Few Sermons on Torture. Why?

The Catholic church teaches that torture is intrinsically evil

 but a recent Pew survey showed Catholics are among the 54% of religios people who see nothing wrong with torture.  In the days when the Peace and Justice Committee of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish was allowed to put inserts on Social Justice issues in the bulletin on a monthly basis I submitted this entry which duly appeared.:

 A nation that condones practice of torture by its military or other personnel is violating international conventions and the moral law.  People who know of torture being practiced and remain silent are culpable in condoning criminal behavior.  Torture is a political, legal, moral problem; it is also a religious problem and so we offer reflections on it from a faith perspective.

The torture that is considered here is that condemned by the United Nations in 1975:

“Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted by or at the instigation of a public official on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession, punishing him for an act he has committed, or intimidating him or other persons.”

The Geneva conventions condemned torture in 1949.  Since the U.S. is a signatory of these and other covenants, torture is illegal in the U.S.  In 1984 the U N declared, No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

Severe human rights abuses at U.S. installations like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan have been reported by Amnesty International, Human Rights’ Watch, the International Committee of the Red Cross and by military personnel who had direct evidence of the torture of prisoners.  Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba has detailed “incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” that were inflicted on several detainees.  Many others testify that the torture was systemic and not the deviant behavior of a “few bad apples.” There is evidence that torture is accepted in the chain of command and condoned at the highest civilian levels of the administration.  There is also widespread opposition in the military and among civilians to the use of torture. It is generally agreed that torture is an unreliable way to obtain information and co-erced testimony is not accepted in courts although US courts are now regrettably changing the law on this.

The Pentagon has a long history of condoning and teaching torture. The School of the Americas (SOA) admits it has trained more than sixty thousand soldiers and police, mostly from Latin America, in counterinsurgency and combat-related skills since it was founded in 1946. During the 1980’s graduates of the SOA (now called the Western Hemisphere for Security Cooperation) participated in the torture, murder and disappearance of thousands of children, women and men in Latin America including religious, priests and bishops.

How should we respond to torture?

We listen to our church which now condemns torture unequivocally. Pope John Paul (in 2004) called for universal condemnation of torture. Pope Benedict XVI in his first World Day of Peace message (2006) declared that “international humanitarian law ought to be considered as… binding on all people.” Cardinal Renato Martino, commenting on this said the pope was urging all countries that have signed the Geneva Conventions barring torture to “respect” them. He said that the Church does not allow the use of torture to extract truth.

The Catholic Catechism states: “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” (2297).

To resist torture we should write to our representatives and urge them to bring political pressure to bear on the administration and the military to renounce all use of torture.  We should also pray for the repentance and conversion of all torturers and for the healing of their victims and we should do this especially when we celebrate Eucharist when we become the Body of Christ who was tortured and assassinated  for our liberation and who renounced all violence.

A recent article posted online by Ray Mc Govern ( a retired analyst with the CIA) is scathing in its words for religious leaders who fail to preach on the evil of torture.  His piece is titled: ” Cowardice Among ‘Christian’ Leaders: Why the Churches are Largely Mum on Torture” ( http://www.alternet.org/story/141714/).

Mc Govern accuses the institutional church of ” riding shotgun for the system” a charge difficult to refute.

 Mc Govern states: ” A mere seven decades after the utter failure of church leaders in Germany, their current American counterparts have again yielded to fear, and have condoned evils like torture by their deafening silence.”  The comparison with Nazi Germany and widespread failure of Catholics and other Christians to protest what they well knew was going on is disturbing but justified.  When  in the fifties and sixties,German parents were asked by their children : ” What did you do during the Holocaust?” many had to hang their heads in shame and change the subject.  What will we say when asked a similar question as the gruesome facts about torture and even murder of prisoners continue to come to light?

There is a Catholic Study Guide titled ” Torture is a Moral Issue” but the study guide has not been made available to be used in parish sermons or workshops, as Mc Govern notes.

 Many will recall that when Pope Benedict visited this country in 2008 just a matter of days after the media reported that Bush administration officials met regularly at the White House to discuss torture techniques, he was silent.  Benedict chose diplomacy over prophesy.

 Mc Govern quotes Archbishop Romero the martyred Salvadoran who was assassinated for speaking out:’ “A church that doesn’t provoke any crisis, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed, what kind of gospel is that?” And Mc Govern concludes his prophetic piece by quoting St. Augustine who said 1,600 hundred years ago:

” Hope has two children.  The first is anger at the way things are.  The second is courage to do something about it.”

So if you are not hearing sermons about torture ask why not and say you want to hear them.

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