Of Many Things

Social movements sometimes grow slowly out of sight, like Mark’s “seed growing secretly,” and then burst forth suddenly with astonishing rightness, just made for the times. So it is with the Religious Campaign Against Torture (www.nrcat.org). George Hunsinger, a graduate school classmate of mine, is a soft-spoken philosophical theologian. A longtime student of the great Reformed theologian Karl Barth, he admired Barth’s role in leading the Confessing Church, the breakaway branch of the German Protestant Church that resisted Hitler. I suspect his memory of Barth’s heroic witness may have been the soil in which the seed of the Religious Campaign grew for the last 35 years.

Now a professor at Princeton Seminary, Hunsinger may never have imagined that one day he would himself be leading a social protest movement. But in mid-January he hosted a meeting for international lawyers, theologians and social activists at Princeton as a platform for launching the Religious Campaign Against Torture. In an interview following the conference, he told me that his preoccupation with torture began with revelations in 1970 of the “tiger cages” in which the North Vietnamese imprisoned captured Americans during the Vietnam War.


A decade later, in response to involvement of the C.I.A. and U.S. Special Forces in Central America, Hunsinger was active with American Christians for the Abolition of Torture. In the 1990’s that group closed down, but after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the resistance of the Bush Administration to reining in the use of torture, he set out to mobilize Christians against the practice. To his surprise, other religious groups, including Rabbis for Human Rights, were also eager to join in, and a broader coalition, the Religious Campaign Against Torture, was born.

Many Catholics are unaware of how outspoken church leaders have been in opposing the use of torture. Last fall officials of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gave public testimony in support of the McCain amendment forbidding torture by the U.S. military. Following Pope Benedict XVI’s message for the World Day of Peace on Jan. 1, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said, “Torture is a humiliation of the human person, whoever it is. The Church does not allow these means to extract the truth.” Lastly, on Jan. 12, the U.S.C.C.B. Committee on International Policy declared, “Our conference has supported Congressional efforts to prohibit cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment of persons and to provide uniform standards for the interrogation of persons under detention.” While some at the Princeton meeting were critical of the alleged silence of the churches, participants from other churches and human rights groups went out of their way to tell me how important the U.S. bishops’ contribution had been in advancing the McCain amendment prohibiting the use of torture.

It is reassuring to know that the church has been playing a role in this crucial effort. After all, since the time of Augustine the church had permitted government coercion, including torture, for repression of heresy and for affairs of state. It was only with Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris in 1963 that the church fully embraced human rights as its own. Then, in the 70’s and 80’s, much of the struggle for human rights was fought out in the so-called Catholic belt, especially Latin America and Eastern Europe. Finally, in 2000, Pope John Paul II put an end to theological rationalizations of torture, asking forgiveness “for the sins committed in the service of the Truth” including “the use of force.” Recent statements opposing torture demonstrate that the defense of human rights remains high on the list of Catholic social-pastoral commitments.

George Hunsinger told me that the Religious Campaign Against Torture is seeking 100,000 signatures for its mission statement. In part, it reads, “Together we will work for the immediate cessation of torture by the United States, whether direct or by proxy, within our territory or abroad. We reject all proffered justifications and distorted definitions. Our condemnation of torture is not based on any political opinion.... Rather, we are guided by a higher law that serves as a compass for all of humanity.” The group, Professor Hunsinger explains, designates itself “a campaign” to allow signers, whether private individuals, religious advocacy groups or denominations to participate on their own terms.

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12 years ago
You express relief that “the church has been playing a role in this crucial effort” of convincing our government to refrain from using or condoning torture (Of Many Things, 3/6). You note that many Catholics are unaware of our bishops’ stand on the issue. If the editor of America feels “reassured” that the church has been on the correct side of this, it’s likely that average Catholics in the pew would be amazed. My guess is that most Catholics have no idea what the U.S.C.C.B. Committee on International Policy—or any other committee—is doing, because their priests and bishops avoid discussion of practically all issues related to our government’s immoral behavior. Could avoidance of these topics be due to fear of controversy? Due to misunderstanding of the church’s role with regard to the state?

I believe that many Catholics long to see their leaders take a stand on all matters of morality, not just those relating to reproduction. I would like to hear bishops at the local level speak out strongly against the war, torture and killing. In some places they seem to be stuck with the “just war” paradigm and are focusing on “protecting marriage” by constitutional amendment, as if that is what any marriage really needs. One bishop recently made headlines by denying Communion to an autistic child.

Before we all go to the polls again, it would be great if the bishops could agree on how Christian values relate to our lives and how not to confuse the faithful through acts of commission or omission, such as denying the sacraments or failing to lead on matters that affect all.


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