WASHINGTON — Torture can seem complicated, pitting desperate scenarios where it is seen as the only solution against heated moral debate.

For the U.S. bishops, the issue is clear. In “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility From the Catholic Bishops of the United States,” the bishops make five references to torture, associating it with assaults on human life that are “intrinsically evil.”

In particular, the document notes that “the use of torture must be rejected as fundamentally incompatible with the dignity of the human person and ultimately counterproductive in the effort to combat terrorism.”

The bishops see the issue as important enough to publish “Torture Is a Moral Issue: A Catholic Study Guide,” detailing the provisions of international treaties and Church documents.

The guide quotes Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI and No. 2297 from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “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.”

The study guide notes that the 1984 United Nations “Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” “defines torture as ‘any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person’ to obtain information or a confession, and where such an act is allowed by a public official.”

For many years the United States, a signatory to the U.N.’s convention, upheld international standards against torture for two reasons, said Mary Ellen O’Connell, professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School and author of The Power and Purpose of International Law.

“First, it is the right thing to do,” she said. Secondly, refusing to engage in inhumane treatment of prisoners places pressure on any foreign government against engaging in inhumane practices against U.S. prisoners.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, certain practices and policies of the Bush administration have reflected an attitude that harsher measures, including torture, are necessary in dealing with enemies who reject conventional war tactics and traditional ethical restrictions on the use of force.

If the Church’s position is clear, distinguishing the positions of the presidential candidates is much murkier. Opponents of torture, such as Presbyterian Rev. Richard Killmer, director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, notes that both candidates have spoken out at different times against the practice.

“Senator Barack Obama has been unequivocal” in opposing torture, Killmer said, but Sen. John McCain’s record has been more mixed. “Senator McCain’s life experience does provide a powerful witness against torture, and he played a major role in getting the McCain Amendment passed.”

Also known as the Detainee Treatment Act, the McCain Amendment to the 2006 Department of Defense Appropriations Bill requires all Defense Department employees to strictly adhere to the U.S. Army’s “Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation.” The manual, Killmer said, “includes a list of interrogation methods that are now prohibited.”

On the other hand, noted Killmer, McCain supported the 2006 Military Commission Act, which, he said, weakens provisions of the 1996 War Crimes Act. The 2006 law, Killmer said, “narrows and confuses definitions, removes retroactively criminal sanctions for war crimes, denies safeguards, abolishes habeas corpus for non-citizen detainees, and removes the federal courts from oversight and protection.”

In addition, Killmer said, McCain voted against the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2008, which would have required all U.S. personnel, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), to adhere to the Army’s manual. The bill passed, but President Bush vetoed it.

In statements on the Senate floor, McCain defended the Military Commissions Act for “criminalizing certain interrogation techniques, like waterboarding,” clarifying what is a war crime, and making prosecution of war crimes more practical. The law, he said, would also strengthen the U.S. commitment to the Geneva Convention.

As for the Intelligence Authorization Act, McCain said in a Feb. 14 statement that requiring the CIA to conform to the Army’s manual was unnecessary and would restrict the agency to interrogation methods “not always directly translatable to use by intelligence officers.”

The Detainee Treatment Act already prohibits the CIA and other agencies from “using unduly coercive techniques,” he said, or “any cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment.

“We expect the CIA to conduct interrogations in a manner that is fully consistent not only with the Detainee Treatment Act and the War Crimes Act,” McCain said, “but with all of our obligations under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention.”

Beyond the question of legislation, Professor O’Connell at Notre Dame said, “the issue should be about whether the United States is going to comply with its international law obligations.”

Since 2006, however, McCain, who “we once thought would be a champion,” has eased off the issue as the presidential election draws closer, O’Connell said. “As far as I know, Barrack Obama has been almost silent on” the question of insisting on full compliance with international treaty obligations.

With the murkiness between the two candidates’ positions, assessing the way this issue may play out Nov. 4 is even more difficult.

“I don’t see it playing out at all,” said Kate O’Beirne of the National Review Institute. “It isn’t being talked about, in part, because no one wants to defend torture.” She added that despite allegations, it has not been proven that such practices are permitted under the Bush administration policies.

“With there being so little difference between the two candidates, it is very possible that the torture issue will not play a significant role,” commented E.J. Dionne Jr., a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institute, a nonprofit public policy organization, and a columnist for The Washington Post.

“Neither candidate seems to see the issue as central because it doesn’t appeal to the swing vote,” he said. “The constituency who strongly oppose torture are probably already for Obama,” except perhaps “certain Catholics who are very anti-torture and very pro-life.

Said Dionne: “We haven’t heard much about the issue in the campaign, and it’s not at the top of the list of most journalists’ questions.”

Pete Sheehan is based in

Rockville Centre, New York.