Say “NO” to Torture

photograph of Bishop Oscar Cantu

Most Reverend Oscar Cantú, Bishop of Las Cruces

Mention the word “torture” and Abu Ghraib comes to mind. The images of naked detainees cowering as dogs lunge at them make us squirm with shame. But then we think, those were extreme circumstances; the United States doesn’t do this anymore.   Yet we still hear some advocate for waterboarding and “enhanced interrogation techniques” (a euphemism for torture) as a way of extracting information.

In the current environment of fear, we do well to remember Catholic teaching. It tells us that torture is always wrong. In his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Saint John Paul II included physical and mental torture in his list of social evils that are “intrinsically evil” (No. 80). The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says the prohibition against torture “cannot be contravened under any circumstances” (No. 404).

Torture debases a human being and violates the inherent dignity of the human person, both victim and perpetrator, that is instilled by God in every person created in His image. Torture also degrades the moral fiber of any society that tolerates or sponsors it. Accepting torture undermines respect for everyone’s human rights and human dignity.

In addition to the moral arguments against torture, there are practical reasons to oppose this heinous practice. Experienced interrogators tell us that torture doesn’t work. Information gained through torture is generally useless or misleading since the victim will say what he thinks the torturer wants to hear, not the truth.

And knowing that a country practices torture can push those who suffer from it toward violence and extremism. It can even encourage violence in the wider culture. There is no doubt that the images of Abu Ghraib fueled anti-American sentiment in many countries and served as a recruitment tool for terrorists.

Earlier this year, I met an Iraqi refugee now uses a wheelchair as a result of being tortured. His journey from Iraq to safety in Lebanon was arduous. While relatively safe now, he continues to suffer from internal bleeding and needs regular transfusions. But getting medical care is expensive. There’s no money forthcoming from international agencies for anything besides surgery. Nonetheless he might be counted among the lucky ones – he survived torture.

Sometimes the scars of torture are not visible. But if you look into the faces of the victims, you see the shadows that haunt them. You see them avert their eyes when meeting strangers. You see their involuntary flinches at sudden movements. And if you were to look into their hearts, you would see the fear they are trying to overcome and the hope that they are struggling to nurture in order to rebuild their lives.

Abu Ghraib and the torture associated with that name have tainted so many people’s view of the United States. As I said in an interview with Vatican Radio, “We have placed ourselves through our history as a beacon of hope, a beacon of reason, of freedom: and so, this recent chapter in our history has tarnished that.”

It is time for all of us to urge our leaders to firmly acknowledge that torture constitutes a violation of basic moral principles and a betrayal of the U.S. reputation of being a defender of human rights. It is time for us to say “No” to torture.

You can learn more about torture and actions you can take to oppose torture by going to: 

Most Reverend Oscar Cantú is the Bishop of Las Cruces and Chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace.

Pope Francis: “Do unto Others” Has Global Implications

photograph of Bishop Oscar Cantu

Most Reverend Oscar Cantú, Bishop of Las Cruces

Pope Francis has now returned to Vatican City, but we remain inspired and moved to action by his words and actions during his visit to the U.S. and the U.N.

As Chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, I would like to recall some of his powerful international challenges to our nation and world in his own words.

To the U.S. Congress

On Immigrants and Refugees

“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners.”

“Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War.”

Immigrants “travel north in search of a better life…for their loved ones. Is this not what we want for our own children?”

On Global Poverty

“How much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty!”

“Now is the time for…combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” Continue reading

Bishop Cantu on the Iran Nuclear Framework

Iran (US Government image).

Iran (US Government image).

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday, Bishop Oscar Cantú, chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, welcomed the adoption of a framework by the United States and its P5+1 partners with Iran over Iran’s nuclear program.

The adoption of this framework is important in advancing a peaceful resolution of the serious questions that have been raised regarding Iran’s nuclear program. On Easter Sunday, Pope Francis prayed that “the framework recently agreed to in Lausanne…may be a definitive step toward a more secure and fraternal world.”

Since 2007 the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, reflecting the longstanding position of the Holy See, has urged the United States to pursue diplomacy to ensure Iran’s compliance with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. For years, the Conference has supported dialogue and a negotiated resolution of the conflict, in collaboration with international partners.

It is no small achievement that the United States, the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation, China, Germany and France have reached another milestone in the process of negotiations with Iran, one that aims to curb the unacceptable prospect of Iran developing nuclear weapons. In order to achieve this goal, parties should work to finalize the details of the agreement and ensure its full implementation. As the USCCB has noted in the past, Iran has threatened its neighbors, especially Israel, and contributed to instability in the region. This agreement is a hopeful first step in fostering greater stability and dialogue in the region.

Despite the challenges, it is vital to continue to foster an environment in which all parties can build mutual confidence and trust in order to work towards a final accord that enhances peace. For this reason, the USCCB will continue to oppose Congressional efforts that seek to undermine the negotiation process or make a responsible multi-party agreement more difficult to achieve and implement. The alternative to an agreement leads toward armed conflict, an outcome of profound concern to the Church.

In January 2015, Pope Francis said, “I express my hope that a definitive agreement may soon be reached between Iran and the P5+1 Group regarding the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, and my appreciation of the efforts already made in this regard.” Let us share the Holy Father’s hope.

The Conference welcomes the most recent step the United States and its international partners have taken with Iran. Our nation ought to to continue down this path. Now is the time for dialogue and building bridges which foster peace and greater understanding.


The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Questions of Free Trade

Mulloy and Coll

Tom Mulloy and Richard Coll of the USCCB.

Quick, take a look at the tag on your shirt.

Where was it made? El Salvador? Vietnam? China?

How about that fruit you ate for lunch? A banana from Costa Rica? An apple from Chile?

Do you have a neighbor or loved one who has lost a job because their plant closed?

Do you know where that phone or tablet came from? Even more than where they are assembled, the plastics, state of the art glass, and precious and other metals are all produced in hundreds of far off places.

When it comes to the immigration debate, have we really ever stopped to ask why so many people take the frightening and courageous step of leaving their home country to come to the United States in search of work?

The answers to these questions are determined, in large part, by the international trade agreements our country negotiates with others. Our country’s trade policies touch almost every aspect of our lives. What’s more, they touch the lives of almost every other person on the planet, many in very consequential ways. Despite this, most Americans are unaware of the importance of trade deals, and the current debate happening in Washington goes largely unnoticed.

Debate about a new trade agreement is raising these very questions. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) would create rules among a significant number of nations in North and South America as well as Asia.

This debate will have profound consequences on the lives of those in poverty and on vulnerable communities, both here in the United States and around the globe. This is why the Catholic bishops of the United States, taking a cue from Pope Francis, are following the conversation closely. Earlier this year, Archbishop Thomas Wenski and Bishop Oscar Cantú wrote to Congress, saying that:

Trade policies must be grounded in people-centered ethical criteria, in pursuit of the common good for our nation and people around the world.

They laid out criteria for just trade policy that would accomplish this, stressing that the question is not whether trade itself is good or bad; Catholic teaching affirms that trade, properly oriented, can be good. The real question is how to craft trade policies that affirm human life and dignity, encourage the development of peoples, and advance the common good. History tells us that many trade policies, as crafted and implemented, have harmed many and have actually contributed to the challenges of excessive economic inequality, migration, hunger and conflict.

As Archbishop Wenski and Bishop Cantú point out, a critical step in achieving a just framework is participation. As with any issue, trade agreements must be debated and constructed in a way

that will assure that voices from affected sectors of society can be heard and that their interests are reflected in whatever agreements emerge.

Historically, trade negotiations are granted special status, formerly known as ‘fast track’, now known as ‘Trade Promotion Authority (TPA)’. However, many have raised concerns that this process does not allow for all affected parties to have their voices heard.

Trade agreements may be complicated, but the criteria that should guide them are simple and rest on core tenets of Catholic teaching. A commitment to these criteria, laid out by Archbishop Wenski and Bishop Cantú, would be an important first step toward creating a more just world.

Richard Coll, Esq. and Tom Mulloy are policy advisors at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Go deeper:
Learn more about USCCB advocacy for just trade agreements.

Towards Dialogue & Reconciliation with Cuba

Bishop Oscar Cantú, Chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, issued a statement today in response to the release of Alan Gross and to the further decisions by the Obama Administration to build normal relations with Cuba. In his statement, Bishop Cantú expressed his joy at Mr. Gross’ return, and provided strong support for the process of expanding dialogue, trade and communications with Cuba. The bishop also agreed on the need to reexamine Cuba’s previous designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.

For decades, the USCCB has supported normalization of relations with Cuba. The Conference believes that dialogue and reconciliation will foster democracy, human rights and religious freedom in that country. By engaging and strengthening Cuban civil society through increased cultural, religious and business contacts, the likelihood of positive change in Cuba will be enhanced.

Read more on the USCCB’s advocacy related to Cuba.

Coll headshotMr. Richard Coll is an international policy advisor on Latin America and global trade at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

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