Parsing the Bishops’ Statement on the Senate Torture Report

On Tuesday, Bishop Oscar Cantú, chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, marked the release of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee’s executive summary of its report on CIA interrogation methods with these words:

The Catholic Church firmly believes that torture is an ‘intrinsic evil’ that cannot be justified under any circumstance. The acts of torture described in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report violated the God-given human dignity inherent in all people and were unequivocally wrong. Congress and the President should act to strengthen the legal prohibitions against torture and to ensure that this never happens again.

The fact that the US government has engaged in torturous practices in prosecuting the so-called “War on Terror” has been known for some time. The Senate Committee on Armed Services detailed prisoner abuse in its 2009 Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody and President Obama’s succinct admission that “we tortured some folks” was clear enough.

However, last week’s release of the executive summary of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation methods has been a long time coming. Several times since 2012, Bishop Richard E. Pates urged Senators Feinstein and Chambliss to release the full report on CIA interrogation practices. The need to “allow the truth to see the light of day”, as he made clear on many occasions, was owed to the United States’ obligation “to take a clear stance against torture” in order to “regain our moral credibility and standing in the world as a defender of human rights for all.”

The bishops have long been concerned about the practices of the United States in its treatment of prisoners and have not hesitated to call torture what it is: an “intrinsic evil”. The bishops have long upheld the principles enshrined in international law that ban torture, including Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits the abuse of prisoners of war. However, their opposition to torture runs deeper than international law and is embedded in the deposit of faith. It could not be summed up in more lapidary fashion than by Pope Saint John Paul II: “Christ’s disciple refuses every recourse to such methods.” For John Paul II, nothing could justify torture, “in which the dignity of man is as much debased in his torturer as in the torturer’s victim”.

This commitment to a core teaching of the Catholic faith has motivated the bishops in their advocacy to ensure that torture by the United States “never happens again”.

They have been anything but Johnny-come-lately’s to the issue.

In 2005, the bishops articulated the basic position they would continue to reiterate with respect to definitively prohibiting “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment of persons in the custody or control of the U.S. government. Bishop John H. Ricard SSJ, in a letter to the Senate, stated:

We believe that a respect for the dignity of every person, ally or enemy, must serve as the foundation of the pursuit of security, justice and peace. There can be no compromise on the moral imperative to protect the basic human rights of any individual incarcerated for any reason.

In the face of this perilous climate, our nation must not embrace a morality based on an attitude that “desperate times call for desperate measures” or “the end justifies the means.” The inherent justice of our cause and the perceived necessities involved in confronting terrorism must not lead to a weakening or disregard of U.S. and international law.

In 2006, then Bishop Thomas G. Wenski, in testimony before the Senate, lifted up the negative consequences of prisoner treatment in the struggle against terrorism:

Tragically, the abuse and humiliation of prisoners and detainees in U.S. custody has reinforced negative perceptions of the struggle against terrorism in Islamic countries. The conduct of the so-called “war on terrorism” merits careful and comprehensive review for its broader impact and consequences.

When news reports suggested that the Department of Defense was considering weakening policies so as not to incorporate Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, Bishop Wenski strongly urged Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to explicitly adopt them.

When proposals in the House and Senate arose to create military commissions and amend the War Crimes Act, Bishop Wenski urged lawmakers to “reject any proposed legislation that would call into question America’s commitment to Common Article 3.”

Bishop Wenski also signed on in 2006 to a common statement of National Denominational and Faith Group Leaders, noting that:

Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed? Let America abolish torture now-without exceptions.

Several times in 2007 and 2008, the bishops urged lawmakers to outright “prohibit torture as an interrogation technique” in the Intelligence Authorization Act.  This advocacy culminated in a letter from the President of the USCCB, Cardinal Francis George OMI, to President George W. Bush, urging him to sign anti-torture provisions into law.

In 2008, the bishops, together with other religious, civic and military leaders, requested that the President of the United States issue an executive order banning torture. After his election, they reiterated the request to President-Elect Barack Obama, asking him to issue the order on Inauguration Day.

Since then, the bishops have continued to express their concerns about the situation at Guantanamo, including the forced feeding of detainees, and have asked that the President make good on his commitment to close that facility, which “has become a symbol of indefinite detention without trial.”

The bishops have worked with members of both parties on ending the use of torture. The effort to eliminate its use should transcend partisan lines; our nation’s approach to this question ought to reflect values that uphold the human dignity of all people, no matter how difficult the circumstance.

While subjecting torturous practices by the CIA to public scrutiny is a first step in ensuring that our government does not engage in torture again, the latest words of Bishop Cantú make clear that Congress and the President must still act to enshrine in law an absolute prohibition against torture.

Dylan Corbett is manager for mission & identity outreach at USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Go deeper:
Explore Torture is a Moral Issue: A Catholic Study Guide

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