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Torture and Catholic Teaching


Expanding on the theme of my last blog, I received several comments from readers about the scandal of our government’s use of torture as a method to extract information from persons suspected of being international terrorists.

Trinity senior Pathenia Proctor wrote this reflection:

“This enlightenment about the torture tactics used against detainees is disturbing, I am not surprised by our government’s behavior specifically the CIA’s and other intelligence operations in getting information for detainees. …Through trying to obtain information, their mores are blurred. The very thing that we are trying to eradicate, our government is participating in. However, we are so focused on other matters such as the stock market, entertainment news, etc. that we do not care about other human beings. Our priorities are out of touch.”

Trinity Alumna Mary Esslinger ’66 sent along the article below from the Catholic News Service — it’s an important enough story to republish completely here, and the headline is linked to the source at the Catholic News Service:

TORTURE-TEACHING Mar-20-2009 (890 words) With photos. xxxn

Conference explores Catholic teaching, morality of using torture

By Dennis Sadowski
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The breakdown of cultural norms regarding the dignity of every human being played a significant role in the mistreatment of suspected terrorists, a retired Army colonel said during a program at The Catholic University of America.

W. Patrick Lang said the breakdown is as significant as the legal opinions that cleared the way for the use of harsh interrogation practices that led to the mistreatment of U.S.-held detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Taking a swipe at contemporary media, Lang, who spent 36 years in the armed forces followed by a stint in the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that acts of violence, torture and dehumanization that are often depicted on television, movies and video games have led to a lost understanding of right and wrong actions across American society.

Lang was among several speakers who addressed “Torture, Conscience and the Catholic Moral Tradition” in a daylong program March 19 at Catholic University in Washington.

Three panels explored topics related to Catholic teaching on torture and the ethical responsibilities of society in the treatment of detainees in national or international military campaigns. Speakers included representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, higher education and the human rights arena as well as former military leaders.

Strongly stating the Army does not teach its recruits torture, Lang decried the actions of soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also placed blame for their action on officials in the administration of former President George W. Bush.

“In this war, we had people in the Army and Marine Corps who had never interrogated anybody but who had been exposed to all this rubbish in movies and on television, who were encouraged by the sitting administration, in fact, to do whatever it is you have to do to find out what we want. A more immoral thing to tell these people could hardly be imagined,” Lang said.

Despite the push from Bush administration officials, Lang said commanding officers should have stopped the action of the soldiers they commanded, but did not. He also said that soldiers themselves failed to see that what they were doing was ethically wrong under Army standards.

“The issue is why didn’t these officers stop this,” Lang said. “The officers know the position of the Army regarding this, that there will be no torture, that it’s a crime, that this is not allowed.

“They didn’t stop this because something is missing in the culture, both in the upper echelons of our government and in our greater American culture as a whole, something that doesn’t tell you any more that some things are right and some things are wrong, that some things shouldn’t be done,” he said.

The loss of values is evident as well in the excesses of Wall Street that led to last fall’s financial meltdown, Lang added. He encouraged the audience to begin “clamoring” for a return to the teaching and acceptance of basic ethical values across society.

Lang’s panel discussion included presentations by Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, co-director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture, and Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace.

Colecchi outlined long-standing Catholic teaching that, foremost, upholds the dignity of every person, saying torture violates that standard and is never justified. He said the church’s teaching on torture has evolved since the Inquisition, in which widespread persecutions attempted to eradicate growing sects that challenged Catholicism.

The U.S. bishops specifically mentioned torture five times in “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the document they prepared for the 2008 election, placing it high on the list of concerns for voters to consider, Colecchi explained.

The panelists acknowledged that the church and its institutions must do a far better job of educating Catholics about the moral dangers torture poses. At the height of the war in Iraq, polls showed that up to 63 percent of U.S. Catholics supported harsh interrogation — what many consider torture — as being necessary some times.

Several speakers called for the establishment of a “commission of inquiry” to discover how torture and secret rendition of suspected terrorists to foreign countries for harsh questioning came to become part of U.S. policy after the incidents of Sept. 11, 2001. “Rendition” is the apprehension and extrajudicial transfer of a person from one country to another.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has been the most vocal member of Congress in seeking such a commission. However, his proposal has received little backing beyond human rights advocates and torture victims.

The Rev. Richard Killmer, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said his organization is coordinating a petition drive supporting Leahy’s call in an effort to prevent torture from ever again becoming a tool of American military and foreign policy.

The coalition also is seeking to have elements of President Barack Obama’s Jan. 22 executive order outlawing the use of torture by American forces put into law.

Colecchi offered support for such legislation, saying it fell in line with Catholic teaching on human dignity.

The program was sponsored by the Catholic Leadership Council of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and two Catholic University programs: the Life Cycle Institute and the Center for International Social Development.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
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