Would you support water-boarding terror suspects under certain circumstances? Fox News' Chris Wallace asked those gathered on a stage in South Carolina last week at an event billed as the first Republican presidential primary. Raising their hands to signify that they would support water-boarding were Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza; Tim Pawlentey, former governor of Minnesota; and Rick Santorum, former senator from Pennsylvania.
What is so astonishing about this 29-second clip is that these men say they endorse a practice that is basically simulated drowning, a technique widely considered to be an act of torture (former POW John McCain is among those who consider it torture). Would the applause from the audience have been somewhat muted had Wallace dropped the euphemisms and asked, Would you torture a terrorsuspect?
Over at The Dish, Andrew Sullivan wonders if Catholic Church leaders, specifically bishops, will offer similar warnings to Catholic politicians who support torture as they give to those who support liberal abortion laws. Santorum often identifies himself as a deeply devout Catholic, and he is a loud voice in opposition to abortion and gay marriage. On these issues, Santorum certainly echoes the views of Catholic bishops (if not the Catholic laity). But on the issue of torture, Santorum clearly deviates from church teaching. Sullivan asks:
What are the odds that they will consider denying him communion for backing the torture of terror suspects?
In fairness, only a handful of vocal bishops ever threaten to deny communion to pro-choice politicians, but like Sullivan, I doubt that we will see this sort of threat employed against pro-torture Catholic politicians (nor should it be; the eucharist is not a political weapon). And running alongside Santorum will be another Catholic, Republican Newt Gingrich, who talks openly of his deep faith in the church. Gingrich is more coy about his views on water-boarding, though he has not yet been pressed on the issue in a debate.
The debate about the effectiveness of torture is beginning again, with those who supported using it during the Bush presidency claiming vindication in the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden (despite the growing consensus that torture, or enhanced interrogation, played no role in collecting intelligence that led to his demise). The debate will surely grow louder in the coming months, and church leaders have an opportunity to offer a much needed moral perspective on the issue.
Rather than threaten to deny communion to Santorum and others like him, the bishops and other church leaders might muster the same energy that is given toward anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage campaigns to explain why torture is radically at odds with a culture of life. Just as some on the Catholic-right cringe when they see John Kerry or Nancy Pelosi take communion in light of their support for abortion rights, those on the Catholic-left are equally dismayed when a self-identifying Catholic stands on stage and raises his hand in support of torturing another human being. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be as much vigor in denouncing the latter as there is for the former. If both abortion and torture are considered to be affronts to the dignity of the human person, the church should speak up boldly and clearly.
I once read that American bishops are much more zealous on issues of abortion than their European brethren, not because they are more pro-life, but because the legality of abortion in Europe is a much more settled issue than in the US. As a result, bishops there tend to focus their energy and resources on areas where they might have greater influence. Now I would not advocate that the church in America drop its concern for what it sees as the primary life issue, but perhaps in an election cycle where the fate of liberal abortion laws may not realistically be threatened (conservative House Republicans, among them some Catholics, valued a smaller budget over restricted funding for abortion just a couple months ago), perhaps the church could have a major and meaningful impact on the debate surrounding torture. The message could be clear. One cannot be Catholic and support torture. One cannot be pro-life and pro-torture. Imagine the impact that this message could have over the course of the next several months, when at least two Catholic politicians will clamor for the Republican nomination.
(Fomer America editor Thomas J. Reese, SJ, offers his thoughts on torture in a 2007 Washington Post blog entry and Kenneth R. Himes, OFM, wrote a piece for America last month entitled "Divided on Torture")
Michael J. O'Loughlin