists in cyberspace.

One of the Supreme Court’s most prominent Catholics, Antonin Scalia, recently remarked on the whole torture question by proffering a hypothetical about torturing someone who might have information about a ticking nuclear bomb. Justice Scalia remarked that it was “facile for people to say: ‘Oh, torture is terrible.‘”

The issues surrounding torture are indeed complex. But if it is facile to ignore their complexity, it is even more facile to pretend that politics hasn’t often trumped principle when it comes to discussing American torture and American torturers. Not only is torture itself tempting, talking about it can lead to other temptations too. For many American Catholics, the temptation in talking about torture lies in not only in valuing what is expedient over what is right but also in privileging the American over the Catholic.

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