The Catholic Thing
“Torture” and the Pro-Life Cause Print E-mail
By Austin Ruse   
Thursday, 18 February 2010

Former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen has written a book that has reopened a rather vociferous squabble about what constitutes torture. The debate has a special resonance in the Catholic world since Thiessen, a self-identified Catholic, has appeared on Raymond Arroyo’s news broadcast on Eternal Word Television Network and on other Catholic outlets.

The political left and various Catholic front groups of the Democratic Party are celebrating the reopening of the debate over enhanced interrogation because it gives them yet another opportunity to try and draw faithful Catholics away from the Republicans and towards the party of abortion. It fits neatly into the narrative that the Democrats are better on social justice issues than the Republicans even though the Republicans may seem better on the single issue of abortion. (By the way, our bishops and the Vatican have repeatedly said for the record that being good on other issues does not make up for being bad on abortion.)

The enhanced interrogation debate, such as it is, revolves mostly around the technique known as waterboarding, wherein a person is restrained, his face is covered with a cloth, and water is poured over it. It simulates drowning in brief bursts. Other charges have been leveled against CIA interrogators including murder. But since no one – not even Dick Cheney – defends actual killing of detainees, the issue is almost completely about waterboarding and, at least for liberals, is really about getting faithful Catholics to vote for the abortion party.

Let me make some things very clear. I do not advocate torture. I do not even advocate waterboarding. I am describing the contours of the debate and its implications for the pro-life movement.

There is a great deal of confusion about what the CIA interrogators actually did with a number of captured terrorists. Writing in Catholic Online a few years ago, Father Gerald Coleman said detainees were submerged in water. Others have said the CIA did things similar to what the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia, which was a vicious form of torture wherein the victims were held completely under water and drowned. None of this was true of the CIA methods. But let’s be clear: even the actual CIA method is not something anyone could describe as anything other than truly frightening and possibly approaching the intrinsically evil.

The political left, however, are not the only ones complaining about Thiessen’s book and his view that waterboarding has morally acceptable uses. Blogs such as “The American Catholic,” “Zippy Catholic,” and “Catholic and Enjoying It” have attracted a small but voluble group of politically conservative Catholics who are also fanning the flames. For them, it is mostly an issue of Catholic morality. (The great Elizabeth Anscombe’s name usually surfaces at some point.) The Church clearly teaches that torture is morally impermissible, although this is a development of doctrine, given that the Church either approved or sponsored torture in centuries past. Still, the Church is clear now. Torture is morally wrong and these critics want everyone, especially Catholic supporters of waterboarding to know it.

But is waterboarding torture?

One of the documents frequently pointed to by anti-torture campaigners is a Catholic study guide on torture prepared by the lay staff of the Social Justice Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It’s not a magisterial document and mentions waterboarding only twice, never in a definition of torture. No Vatican document I am aware of defines waterboarding as torture.

To be fair, the waterboarding-is-torture crowd says waterboarding clearly fits into many definitions of torture, including documents of the U.S. government, binding international treaties, and Church teaching. For them, therefore, waterboarding does not need to be explicitly defined as torture to be so.

Still, many faithful Catholics are not entirely convinced. A recent Pew poll actually shows that most self-identified (not necessarily faithful) Catholics actually support the “torture” of terror suspects. This may mean – as with abortion – that many Catholics are either ignorant of or dissenters from the Faith. But it may also express some skepticism that what is often described in the media as torture really is such.

In recent days, I spoke to the presidents of two faith-based think tanks and two former high-ranking military officers (both of the latter went on to high-level jobs in the CIA, Department of Defense, and the White House). All are faithful Catholics and daily communicants and not a one is convinced that waterboarding is simply torture. What the Pew poll and this anecdote demonstrate is how far the waterboarding-is-torture movement would have to advance to be serious.

For some in the pro-life world there is a fear that this debate will be successful in the effort to draw people away from the imperfect but still pro-life Republican Party. They also wonder how the fact that three terrorists were waterboarded more than six years ago in the aftermath of the horror of 9/11 can eclipse the regular, ongoing killing of unborn children in the tens of millions. In the six years of the waterboarding debate, there have been something like 7.2-million abortions and exactly zero cases of waterboarding. To their credit, most, if not all, of the conservative critics of waterboarding do not say waterboarding is more important than abortion, and if forced to make a choice of issues to work on would easily and quickly choose the fight for the unborn child.

On the one hand are the good-hearted who are advancing serious moral arguments. On the other side are those who use torture as a political agenda item. In the end, no matter what the motives, the prolife community must protect the momentum we have generated since 1973.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washinton, D.C.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy.
The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-FAM.

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Comments (17)Add Comment
Social Justice for Who?
written by Willie, February 19, 2010
Waterboarding boarding, right or wrong, pales in comparison to what the enemies over the years have inflicted on Americans. No doubt valuable information has been obtained from these fanatics. Some of these liberals should be placed in harms way for a change. To try to equate social justice and waterboarding with Catholic teaching for abortion and make it part of a seamless garment theology is real intellectual prostitution. This attempt of some to cloud moral judgment is leftist political deceit.
The parties are over
written by William H. Phelan, February 19, 2010
The Geneva Conventions. Did I miss your mention of them? Two popes warned Pres. Bush to invade Iraq would be "illegal and immoral". Waterboarding is torture, plain and simple. The end never justifies the means. You do not have to worry that Republicans will become Democrats. I, for one, never will. As David Brooks told Charlie Rose: There are more Independents in this Country than Dems and Reps combined. See the VA, NJ and MA elections. That is why the Tea Party and Sarah Palin have "legs".
written by Chuck, February 19, 2010
In my opinion the violence of poverty inflicted on poor Americans by politicians bent on taxing us more and more amounts to being mugged by legal means. There are people in the US eating cat food because their corporate retirement plans have been raided by greedy executives while Congress does nothing to protect what is legally their rightful property. I can't care less if Mustafa is tortured. My problem is Joe is being mugged and Joey is being killed in the womb. Charity begins at home.
written by Joseph, February 19, 2010
Since everyone's threshold of pain is different, what could be construed as torture by some may not be seen the same way as other. For example, having to watch Dick Cheney on Meet the Press is torturous to some. Having to endure a Senate debate on health care on C-Span also could be seen as torture, or at the least, "cruel and unusual punishment."

Christopher Hitchens, who assailed Mother Teresa, underwent waterboarding and was convinced it was torture. From here, it looked like poetic justice.
written by Brad Miner, February 19, 2010
God sees in secret, so there's no hiding our sins, and the question may be: Is waterboarding a sin? I think that if we do use enhanced interrogation it shouldn't become public knowledge - but everything does these days. But is it a sin to squeeze a terrorist for information that may save innocent lives? To me it's no different from asking if a war may be just, and to me the answer is yes. Of course, we need internal oversight, but we need intelligence too.
also torture?
written by Louise, February 19, 2010
Is it torture if you kill the victim? If so, aren't abortion procedures torture for the human life in the womb?
Chance of a Lifetime
written by William H. Phelan, February 19, 2010
I would love to be the defense counsel for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Your honor, my client was never Mirandized, he was waterboarded 183 times and all info and confessions extracted from him must be thrown out. Americans are using the same methods used against Amer. prisoners in the Korean War. Rendition is used by us in former gulag prisons in Ukraine, et al. We called them "atheists" and communists. Muslims call us atheists and capitalists. This is a very dark time in American history.
A Plague on Both Parties
written by James Cathelineau, February 20, 2010
The lesson to be drawn from the debate between Mr. Ruse and Catholics from "the party of abortion" is that Catholics cannot with integrity support either of the main US parties. We need a group of Catholic who would consider the failure of an American political order that suffers from "walking pneumonia" and that might be best characterized as a "lobbyocracy." Then they might work to found a political organization dedicated to Catholic principles, as Germans did after WWII.
Are those blogs Catholic?
written by C., February 20, 2010
Well written, Austin. The create-smoke-so-people-think-there's-fire strategy of the blog screechers you mentioned in order to weaken the pro-life movement is an outrageous offense against the faith and against human dignity. Heretics like that have no business being supported by Catholics.

Thank you!
Bishops - Duty to TEACH
written by Monica, February 20, 2010
Not a magisterial document?

The document made available on the USCCB website is clearly a document intended to teach.

"mentions waterboarding only twice, never in a definition of torture."

The document mentions "waterboarding" as a euphemism for simulated drowning. Simulated drowning is torture.
written by Jennifer, February 20, 2010
I've been waiting for this response, and to be frank, I expected better. You consulted "daily communicants" in the military and at think tanks? Why not consult "daily communicants" who are bishops, or more plausibly, credible moral theologians? Why not address, what is the main charge against you, that you are championing consequentialism here? Standing up against torture DOES NOT weaken the pro-life cause; it strengthens it. It saddens and distresses me that you simply cannot see this.
written by C., February 21, 2010
Equating waterboarding with abortion is a moral lie. Those who spread it are guilty of the abortions they cause. According to the motu proprio Apostolos Suos (1998), the USCCB does not exercise an authentic magisterium unless it acts by unanimous vote in plenary assembly, or else by 2/3rds vote with the recognitio of the Holy See.

The "Torture Is A Moral Issue" study guide appears to have been published by a committee, and thus does not constitute authentic Church teaching.
written by Austin Ruse, February 21, 2010

I was waiting for you over on Shea's blog. My question to you is what is consequentialist about saying one issue (abortion) is more pressing than another (waterboarding). I still await your answer.

written by Austin Ruse, February 21, 2010

One of the problems with documents produced by committees of lay staff at the USCCB is that good Catholics confused them with the Magisterium. Except on liturgical rubrics, Catholics are utterly free to ignore anything produced by the USCCB and most especially by anything produced by the lay staff. The USCCB is not a part of the hierarchical structure of the Church. The Bishops are, individually, yes but even they cannot bind alone, but not the USCCB and certainly not its lay staff.
GOP Not Pro-Life Either
written by blue8064, February 22, 2010
The Republicans and conservatives are not pro-life either. The main reason for that is their support for a policy denying an increase in welfare payments to unmarried welfare mothers who have more children while on welfare (the family cap). Such a policy implicitly tells welfare mothers to abort their babies instead of allowing them to be born, and is therefore pro-abortion. On the other hand, working families have dependency exemptions and child tax credits to help them with raising children.
brain teaser
written by William, February 22, 2010
Mr. Ruse has written about this subject very well here. Torture, war and the death penalty are used against abortion disingenuously to justify entrenched political party loyalty.
Here's a brain teaser: My brother is an officer in the USN (this is true). As part of his training in case of capture, he was waterboarded (among other similar things) so that he would be prepared to resist enemy interrogation. Was he tortured? Was his training, for which he is grateful, evil or sinful?
Mr. Ruse's Ego
written by John, March 13, 2010
Austin is a front man to give Legion of Christ and Opus Dei (though Austin is not formally affiliated with Opus Dei) credibility as these organizations carry out their agenda which is frankly fascist and regrettably, sexually perverted as demonstrated by the Legion founder.

Remember, Austin Ruse and his cronies controlled the Presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court for six years and their government did absolutely nothing to stop abortion in America.

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