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The Church’s Position on Torture

January 2011

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January 2011

Today, FIACAT asks all churches and all Christians to openly stand against torture.

The Holy See [1] and the World Counsel of Churches (WCC) [2] spoke out decisively against torture and called upon all Christians to oppose this practice [3].

The Catholic Church has long justified torture but has at last changed its position. Since the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes was issued on 7 December 1965 by the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has condemned all actions violating human integrity, including mutilation, physical or mental torture, or psychological domination.

The 1981 Code of Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1987) both condemn torture and call for its abolishment. Further, the Holy See has signed and ratified the International Convention Against Torture. In a statement on 13 December 2005, Cardinal Martino said the Church condemns torture as a means of obtaining information. “Torture is the humiliation of another human being. And so the Church does not condone this method of extracting the truth.” [4]
On 6 September 2007, Pope Benedict XVI reiterated the Church’s condemnation of torture in prison.

The prohibition of torture “cannot be challenged under any circumstance…When prison conditions do not allow the prisoner’s basic recuperation, such as the recovery of self-esteem, these institutions fail in their essential purpose…Governments must take care to avoid punitive approaches that undermine or degrade the dignity of prisoners.” [5]

In a declaration made on 12 May 2004, the American National Council of Churches, which has united a large number of Protestant and Orthodox Churches, expressed regret over “the devastating reports of the humiliation and torture of Iraqi prisoners by American military personnel…How can America expect true cooperation when their actions are met only with disgust? …How can we to accept the damage caused by the unilateral invasion of Iraq, the deprivation of rights to more than six hundred detainees at Guantanamo, the closure of an Iraqi newspaper, the appalling mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners? The ‘war against terror,’ once a cause that the entire world’s countries could share, has been overtaken by resentment against the United States for what is seen as a betrayal of its own ideals. Sadly, the photograph emblematic of this war is not the tearing down of Saddam Hussein’s statue during a joint celebration of Americans and Iraqis, but the pyramid of naked Iraqi prisoners suffering the insults of American soldiers in a moment of moral bankruptcy. In a world full of conflict, our faith calls us, as witnesses of Christ , to friendship and solidarity with all peoples and all nations. The road to true solidarity is not easy. It requires much dialogue, respect for others, and belief in the dignity of all human beings. True solidarity demands reciprocal commitments and rules of legitimate conduct, as required by international law in accordance with the community of nations.”

Bishop John H. Ricard, Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee and President of the International Affairs Committee at the US Bishops Conference, described the photos of Iraqi prisoners tortured by American soldiers as “horrible” and “disgusting.” On 17 May 2004, Bishop Ricard said that the terrible torture suffered by Iraqi prisoners “has brought shame on our nation, is an affront to our core ideals and destroys the legitimate efforts made to confront the very real threats facing our country and the world.” Bishop Ricard sees this as a challenge to reflect on broader moral issues.

The torture of Iraqi prisoners highlights “the two moral hazards that could result from the response to the horrors of September 11 and the difficulties in Iraq…The first is the conviction of being an exception. We risk losing sight of the hard truth that our perceived victimization and moral superiority do not free us from the moral obligation to support basic rights, even when our worst enemies show contempt for these rights. The second moral danger is a natural consequence of the first. The severity of the threats we face incites us to accept a morality where the ends justify the means. The justice inherent in our cause and the need to stop terrorism can drive us to a minimalist morality that accepts a broad interpretation of international law, the “inevitability” of civilian deaths in Iraq and the “realism” of confidence in the military response to the problem of global terror. The challenge at this time is to address these horrific incidents of torture in a way that shows the world—and, more importantly, ourselves - that our nation has not succumbed these moral pitfalls. The universal condemnation of the events at Abu Ghraïb is a sign of hope that despite the unspeakable evil that has been done and the terrible threats we face, our nation is committed to acting in full accord with the basic moral standards and ideals of freedom and justice for all peoples administrated by the America government. In doing so, we will support international law, strengthen the moral standing of our nation and honor the memory those who perished on September 11th and in Afghanistan and Iraq wars.”

On 10 November 2006, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) in the United States, comprised of sixty-four religious groups from all faiths—Jews, evangelical Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims, Buddhists—adopted a joint declaration condemning the use of torture. Torture was defined as a violation of “the fundamental dignity of the human person, to which all religions, in their highest ideals, have a high regard.” [6]

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published a report on 3 July 2008 condemning torture. The report encouraged reflection and analysis of torture as purely a moral issue [7]. The Conference further pursued the moral condemnation of torture in a theological and sociological piece titled Torture is a Moral Issue [8].

The Church must, first and foremost, continue to stress the reciprocal relationship between all men. If we start to differentiate between “them” and us, what becomes of our perception of others as neighbors? Can one be close to someone qualified as an “enemy?” The actual or presumed terrorist or the executioner, can they be our neighbors? Let us not forget that both are children of God, and thus our brothers, with whom we share a common humanity.
Resistance to torture cannot be merely physical, that is to say, it cannot be reduced to a matter for the police, the military, etc. It must also be of the spiritual order. Confronted with the force of evil embodied by terrorism, it is difficult not to let yourself (as a State, social group or individual) be swept away by the “cycle of violence.” What, then, is the just response to terrorism? Believers are encouraged to find their reactions in the unconditional love God has for every human being, in the infinite respect He has for every man.

By rooting ourselves in God’s universal and unconditional love for all people, we may continue to bestow upon every human being the rights inherent in their very existence “in the image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1, 26-27), even if he is a true or suspected terrorist. A Christian cannot tolerate the war on terror unless rule of law is ensured, unless the respect and dignity of every human being becomes the foundation of the fight against terror. Thus, in his World Peace Day address on January 1, 2004, Pope John Paul II clearly states that “the use of force against terrorists cannot justify a renunciation of the principles of rule of law. Political decisions that fail to take into account fundamental human rights will never be acceptable because the end never justifies the means.” [9]

“The Christian faith affirms that every man remains a human being, regardless of the nature of the acts he committed. Man cannot be reduced to what he has done. Terrorist or not, the inhumane treatment of one man will affect society as a whole.” [10]

The Christian denies the destruction of man by man through a passionate fight for the dignity of the human person. It is the Christian’s responsibility to prevent humanity from succumbing to the very sins for which Christ sacrificed himself. After the flood, an expression of divine wrath against the violence of men, God told Noah: “for your lifeblood I will surely demand an account…Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind” (Genesis 9, 4-6).
If the life of man, created by God in His likeness, is so valuable, how much more has it become since Christ redeemed humanity by His blood and His death on the Cross! At the time of the Passion, Jesus not only demonstrated his fraternity with mortal man, he joined in brotherhood with the tortured and the executed. Thus torture is not only an evil, it is an absolute evil. The denunciation of violence, particularly against torture, cannot constitute a voluntary part of Christian life. The stance against torture is essential to this life, for it makes the heart:

“Remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering (Hebrews 13:3).” Whoever wants to be followers of Christ must be concerned with the basic needs, freedom and dignity of his brothers who are locked up, threatened with death and suffering.

“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). In light of the Beatitudes (“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled…Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:6 and 9), the defense of human rights is to defend the rights of all.
The commandment “Thou shall not kill” resounds in the moral conscience of all mankind. By rooting its action in the Christian faith, ACAT does not isolate itself from the rest of the world. No, it reaches all people of goodwill who recognize “the inherent dignity of all members of the human family and their equal inalienable rights” and see this as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

The universal condemnation of torture, with one voice, by all the churches will only be heard if accompanied by a profound work for justice and peace. Christians and those who share Christian values must take part in full. Those who spread the message of salvation to all men, they are called the bearers of hope, promoters of life for all. With the utmost concern for the respect of the eminent dignity of every human being, the though that men can kill other men in the name of God, or worse, on the order of God, horrifies them. Because they are disciples of Jesus, the Son of God, Christians know that God is Love and that through Him we receive forgiveness and the strength to forgive.

If humanity is to leave violence behind, we must combat the violence—but not with more violence. You cannot answer evil with evil. As recalled by Pope John Paul II in his January 1, 2005 message on World Peace Day, Christians must “fight against evil with good” [11] because peace is the fruit of justice and solidarity.


[1] See statements made on 5 and 27 June 2004 by Pope Jean Paul II; 3 December 2004 by Cardinal Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; 9 September 2004 by Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. http://www.acatfrance.fr/medias/pag...

[2] 12 February statement by WCC Secretary General Konrad Raiser (http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/what/int...); 3 December 2004 statement by WCC Secretary General Samuel Kobia (http://www.fiacat.org/fr/article.ph...); WCC statements of 1990 and 1998.

[3] See the article by Monseigneur Emmanuel Laffont, The Church and Torture: A Catholic View, in the June 2006 ACAT Courrier (http://www.acatfrance.fr/medias/pag...) and Sylvie Bukhari de Pontual’s The Church Condemns Torture in the December 2004 ACAT Courrier (http://www.acatfrance.fr/medias/pag...)

[4] See http://www.zenit.org/article-11762?...

[5] See: https://www.zenit.org/article-16105...

[6] Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders of America. 10 November 2006, Agence Zenit, 10 November 2006.

[7] Accessible on the Conference of American Priests website.

[8] Torture is a Moral Issue: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-act...

[9] Pope John Paul II. 1 January 2004 World Peace Day speech. Paris, La Documentation Catholique, Nº 2305, 4 January 2004.

[10] Justice et Paix - France, Terrorisme, Condamner, Expliquer, Résister, Paris, Documents Episcopat, N° 3 - 4 / 2005.

[11] Pope John Paul II, 1 January 2005 speech for World Peace Day. La Documentation Catholique, Nº 2327, 2 January 2005.

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