A Torture Apologist's Flawed Theology

By John Gehring 03-10-2010

The Washington Post has a new op-ed page writer drawing scrutiny for his hearty endorsement of "enhanced interrogation," which translated from Orwellian into English means torture. Marc Thiessen, the second George W. Bush speechwriter contributing to the Post, is in good company with several other professional pontificators who have argued that a little roughing up of the enemy is morally justified and an effective way to gather intelligence. Recent disclosures that abusive practices went even farther than previously known should give pause to some of the most committed torture apologists.

What makes Thiessen's views particularly unique is the use of faith to burnish his position. A Roman Catholic, he argues that specific acts such as waterboarding are not prohibited by Catholic teaching in his book, Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama is Inviting the Next Attack. (Subtle title, eh?)

At the very least, this level of rationalization takes a Houdini-like sleight of hand and at worst badly distorts church teaching for sinister ends. The Catechism of the Catholic Church condemns "torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions." The U.S. Catholic bishops' political responsibility statement, Faithful Citizenship, unambiguously references torture (along with genocide, racism, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war) as something that can "never be justified." In 1993, Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Veritatis splendor that some acts "are always seriously wrong by reason of their object," including "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."

Thiessen's suspect theology has earned criticism from Catholic progressives and conservatives, including First Things, the Catholic journal that under the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus strongly supported the invasion of Iraq. Paul Baumann, the editor of the Catholic magazine Commonweal, told the Beliefs columnist at The New York Times that the largely unified Catholic opposition to Thiessen is "a good indication of how erroneous his view is."

Perhaps that will persuade EWTN, the global Catholic television station and arbiter of opinion, culture, and spirituality for many conservative Catholics, to think twice before inviting Thiessen back on the air. In a recent interview, Thiessen claimed torture never occurred under the Bush administration and received an uncritical hearing from host Raymond Arroyo, whose commentary and exchanges with guests frequently sound like banter you would hear over cocktails at a Republican National Committee retreat.

Torture is morally wrong. It undermines our highest ideals and values as a nation. Many experts also cite evidence that there are more effective ways of collecting intelligence. Pundits are entitled to their own opinions and indeed get a paycheck for expressing them. But those who spin the facts commit an even graver offense when they misuse faith to do it.

John Gehring is Director of Communications for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

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