Speaking Out Against Torture

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 terrorTorture is Wrongsuspect? 


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 




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Adam Rasmussen
7 years 10 months ago
We do need Catholics (bishops, clergy, and laity) to take a public stance against torture, just as we need them to take a public stand against abortion. Both are, we believe, gravely evil and should be criminal. I think, though, that if one were going to press Santorum (or whomever) on the issue of waterboarding, one would expect the immediate counter-argument will be that waterboarding isn't torture. The Catholic faith has not answered that question definitively, so Santorum isn't necessarily being a bad Catholic by saying that it's not torture. Now, if he knows in his heart of hearts that it really is torture, then is indeed violating Catholic morals. But if he honestly believes that it's not torture, then someone will have to convince him that it is torture-which can be done only by appealing to the facts, not by appealing to the Catholic faith or Catholic teachings.
7 years 10 months ago
Tell us the truth.  Do you want the bishops to deny communion for those who support torture and abortion or do you just want them to shut up about abortion?

It's easy to draw a line about killing an innocent but it is more difficult to draw a line about interrogation and trying to save lives.  No?  Be honest.  Is the comparison between abortion and waterboarding really appropriate?  Seems like you have a hang up about the churches desire to end abortion.  No?
Benjamin Alexander
7 years 10 months ago
I think the more interesting point is that the libertarian-leaning Republicans (Johnson and Paul) were the only ones to say they were NOT in favor of using torture. It's worth noting given the beating the small government advocates have gotten on this blog.
7 years 10 months ago
I am against torture in all cases; however, it is a rather cheap rhetorical trick (typical for Sullivan) to try to compare (or equate) the moral gravity of opposition to the millions of human lives destroyed each and every year via abortion with the technique of simulated drowning used against a handful of terrorism suspects.

If your moral compass still works - i.e., it has not been distorted by political ideology - it is plain to see that one of these things is not like the other.

Tom Maher
7 years 10 months ago
These claims of torture by CIA interrogators are  politics of the lowest kind.  CIA are serving the nation and are not political opponents to be destroyed by unbounded politcs of destruction.  These claims against government personnel are unprecedented and are the latest of many other false claims against dedicated mililitary and intelligence gathering personnel who are defending the country from further terror attacks since 9/11 which have continued to occurred to the present.

Attorney General Eric Holder is now re-investigating CIA operative for potential criminal violation of the law for the irinterrogaton of captured terrorist suspects.  These same operatives were investigated and cleared in 2007.  But now with a new administration their actions are being reinterpreted and re-investigated. 

Everyone serving our nation demonst rather their service at the direction of the President is of little regard if the politics of a new adminstration are different than the old adminstration.  Serving the country? during the war counts for little when a new  a?d?mistration's ?politcal ??j?u?d?g?e?m?e?n?t? ?a?r?e? ?m?o?r?e? ?p?a?r?t?i?s?a?n? ?a?n?d? ?????????????m?o?r?e? ??r???a???d????i?????????????????c?a?l?l?y??  ??di???f???f???e?????????????????r?????ent? ?t??h?a?n? ????????
?a?n?y? ?a?d?m?i?n?i?s?t?a?r?t?i?o?n? ?b?e?f?o?r?e??? .????  ??????????????????????
7 years 10 months ago
"On these issues, Santorum certainly echoes the views of Catholic bishops (if not the Catholic laity)."

Here is an interesting thought experiment for the commenters and blog authors of America - a reversal of Michael's post:

What if, rather than one or two minor politicians, a substantial number lay Catholics rebelled against the bishops on waterboarding and started groups to promote national security via enhanced interrogation called "Catholics for Choice in Interrogation." Would the the bishops be wrong to condemn and speak against the groups? Would they be "authoritarians" in acting to defend natural law and Catholic morality against these interlopers?

Or, along the same lines, what if the Vatican removed a bishop that repeatedly claimed that waterboarding was an "option" for national security and the pope was wrong about Just War in Iraq and should stay out of national politics? Would they be acting as "nazis" - as America Mag's commenters claimed in regards to the australian bishop recently removed - if they acted to retire this wayward bishop and uphold Catholic teaching on this issue?

I am guessing that those who liberally suggest that laity are always right in areas of homosexuality and women priests would balk at assertions that the bishops are wrong on waterboarding or immigration.

In reality, it is the Left (a la Commonweal, NCR, America) and the Right (a la Fox News and Beck) that are both wrongheaded in certain areas. In contrast, the teachings of the Church - a stumbling block to both groups at different points - are correct in their consistent positions on theologcial, social and moral issues across the board. Both liberal and "conservative" hate to be inconvenience by the truth in their grabs for power...

7 years 10 months ago
Mr. O'Laughlin is making the moral equivalency of ''jay walking'' with ''assault with a deadly weapon'' by comparing the sanctioning of water boarding with abortion.  While each is theoretically against a moral law they are hardly equivalent.  The same could be done with the comparison of capital punishment and abortion.  What else can we contrast, support for water boarding or capital punishment with opposition to gay marriage, support for water boarding or capital punishment with being against women priests, support for water boarding or capital punishment with being against open homo sexuality activity.  It is a game that people like to play. 

So how can we make the Democrats look good?  By somehow showing that Republicans are hypocrites.  If Democrats defend and even promote abortion, homo sexuality activity, sexual license, destructive economic activites it must be shown that Republicans are somehow equally morally bankrupt as the Democrats which Mr O'Laughlin supports.  Thus, in this case by trying to find out information on how to save lives, possibly tens of thousands of them or maybe more, by making mass murders extremely uncomfortable is on the same level as killing 50 million babies is a must for those who support the Democrats.  A similar argument is often made for those who support capital punishment.  The deaths of a few murders is the equivalent of the millions of deaths of innocents.

And by the way I am against capital punishment but am certainly not convinced that water boarding under certain circumstances is not warranted.  The bait and switch from water boarding to torture is made quickly without any strong argument that the two are the same.  Mr. O'Laughlin uses the word torture 17 times and water boarding 3.  He obviously knows which words have more emotional impact but are they truly equivalent.  Maybe that is what we should have a discussion about as there are all sorts of interrogation techniques that are possible but which we do not use.  How uncomfortable and how much physical harm does one have to become before something is torture.  Is jay walking the equivalent of armed robbery especially when the jay walking has a positive purpose or is water boarding the same as mass murder especially when the purpose of the water boarding is the saving of lives and the mass murder in the form of abortion is mainly about sex without consequences.  As one person said on the budget debate, the one thing the Democrats will not give up is abortion.  What a wonderful political party America Magazine endorses and it takes the banality of Mr. O'Laughlin's arguments and and allows them to be printed here.
Daniel Horan
7 years 10 months ago
Here I have to respectfully disagree with the views of folks like David Smith above. Torture is clearly defined as an "intrinsically evil" act by both the Second Vatican Council's Gaudium et Spes (no. 27) and Blessed Pope John Paul II's encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor (nos. 79-83). 

For an analysis of Santorum in light of the Church's teaching here, see my "Andrew Sullivan, Torture and RIck Santorum."

I don't believe that bishops should call for denying communion to Santorum just as I don't believe that bishops should do the same for other politicians. Yet, I appreciate Sullivan's point - which is not simply semantic as one comment above suggests, but is indeed logical following the Church's teaching on "instrinsically evil" acts - that the US bishops quick to denounce so-called "pro choice" candidates should be equally unsettled, if not more so, by candidates like Santorum.  
ed gleason
7 years 10 months ago
Torture is wrong, abortion is wrong. Death penalty is wrong, euthanasia is wrong, nuclear war is wrong. "seamless garment' and  consistent ethic of life is the moral way. . get with it and don't be a cafeteria Catholic
Melanie Statom
7 years 10 months ago
I tell my sunday school children if Jesus didn't do it's a good bet we are not supposed to either.

No one can touch the hem of Christ's garment and remain unchanged, even "unworthy communicants".  Do not underestimate the power of grace to transform.
7 years 10 months ago
''Torture is wrong, abortion is wrong. Death penalty is wrong, euthanasia is wrong, nuclear war is wrong. ''seamless garment' and  consistent ethic of life is the moral way. ''

Water boarding is not the taking of a life but is about saving lives.  Maybe any discussion on it should express that very clearly instead of implying there is some hypocrisy for those in favor of it or that  they are some kind of sadist.  This whole discussion is political and not about any moral judgment.
Tom Maher
7 years 10 months ago
How could anyone build an article around the wild ideas of Andrew Sullivan?  Does the author's righteous moralizing give him the right to ignore the lack of facts and reason in  Andrew Sullivan's intemperate judgements and irrational conclusions ? 

Andrew Sullivan infamously the last time he was on  TV yeas ago predicted that former Vice President Dick Chaney when he travelled would be arrested for war crimes.  An utterly fantastic statement void of any factual basis, reason or connection to reality.  In Sullivan's mind DIck Chaney as a evil symbol should be harmed for the sake of being harmed.  How ironic that the advocate of no-torture should advocate exterme punishment without casue on people he dislikes.  Sullivan does not advocate rational justice or morality but irrational venegence on people he dislikes politcally.  How can Sullivan intemperate assertion of guilt for imaginary causes  be taken seriously as a basis for discussion on what is or is not torture? 

Let's anayze this slowly so even  moralizers might understand. VP Chaney can nt be held guilty of war crimes. As VP he does not do have the power to do so.  To be arrested you need to have a concrete definite and actionable  cause not an imainary dislike. Otherwise we would have an endless madhouse of politcal retribution.  THe patholgical hatred of Preesidnet Bush and Vice President Chaney does not justify wild imaginary moralistic conclusions. This is raw partisan politics that prejudges all issues to use morality as a isdtructive tool of political punishment.  

Punishing Senator Satorum for his misrepresented advocay of his politics enemies is the laws of the jungle unworthy of serious consideration on its face.  Sullivan's views on what is  torture issue is way too preconvieved, irrational and vengefully destructive.
Martin Gallagher
7 years 10 months ago
The proper way for the bishops to proceed with political leaders who publicly dissent in these grave and clearly-taught moral areas would be to instruct them privately.  Only if the politicians continued in their public dissent should they be asked to refrain from partaking in the Eucharist - this is an appropriate step because it is the politicians who have willingly placed themselves outside of full communion with the Church.  Meanwhile, we should pray for all those in both Church and secular leadership.
Vince Killoran
7 years 10 months ago
"This whole discussion is political and not about any moral judgment.": When we are discussing torture (what's the euphemism-"enhanced interrogation technique"?) we are most definitely discussing morality.

"Water boarding is not the taking of a life but is about saving lives.": One could say that about most things we discuss in the "pro-life" realm; of course, the evidence is that torture techniques do not work.
7 years 10 months ago
Sullivan will look for ways attack any group that stands against or holds different views than his on homosexuality. His is a scorched earth campaign, not some princpled or consistent moral agenda. It is about power, plain and simple - similar to his early work as a propagandists and pundit for the Iraq War, a la Hitchens.

If he wanted to be consistent, he would speak out against - not only waterboarding - but President Obama's targeted assassination program (no trial involved, of course) for United States citizens abroad...a much more grave issue that the bishops should also address?

Benjamin Alexander
7 years 10 months ago
Brett, you should read more Sullivan before making your claims in #16. I've seen him go after a lot of things Greenwald mentions with regard to Obama. He's been quite vocal in his disappointment of Obama's failures on those issues.

The other thing I should mention re: his homosexuality is that Sullivan acknowledges that his views on homosexuality clash with the Church. He doesn't pretend to be offering something consistent with current Catholic doctrine on that issue. What's he's raising here is the problem when those who claim to be faithful Catholics hold positions contrary to the Church's teaching and yet still encounter no public opprobrium from the bishiops, as in the case of other politicians.

I have my problems with Sullivan at times, too, but these posts should be a little more charitable. They are misrepresenting the nub of the argument.
Benjamin Alexander
7 years 10 months ago
Hi Brett:

If you stopped patronizing Sullivan's blog, then how can you know that he is "never" charitable in his critiques?

As your example with 16 shows, and my response, I think a little bit of confirmation bias may be operative in your view of Sullivan: you only see the worst in him and you seek out evidence for that view. But even on this torture issue, claiming that he is not consistent in attacking Obama was just wrong. You would need to read him more carefully before drawing such conclusions.

I've seen him say wonderful things about the Church, too, even though I agree he is over the top on Benedict.

Still, charity requires not returning an eye for an eye, which is what your response seems to say, no?

7 years 10 months ago
Hey Alexander,

He is still a pretty popular commentator online, so it is possible to get updates on his latest views via links or quotes.

I think it is still possible to call him out for what tactics/arguments he uses against more traditional Catholics and leaders without being uncharitable on a personal level or on other non-Catholic topics...or perhaps I am still sore about his propaganda in supporting the Iraq invasion.
Benjamin Alexander
7 years 10 months ago
On Iraq, he's acknowledged that he was wrong repeatedly. The important thing is that he acknowledged that mistake.

But I'd be careful about links or quotes, without reading full entries. 
7 years 10 months ago
Right, but he acknowledged this only after the damage was done. In the same vein, he may reverse his serious and misguided attacks on Benedict at some point in the future, as well.

The real issue is that there is a deeper philosphical problem with Sullivan (i.e., his form of agressive liberalism) then one or two individual policy positions on the surface.
Benjamin Alexander
7 years 10 months ago
Brett: that's fine if you have deeper issues with him. But I'm not sure how any of that counters his important question about the consistency of the bishops on torture and abortion and public opprobrium.

Consider the matter differently: what if someone else whom you respected more had asked that question? The fact that Sullivan asked those questions is just an aside, really, to the importance of the question itself. Demeaning Sullivan really is just a distraction, no?

Don't shoot the messenger! 
7 years 10 months ago
I have refused to patronize his blog for some time (I didn't even know he had left the Atlantic); however, it is obvious that he is attempting to score political points hear by trying to portay the bishops as hypocrites for not speaking out on waterboarding as they do on abortion.

However, the problem is that these two things are not comparable. Neither in terms of moral gravity (millions killed vs. a handful harshly interrogated) nor in terms of the formation of conscious of the individual holding them. One is black and white, while the other is a bit more murky.

As for charity with his arguments, Sullivan is never charitable in his attacks and distortions against Pope Benedict or the Church - he is an ideologue in his promotion of homosexuality and is vicious with those who oppose his views - using any variety of tricks to undermine their position across the board.
7 years 10 months ago
I agree!

It is simply that his philosophy taints his view of the Church and the challange he presents here is more political gotcha than sincere or concerned criticism.

I agree with the idea; however, not all violations on teaching can be brought to bear on public officials and there is a gradation of moral severity where abortion ranks much higher in importance (due to sheer scope and lethality).

The idea that Sullivan hopes to claim a point of inconsistency against bishops on this partisan point seems illogical and motivated by his general grudge or emotion against the Church rather than a thoughtful take on waterboarding and the role of the bishops in the public square.


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