Call it the Jack Bauer syndrome, but large numbers of Americans, especially since 9-11, have concluded that torture is okay. Indeed, large numbers of American Christians have concluded that this is true, even Roman Catholics, whose own social teachings rule it out. Indeed, not only are there religious conventions against it, there is the UN Convention Against Torture, to which the US is a signatory, that also rules against such "techniques" as water boarding. In today's Sightings, Sidney Callahan focuses on this issue in light of the work of The National Religious Campaign Against Torture. I invite you to read and respond to this informative essay, considering how a person of faith can assent to such acts (while also acknowledging that historically we have not only assented but participated).
The National Religious Campaign Against Torture
-- Sidney Callahan
For many Christians a banner reading “Torture Is A Moral Issue” does not begin to describe torture's inherent evil. Nevertheless when our affluent Roman Catholic parish erected a “Torture Is Wrong” banner on the church lawn, some parishioners complained. This display was considered objectionable because it was “political.”
Polls have shown that more Republican Catholics approve of torture than Catholic Democrats. Fifty percent of Americans think that torture is justified against suspected terrorists “often” and “sometimes,” according to a May 2011 poll by Roper Public Affairs. These results compare with Pew Research Center findings that almost half of Americans, polled since 2004, think torture is justified in order to gain important intelligence information. Half of American Catholics in the Pew data approve of torture, with higher rates of acceptance correlated with frequency of church attendance.
In response, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture was founded in 2006. Their mission is to eradicate use of torture and change attitudes towards it. Enrolled members consist of a broad-based group of religious communities who join in educational programs, petitions and protests. In June an awareness campaign included the display of banners reading “Torture Is Wrong,” and “Torture Is A Moral Issue” outside churches. Other distributed materials and programs seek to provide accurate information to members.
The campaign seeks to inform church members that under the UN Convention Against Torture, signed by the United States, torture is always illegal and forbidden, despite exceptions made under the Bush administration. The UN defines as torture the use of waterboarding and other cruel Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs). Ironically those who used waterboarding were prosecuted by the US government because waterboarding was considered a war crime when employed by the Japanese in WWII, yet it has admittedly been used by CIA interrogators. Comparable torture techniques used against captured American prisoners in the Vietnam War were also seen to be equally illegal and immoral.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church state that the prohibition against torture is “a principle that cannot be contravened under any circumstance.” This prohibition follows the scriptural teaching of St. Paul who in Romans 3:8 proclaimed that doing evil to achieve good is forbidden. During the Inquisition the Church itself tortured and burned victims’ bodies “for the good of their souls,” a practice now recognized as a sinful violation to be repented. The fact that torture was legal in all European law codes until the reforms of the eighteenth century was no excuse, only compounding the failures of Christendom.
Now NRCAT petitions are directed at Obama and his administration concerning torture in US prisons, and the abuse of solitary confinement. Most crucially, the campaign seeks to publicize the upcoming Senate Intelligence Committee Investigation of CIA interrogation practices. The use of prolonged indefinite detention without trial is also being protested as an abusive practice.
Catholics explicitly affirm that each human is created in the image of God and is an equal member of God’s family. Even more to the point are the words of Jesus Christ when he proclaimed that whatever you do to the least of these human bodies you do to me. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture calls its member congregations to fulfill their core commitment to compassion by recognizing the primacy of the moral prohibition against torture.
Marjorie Cohn, “Torture Is Never Legal And Didn’t Lead Us To Bin Laden,” MarjorieCohn.com, May 13, 2011.
Vincent Iacopino, Scott A. Allen and Allen S. Keller, “Bad Science Used to Support Torture and Human Experimentation,” Science volume 331, January 7, 2011.
Kenneth R. Himes, "Divided On Torture: How To Build A Public Consensus For The Moral Treatment of Detainees," America, April 18, 2011.
Sidney Callahan is a Distinguished Scholar at The Hastings Center.
Editor's Note: Sightings will be on hiatus for the month of July and will return in August.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.