Catholicism on Torture, the State, & the Eucharist


I know, I know — this seems like a weird topic to inaugurate this series. Today, in my ongoing series “Catholics Aren’t Crazy” I wanted to put up a post on a Catholic view of Scripture, inspiration, and inerrancy. They have some amazing things to say on these topics that Evangelicals could do really well to embrace. But alas, current events have changed that plan. Tomorrow I’m posting up a potentially controversial article here on a Christian view of Torture. I’m writing it in light of the recent developments, publications, and interviews concerning the legal and ethical exoneration of the “Torture Memo” authors, John Yoo and Jay Bybee. In my research I stumbled upon the following wonderful article by Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic, posted on his blog on Ash Wednesday:

“May the Judgment Not Be Too Heavy Upon Us” — The Daily Dish

The article concerns Marc Thiessen, former speech writer for President Bush. Thiessen is on a tour of every news outlet it seems (I’ve seen him on like four different ones just this past week) to promote his brand new book, Courting Disaster, the point of which is pretty much as follows: Our “enhanced interrogation” techniques were moral, effective, and NOT torture; and President Obama has ended them, thereby “inviting the next attack” and putting everyone in America at risk of being slaughtered by Islamic extremists.

The article isn’t simply about torture, though; it is about Sullivan’s disgust at a “self-proclaimed Catholic” (as he puts it) such as Thiessen trying to defend torture. Andrew Sullivan himself is the most interesting gay Catholic I’ve ever read, but nevertheless he appeals to historic Church decisions, papal encyclicals, and the Catechism to make his case that a Catholic should not endorse the things that Thiessen does. The are two particularly damning Catholic quotes that are not in Thiessen’s favor. From the catechism:

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.

from Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor:

… ‘there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object’. … ‘whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity’ … ‘all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator.’

Sullivan’s point is three-fold: first, it’s one thing to conscientiously object to some sort of rule or opinion of the Church and then go on with your life. It’s quite another to try and twist the Church’s words to justify your actions and make yourself feel like you’re still in line with the Church’s teachings and Just War theory. Secondly, not only are these techniques definitely torture (contra Thiessen) and fall in the categories of “moral violence” and “mental torture”, but they absolutely strip human beings of the innate dignity and worth (no matter their legal or political status) that are the logical starting place of so many other Christian doctrines. To justify this even in one case is to throw a wrench into the whole enterprise of theological anthropology. Lastly, Sullivan makes a most convincing case as to the horror of Thiessen’s thought process that leads him to believe what he is espousing in this book and these interviews. As he says, “For a Catholic to use [these] argument[s] on a Catholic television program and to invoke the Magisterium of the Church in its defense is simply breath-taking in its moral obtuseness.” Sullivan concludes the article:

But what has happened in this country, what we have allowed ourselves to do to others, innocent and guilty, is something for which I believe repentance is necessary. As Christians and as Catholics, we are required to follow Our Lord’s impossible example and not just love our friends, but to love our enemies. This does not mean pacifism; and I have a long, long record of supporting what I believe were just wars. I mean understanding that war is always evil even when it is necessary, but that some things, like torture, abuse and dehumanizing of others under our total control, are never justified….And once done, once perpetrated, they damage the souls of the torturers as profoundly as they destroy their victims.

While reading this article, I was reminded of William Cavanaugh’s book Torture and the Eucharist. In it, Cavanaugh explains how governments by their nature tend to pull communities apart in order to “lose them” within the collective identity of the State. One tool that has historically been employed to do this is state-sanctioned torture, because it serves to “discipline” the members of society. It builds in a social-consciousness that believes that State has a strength, power, and might that need not be challenged by its members, thereby creating a sense of isolation and disunity. Cavanaugh then explains that it is in the Eucharist that the Christian finds their response to this loss of unity. While the State pulls us apart, it is through the Eucharist that Christ is building for himself a unified community of people. He goes on by saying that for this true unity to be fostered through Communion, the Bread and Wine cannot be seen as mere “symbols”, but they must be seen for what they truly are — Sacraments: ways that God very really communicates Himself, His Power, and His Spirit to us; places in which we truly “Commune” with Him.

And as we all know, Catholics have the kind of rich sacramental theology that helps accomplish this “Communing” that fights against the social disconnectedness of the State that the “Thiessens” of the world seem to want to justify. I commend both the Catholic Church for its stance on this issue, and Sullivan for his articulation of it. So read the article (the last third is pretty amazing), leave your thoughts, and may you all truly experience participation in the torture, death, resurrection, and community of our slain and risen Savior through Communion on this, the Lord’s Day.

And don’t forget to tune in tomorrow for my own article on the legality and theology of torture.

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6 thoughts on “Catholicism on Torture, the State, & the Eucharist

  1. I’m not especially familiar with what instances Thiessen was trying to defend, but torture is torture and if he is a follower of Christ, then he should be against it. While I can see how it may be considered useful in gaining information, the end does not justify the means.

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  2. Pingback: Open Mic: John Yoo, Torture, & Christian Ethics « the long way home

  3. Torture is torture is torture. As much as my humanistic nature wants to say that eye for an eye, or use whatever means necessary to get info that will help keep us safer; my convictions come from something so much more than myself. Its wrong.

    Ps. I love that image. Where did you find it? Who shot it?

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  4. what a great blogpost….thank you. I have always admired those who can honestly talk about the struggle between wanting to go to any length to be safe and having to live our Catholic Faith even if it is tough to do. Ultimately, everything I do has to be framed by this question: do I want to go to Heaven or don’t I?

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  5. Pingback: And Thus It Begins: liberti home meetings & my heart | the long way home

  6. Pingback: A Shout-Out to My Mennonite Pacifists Out There… | the long way home

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