What Catholic Teaching Has to Say
BY JOAN FRAWLEY DESMOND
May 17-23, 2009 Issue | Posted 5/8/09 at 7:02 AM
WASHINGTON — The release of an official memorandum outlining U.S. government-approved torture of suspected al-Qaida operatives has provoked a national debate on the use of harsh interrogation techniques.
Yet, the ensuing political firestorm not only reveals widespread confusion and disagreements regarding the morality, lawfulness and effectiveness of torture; it also exposes fissures within the Catholic community regarding the relationship between the moral prohibition against torture and Church teaching on other life issues.
While experts debate whether or not water boarding constitutes torture, many Catholics suggest that in cases of imminent threat, the “ends justify the means.”
Seeking to educate their flock and influence public policy, the U.S. Catholic bishops have presented the moral foundations of the Church’s position on torture in statements issued over the last year.
At a January press conference organized by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, John Carr, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, reviewed the fundamental moral principles at work.
“Pope Benedict XVI has said that the prohibition against torture ‘cannot be contravened under any circumstances.’ Simply put, torture is a classic moral case of ends and means,” said Carr. “Good ends cannot legitimize immoral means. In the context of torture, we cannot defend our life and dignity by threatening the lives and attacking the dignity of others.”
But recent polls signaling increased support for the use of torture during times of national crisis suggest Church leaders will have to work harder to impart Catholic teaching, particularly when they seek to influence a debate that has become deeply politicized.
“The teaching of the Catholic Church could not be more clear,” said Notre Dame law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell. “In Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World), one of the central documents of the Second Vatican Council, in Veritatis Splendor (Pope John Paul II’s encyclical The Splendor of Truth), and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, physical and mental torture are deemed intrinsically evil.”
The Church, said O’Connell, is in the forefront of supporting the principles that provide the foundation for international law, including the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. “Convention Against Torture.” “Universal law and moral principles bind us as a community,” she noted.
A legal expert on interrogations married to a former military interrogator, O’Connell describes torture as “always immoral, unlawful and impractical.”
In her classroom, however, some students question this assessment, arguing that torture “works” and helps keep America safe. O’Connell said it can be a struggle for students to understand that “as Catholics, we should resist attempts to place the United States, or any state, above the law.”
‘A Nation of Laws’
When the Department of Justice released the four classified memos on the interrogation of suspected terrorists issued by the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel between 2002 and 2005, President Obama issued a statement outlining a number of practical reasons for releasing the memos and for prohibiting the application of techniques that “undermine our moral authority and do not make us safer.”
“Enlisting our values in the protection of our people makes us stronger and more secure,” Obama said. “A democracy as resilient as ours must reject the false choice between our security and our ideals.”
The president’s statement affirmed that the “United States is a nation of laws. My administration will always act in accordance with those laws, and with an unshakeable commitment to our ideals.”
Then, during a visit to the CIA designed to reassure intelligence officers and field agents that he backed their efforts, the president went a step further and acknowledged that his anti-torture policy carried a measure of risk.
“I’m sure that sometimes it seems as if that means we’re operating with one hand tied behind our back or that those who would argue for a higher standard are naive,” he told agents. But “what makes the United States special … is precisely the fact that we are willing to uphold our values and our ideals even when it’s hard, not just when it’s easy.”
The president’s implicit acknowledgement that — with regards to torture — the ends do not justify the means, earned approval from Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. bishops’ Pro-life Secretariat.
“It was a good statement against a utilitarian approach to the government’s treatment of human beings,” said Doerflinger. “Logically, these values and ideals should be applied in all contexts and across the entire spectrum of human life.”
A pro-life activist who spends a good deal of time drafting statements opposing Obama’s policies on abortion and embryo-killing stem-cell research, Doerflinger has long observed the inconsistent application of moral principles on Capitol Hill. “Each society and political faction has its exceptions and its blind spots,” he said. “But the Church is against any attack on the dignity of the human person.”
During one week in January, he recalled, the U.S. bishops issued statements applauding Obama’s executive order banning torture and criticizing his reversal of the Mexico City Policy banning U.S. funds for abortion advocacy abroad. “A cynic might say that the president should respect embryos with the same commitment that he respects suspected terrorists,” observed Doerflinger.
Practical and Moral
In fact, while Obama has remained an outspoken opponent of the use of torture, his recent public statements have not specified the precise national “ideals” or moral principles violated by the Bush policy condoning the coercive interrogation of three terrorist suspects from 2002 to 2005.
Further, judging from the “memos” and other recent news stories retracing the internal debate within the Bush administration and the CIA regarding the use of coercive interrogation techniques, the Office of Legal Counsel also kept the focus on “the facts” that provided the necessary context for evaluating the utility and legality of the methods under review.
Patrick Buchanan, the conservative commentator and author, understands why the memos focused on “the facts” that provide the context for the interrogations, though he is cautious about endorsing or repudiating the legal counsel they supply.
“I don’t like the term, ‘torture.’ I’d rather focus on the moral action itself. If it is moral at times to take human life in self-defense, then it may be moral, at times, to do something much less serious — inflict pain for the purpose of saving the lives of thousands from an imminent terrorist attack.”
Buchanan says he would like the “people who recommended this policy to stand up and defend their decision.” But the spectacle of Bush-era lawyers publicly defending their legal judgment appears unlikely, to say the least. Republicans worry that the memos’ release has harmed national security, but they also fear that politically dominant Democrats may prosecute Bush administration officials who provided legal approval for torture.
Michael Novak, the theologian and author, questions whether critics of the Bush White House have fully considered the moral and practical complexities attendant in the post-9/11 era. “I respect those moralists who say, ‘never,’ and I believe we must come as close to ‘never’ as the extremities of some human situations allow,” said Novak, “and even in such extremities, great legal, medical and moral care must be used so as not to do lasting harm to the one interrogated.”
After a moment’s reflection, Novak proffers, “a test case for every moralist to answer truthfully: Would they allow such strictly limited interrogation in order to save the lives of the 10 or 12 people they love the most, or would they allow those people to perish for want of timely information? Either way, each moralist is complicit in the outcome.”
Clearly, some Catholics believe it is unjust to condemn as “torturers” government officials who issued legal judgments intended to protect American lives.
But Thomas Romig, the dean of Washburn University School of Law and the former judge advocate general of the U.S. Army from 2001 to 2005, wants the public to grasp the strong connection between the moral and practical reasons for prohibiting torture.
“It’s a very slippery slope when you make an exception to the ban on torture. Once the word got out that we were making exceptions, it caused serious confusion in detention centers,” Romig recalled.
“We have always been the gold standard in the treatment of detainees and people captured on the battlefield,” he said. “If we want to see treaties enforced, we have to live up to a high standard.”
Joan Frawley Desmond writes
from Chevy Chase, Maryland.