National Catholic Register


Why the Church Condemns Torture

Bishops Publish Study Guide On Issue That Divides U.S.



July 20-26, 2008 Issue | Posted 7/15/08 at 12:11 PM


WASHINGTON — By now, you’ve probably read about it: a Middle East religious and political “dissident” taken captive by a Western government, interrogated, ridiculed, made to endure denigrating postures, beaten and eventually killed.

His name? Jesus Christ.

Two thousand years later, Christ remains with us, and so does torture. Meditating on the sufferings of Christ, says Orlando Bishop Thomas Wenski, can help us bring an end to torture.

“His agony in the garden before his arrest, his painful scourging, the mocking crowning with thorns, his carrying of the cross and his crucifixion — we do well to recall how this was visited upon Jesus with state sanction,” said Bishop Wenski, “if only to understand why the Church in her teachings condemns torture.”

On June 23 Bishop Wenski and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops took a significant step toward conveying those teachings, issuing “Torture is a Moral Issue: A Catholic Study Guide.” The 39-page guide was produced by the USCCB’s Office of International Justice and Peace, of which Bishop Wenski is committee chairman, in collaboration with the Catholic Leadership Council within the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (

Concerned primarily with the possible use of torture by the U.S. government and secondarily with similar action by more than 150 other governments, the guide is intended to “prompt thinking and reflection on torture.”

It was shaped by two basic convictions: Torture is a moral issue “that deserves to be understood and addressed by Christians”; and fear and desperation open the door to torture, but Christians must create an atmosphere of respect for human dignity.

The guide continues a thread of public discussion by the bishops about torture. That most recently included a letter by Bishop Wenski to U.S. senators, urging them to pass the Intelligence Authorization Act prohibiting torture as an interrogation technique. The USCCB also encouraged Congress to adopt similar legislation in the 2006 Defense Appropriations Act.

“Legislation that would expand this ban on torture to other agencies and agents of the U.S. government is still hotly debated,” Bishop Wenski said via email while returning from Cuba. “Understanding that underscores the need for us bishops to teach. We have to form consciences; we have to continue to hold up objective moral principles founded in natural law, readily accessible to human reason. People need to hear us remind them that ends do not justify the means; one can never do evil in the hope of achieving good.”

The leadership draws kudos from Dave Robinson, executive director of Pax Christi USA.

“The bishops have been very engaged … on the issue of torture on a policy level,” said Robinson, whose group was among more than 190 religious organizations promoting June as Torture Awareness Month. “It points to how important the Church sees this issue that it would put a study guide together to encourage real reflection at the grassroots level in parishes all across the country.”

“It’s sad we have to do a study guide on torture,” Robinson added. “That reality speaks so much of the moment we’re in. But at the same time, the guide that the conference produced is excellent. I’m hoping that it’s going to have a positive effect on opening people’s eyes to some of the deep aspects around this issue.”

Sept. 10, 2001

Attitudes toward torture vary, including among Catholics. The Pew Research Center since 2004 has surveyed Americans about torture, asking, “Can torture be justified against suspected terrorists to gain key information?” Among January 2007 respondents, 43% said torture was often (12%) or sometimes (31%) justified. More than half said torture was rarely (25%) or never (29%) justified (3% said “don’t know”). Those results are relatively constant over five surveys since October 2004.

Among Catholics surveyed in January 2007, 26% said torture was never justified — just 1% more than secular respondents.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “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 (No. 2297). It also instructs that, “in times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors” (No. 2298).

Why the discord among some Catholics with Church teaching? Register columnist Mark Shea, who has written widely on the topic, points to a specific pendulum shift.

“The only reason we’re having this conversation is because of 9/11,” said Shea. “If you had stopped any Catholic in their simplicity on Sept. 10, 2001, and said, ‘Do you think that it would be okay for the United States to torture people?’ they would have said, ‘Well of course not. We’re not that type of country. That’s what communists do. That’s what the bad guys do.’”

But with revelations of alleged prisoner abuse by American soldiers at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, torture entered the national consciousness. “I think it’s a big piece of reality to try to chew on for a culture that’s used to video and popcorn,” said Robinson.

Adds Shea: “The only thing that has caused this national conversation at all is the decision of the Bush administration to make use of torture against certain combatants in the war on terror.”

Victim Voices

U.S. bishops hope to contribute to that conversation through use of the study guide by individuals, families, parish discussion groups and adult education classes. Robinson anticipates that Pax Christi communities nationally will initiate such discussion groups in their churches. Shea was planning to use the guide at his church during a July 2 presentation titled “The Ethics of Torture: Consequentialism and its Consequences.”

The USCCB guide considers four moral issues raised by torture — human dignity; various aspects of torture, including the arguments of proponents and opponents; reflections on Jesus’ command to love our enemies; and actions to take to raise awareness of torture. The guide references Scripture, encyclicals and other Church documents. It also provides links to additional resources, thought-provoking questions, prayers and the perspectives of torture victims.

Robinson was most struck by the guide’s use of the testimony of Ursuline Sister Dianna Ortiz, a missionary who in 1989 was tortured and raped in Guatemala. In 1998 she established the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC). Though still pained by her memories, she continues to speak openly about her experiences.

Said Robinson: “One of the most important aspects of the guide itself is how they relate the voices of torture survivors and specifically TASSC. Trying to put those experiences and insert them into the debate has not been easy. I applaud the bishops for doing it effectively with this study guide and hope it will open more space for survivors to be able to speak. These are people who have experienced evil in a deeply personal, visceral way, and I think they have the most to tell us about the evil of torture as we challenge those efforts by our own nation to continue to use torture.

“Hearing the voice of the survivor makes it that much more difficult to think this is your government doing this. We’re doing this. In this society, we the people ultimately are accountable.”

Anthony Flott is based in Papillion, Nebraska.

INFORMATION: Download the USCCB study guide at: