There is no ‘Christian’ torture

By Steve Patti, OFM

There is a new book called “Courting Disaster: How the C.I.A. Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama is Inviting the Next Attack,” by Marc A. Thiessen. In the book, the author makes the claim that waterboarding, a form of torture that we have become familiar with over the past few years, is not only useful and desirable, but also permitted by the teachings of the Catholic Church. Thiessen describes himself as a practicing Roman Catholic.

Thiessen draws on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states, “the defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to do harm.”

In his book he writes: “If this principle applies to taking human life, it must certainly apply to coercive interrogation as well. A captured terrorist is an unjust aggressor who retains the power to kill many thousands by withholding information about planned attacks.”

In a recent homily at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church here in Durham, I asked the question: As Catholics, how do we respond to Marc Thiessen’s claim? As Catholics, can we ever justify torture?

It’s a sensitive issue for sure. Almost nine years after September 11, 2001, that day haunts us still. We will never forget the images from that day. I remember a cartoon that appeared in the newspaper a week or so after the attacks. It showed a person looking at a computer screen, right hand on the mouse, ready to click, and on the screen were two words – “freedom” and “security.” Which do you choose? We still wrestle with that question today.

It’s a sensitive issue as well because some of our brothers and sisters or sons and daughters or friends or neighbors have bravely served, and continue to serve, in our armed services.

When torture came up during the war in Iraq, you sometimes heard people say “you have to do what you have to do in times of war.” Or “sometimes what Jesus says in the gospel doesn’t work in the real world. We have to be realistic.”

Whatever we might think about torture or “coercive interrogation,” the teaching of the Catholic Church is that torture is wrong.

“The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” a document from the Second Vatican Council, refers to the words of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew, “As you did to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”

The document then powerfully lists what it calls “varieties of crimes” against these brothers and sisters. These include: “all offenses against life itself, such as murder, genocide, abortion and euthanasia; all violations of the integrity of the human person, such as physical and mental torture, undue psychological pressures; all offenses against human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, the selling of women and children, degrading working conditions where people are treated as mere tools for profit rather than free and responsible persons: all these and the like are criminal: they poison civilization; and they debase the perpetrators more than the victims and militate against the honor of the creator.”

This is strong language. Torture “debases the perpetrators.”

In a survey taken in 2005, it was revealed that 74 percent of Catholics agreed that torture can be justified in at least rare occasions.

In my homily, I asked the question, what happens to us (Catholics, or Americans) when we unreflectively accept a policy of torture from our government? I asked the question conscious and respectful of the brave military service of our troops. I asked the question, as well, very aware of the evil that was committed against our nation by the terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001.

Still, these words from the Second Vatican Council haunt us: Are we, in some way, “debased” by our acceptance, or justification, of torture?

As a Franciscan friar, I am drawn to the life and witness of St. Francis of Assisi, who lived 800 years ago in the times of the Crusades. The East was at war with the West. Christians were fighting Muslims. Thousands were dying. St. Francis, drawing from his own experience of the gospel and its call to peace and reconciliation, sailed from Italy across the Mediterranean Sea to Egypt, marched through the Christian/Muslim battle lines, and asked to meet with the Sultan, the head of the Muslims. The soldiers, perhaps surprised by such a bold gesture on the part of this small, dressed-in-rags man, allowed him through. And as the story is told, Francis and the Sultan spoke, respectfully, of each other’s faith, and their own hopes for peace.

Was Francis naïve? Was he a fool for trying something so bold, so risky?

Maybe he was.

But he took the gospel and its call to radically re-think one’s life, its call to every person to be a bearer of peace and reconciliation, very seriously.

As a nation that refers to itself as Christian, can we do the same?