The U.S. Bishops and Torture - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The U.S. Bishops and Torture

Former George W. Bush speechwriter, National Review contributor, new Washington Post columnist, and self-professed Catholic Marc Thiessen appeared on the Catholic news station EWTN and defended all of the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation methods” in an interview with prominent Catholic anchor Raymond Arroyo. At points he even endorsed, while invoking Catholic just war theory, specific instances of the use of interrogation techniques like waterboarding on terrorists like Kalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Andrew Sullivan published a long post yesterday arguing that Thiessen’s views starkly contradict Church teaching. Today he followed up by adding that the Catholic bishops should somehow reprimand Thiessen as they sometimes have other Catholic politicians and officials who advocate pro-choice laws. The bishops’ silence on this issue, Sullivan suggests, betrays the fact that they are partisan, and that their anti-abortion stance suggests pro-Republican feelings rather than concern for unborn babies.

Obviously this accusation against the bishops hinges on the assumption that the Catholic Church clearly regards torture as an intrinsically evil act, that is, an act on the same level of moral seriousness as, for instance, abortion. While there are a more shades of grey to this assumption than Sullivan seems to realize, I think that his argument about the bishop’s aloofness, on the whole, stands up. His charge that they are uninvolved because of partisanship, though, does not.

Sullivan writes:

That Thiessen would now actually be going on Catholic television to mislead and misrepresent in grotesque fashion a position that the Bishops have declared is never justified is surely far worse an offense than any of the pro-choice politicians the Bishops have made such a public fuss over.


I think the Bishops and Cardinals in the US need to speak out directly and loudly and insistently on this and demand a Truth Commission to get to the bottom of it.

In the case of Catholic pro-abortion politicians, bishops are compelled to address the situation or deny Communion because the politicians are public figures espousing views that violate a clear and fundamental Church teaching in such a way as to cause scandal and create moral confusion.

The issue is whether this logic also applies to what Thiessen has done.

The first question is whether torture is something that is fundamentally and intrinsically wrong in the view of the Catholic Church, and the second question is whether what Thiessen has advocated is torture.

Sullivan assumes that Church teaching is crystal clear on the moral gravity and permissiveness of torture, but in fact it’s not. As far as denying communion or issuing public reprimands go, there is a very high bar to clear — the action in question must be intrinsically wrong, meaning gravely wrong in every situation, and it must be recognized as such in authoritative Church teaching.

The Catechism addresses torture in general very conclusively:

Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.

Sullivan notes this passage and takes it as establishing torture as intrinsically evil, but there’s a key possible exception to this rule: the Ticking Bomb scenario, which is omitted in the list of situations in this quote. It is possible that a Catholic in good conscience could interpret Church teaching as unclear or not settled in these circumstances — such an argument is here.

Of course, the hierarchy has spoken on this. For example, in 1982 Pope John Paul II wrote, “The disciple of Christ spontaneously rejects every recourse to such methods [as torture], which nothing could ever justify.” [From the above source, emphasis mine.] And the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued similar statements. The problem is that these statements do not carry what is considered the authority that canonical writings do.

Still, this evidence suggests that Thiessen is way out of line with Church authorities if he’s condoning torture.

Obviously there’s a debate about what does and does not constitute torture, and whether waterboarding and whatever else the U.S. has done to prisoners at Guantanamo and elsewhere matches that definition. Without going into semantics, it seems clear that the interrogation techniques Thiessen knows have been used certainly fit the description of what the Church itself has deemed torture in its acknowledgments of its own crimes during the Inquisition and other times.

The last consideration is whether Thiessen as a public figure and official has deliberately rejected Church teaching in such a way as to cause moral scandal and confusion. This is where there are definite shades of grey. Although Thiessen has indicated that the government performed, to his approval, acts of torture (at very least in the Church’s view) on high-value terrorists over prolonged periods of time, he plausibly could have had a very broad understanding the concept of Ticking-Bomb circumstances, where the teaching is not perfectly clearly defined, especially in the case of a war on terrorism. Or, he could truly believe that the administration’s methods that he was aware of did not amount to torture.

But that would be a stretch. Thiessen himself invoked just war theory. Catholic just war theory involves subtle distinctions and difficult concepts, but they are highly developed and shouldn’t be elided or taken only in part. One such distinction is that between enemies on the battlefield and enemies that don’t pose an immediate threat. Thiessen has made a mockery of that distinction. Even according to a loose interpretation of the Church’s position, it seems that Thiessen does meet the criteria for the bishops to address his actions.

But Thiessen has not acted out in such a flagrant and unmistakable way as many pro-choice Catholic politicians have. The bishops do not, as Sullivan suggests, pounce on pro-choice politicians in public at the first opportunity. In fact most of them turn a blind eye to the many pro-choice congressmen who flout Church teaching on abortion regularly. And when they do issue reprimands, it’s often not public — take as an example when Bishop Tobin of Providence banned Patrick Kennedy from communion and the ban wasn’t made public until Kennedy publicly criticized Tobin three years later.

In exercising their pastoral duties, American bishops tend to show incredible restraint and caution — far too much for my tastes. The fact that there are many proudly pro-choice congressmen still ostensibly in good standing with their home dioceses suggests that it would be a dramatic break from precedent for any bishop to publicly excommunicate Thiessen, and probably questionable pastoral policy. 

Sullivan’s belief the bishops’ failure to do so signals their Republican partisanship is way off base. And when he writes that the lack of a denunciation “is, I fear, a function of the stranglehold that political and Republican partisan theo-conservatives now have on the hierarchy, aided and abetted by the current Pontiff” he verges into pure conspiracy theory. The statement that “Republican theo-conservatives” have a strangehold on the hierarchy does not correspond to reality in any way. It is so far removed from anything that is apparent to an informed observer that it really does not merit a rebuttal. Unfortunately, this is characteristic of his most of his writings on Catholicism. But his usual misinterpretations of what’s going on in the Church don’t negate his point here.

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