A story in the newspaper last week describes a new book written by a man named Marc Thiessen. The book is called “Courting Disaster,” and it makes the case that waterboarding, a form of torture, is not only useful and desirable, but also permitted by the teachings of the Catholic Church. Mr. Thiessen is described as a practicing Roman Catholic.
In his book, Mr. Thiessen writes: “A captured terrorist is an unjust aggressor who retains the power to kill many thousands by withholding information about planned attacks. “ Therefore, he claims, torture is justified, because by torture you may be able to prevent a terrorist from carrying out an attack, and therefore save lives. As Catholics, how do we respond to his claim? As Catholics, can we ever justify the use of torture?
It’s a sensitive issue for sure. Almost nine years after September 11, 2001, that day haunts us still. We will never forget the images. I remember a cartoon that appeared in the newspaper a week or so after the attacks. It showed a person looking at a computer screen, right hand on the mouse, ready to click, and on the screen were two words – “freedom” and “security.” Which do you choose? We still wrestle with that question today.
It’s a sensitive issue as well because some of our brothers and sisters or sons and daughters or friends or neighbors have served, and continue to serve, bravely in the military.
When torture came up during the war in Iraq, you sometimes heard people say that “you have to do what you have to do.” Or “sometimes what Jesus says in the gospel doesn’t work in the real world. We have to be realistic.”
A few days after that story in the newspaper, two letters to the editor appeared. Both address Church teaching on torture. One refers to a document from the Second Vatican Council which mentions torture in the same section as abortion and genocide as assaults on human life and dignity. The writer concludes “No one (not just Roman Catholics) may engage in torture.”
The other letter writer is a priest who spent 30 years living in Chile. He was there in the 1970s, when the government there was known to practice torture. “The national conference of Catholic bishops in Chile specifically threatened torturers with excommunication during those years,” he writes. In his letter, he goes on to address Marc Thiessen’s point that sometimes torture is justified if it helps get you valuable information. He disagrees. “It might get you the information,” he writes, “but what’s the end result on the people who do it? Do we end up producing torturers ourselves, and a nation complicit in the evil it tolerates?”
These are hard words for a hard gospel. As we near the midpoint of Lent, we hear the strong words of Jesus “if you do not repent, you will all perish!” To repent means, literally, to re-think the way you see things. To repent means, look closely at your life and ask yourself, in what ways do I need to align my life more closely with the gospel of Jesus Christ?
This letter writer raises important questions for us as Christians, and as Americans. What happens to us when we accept or justify torture, and if we do accept or justify it, in the long run, what does it do to us? If we accept or justify torture, in what ways does that begin to affect our culture, or ourselves? In 2005, a survey revealed that 74% of Catholics agreed that torture can be justified in at least rare occasions. The Church teaching against torture is strong. Pope John Paul II wrote in an encyclical letter “there are acts that are always seriously wrong by reason of their object, including whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity.”
We are haunted by the question of the letter writer who asks, what happens to us when we unreflectively accept a policy of torture? Maybe the answer is nothing at all, and the church should not be involved in asking those questions, should simply stay away from politics and world affairs. But the words of Jesus in the gospel today refuse to let us off easily. Repent! Choose which side you are on! The way of Jesus is the way of the cross, and the way of the cross was at odds with the powers and the authorities of his time. To walk the way of the cross with Jesus means that we sometimes have to ask the hard questions in our culture, and of ourselves – where and how is human dignity being threatened, and as modern followers of Christ, how are we called to respond?
War may seem far for most of us, but closer to home, what are the things that we do that cause harm to one another, things that we have come to accept as somehow being justified, or acceptable? What are the parts of our lives that might be closed off to God’s grace, or forgiveness, or compassion? Are there things that we accept because “that’s just the way things are” and there is no hope, or window, for any other way? And if there are, what new path might these gospel words of Jesus be calling us to?
(also see Fr. Patti’s article in the Durham newspaper)