Catholics, Abortion and Torture

Tortured explanations: Speaker Pelosi at a May 10 press conference.
Tortured explanations: Speaker Pelosi at a May 10 press conference. (photo: Reuters)

Torture, like abortion, is an issue that can’t be understood from a Catholic perspective in neat right-vs.-left political terms.

That’s one of the things that has been highlighted by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s highly publicized squirmings in the last couple of weeks, with respect to when and how much she was told about the use of “water boarding” and other controversial CIA interrogation techniques employed during the Bush administration.

Revelations that Pelosi was briefed years ago by the CIA about this matter are politically perilous for her because Pelosi’s Democratic Party seeks to define itself as the party that opposes torture as an interrogation method and to define the Republican Party as the party that endorses the use of torture. (Let’s leave aside, for the purpose of this Daily Blog entry, the question of whether “water boarding” and other CIA interrogation methods do constitute torture.)

This Democratic-Republican political dichotomy on torture is similar to how abortion is often perceived as something that Democrats reflexively endorse and Republicans reflexively oppose. 

And Catholics who assess issues primarily from a partisan political perspective are vulnerable to subscribing to arguments that claim — in opposition to settled Church teaching — that it’s morally acceptable to support either abortion rights (as in the case of many Catholic Democrats and some Catholic Republicans) or to support interrogation techniques that could cross the line into torture (as in the case of many Catholic Republicans and some Catholic Democrats).

What’s wrong with this kind of reasoning, from an authentically Catholic perspective? A comprehensive exploration of that topic is far beyond the competence of the Daily Blog, but here are a couple of important points to be considered.

First, both abortion and torture are intrinsic evils, meaning they are always gravely immoral no matter what the context. Go here and here to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s explanations of why abortion and torture are completely unacceptable morally.

And the old saying that “hard cases make bad law” is even truer when it comes to codifying moral law. Just as difficult circumstances for pregnant mothers are cited as moral justification for taking innocent unborn human lives through abortion, so too are grave threats to national security and the lives of U.S. soldiers and innocent civilians cited as moral justification for obtaining important intelligence through brutal interrogation techniques.

But proper respect for the inviolable dignity of the human person prohibits recourse to abortion or torture at all times, in all places, no matter what the circumstances. The Church has taught consistently that the life of a human being is never to be reduced to a means to reaching an end, no matter how “good” that end is believed to be. Hard cases make bad morality, in other words.

Remember, too, that once the door is opened to either abortion or torture in limited circumstances, pressure immediately builds to allow these moral evils as a general rule.

Second, it’s always perilous to redefine Church teachings in conformance with a party’s political agenda. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have a monopoly on moral truth, and politicians in both parties are tempted constantly to compromise their moral principles in pursuit of political power. And when political agendas and control of Congress and the White House are placed ahead of the moral truths the Church proclaims, this temptation to compromise soon becomes a political imperative for Catholics in public life — Republican and Democrat alike.

But the Church reminds us that a consistent Catholic witness to the sanctity of life and to the dignity of the human person requires total opposition to both abortion and torture, no matter where a person is located on the spectrum of partisan politics.