Next weekend, Duke University will host its conference on torture, which has a very specific goal in mind: identifying that “torture is always wrong, torture does not make ‘us’ safer, and we need concrete tactics to refuse the climate of fear and and compliance.”   The conference is broadly ecumenical and also interfaith, including Muslim voices too.  And, it has a variety of well-known people presenting who have long been involved in advocating against torture.

I wish I could go and be a Catholic voice in this mix.  The magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church is that torture is always wrong, as well (see Compendium 404) because of the tradition’s strong belief in the integrity of the human person and the possibility of that person to turn toward good ways of living – even when that person is accused of murder or sexual abuse or other horrendous crimes.  Torture, as a way of breaking people mentally, physically and spiritually, cannot be a humane way of relating to other humans.  I find this actually comforting, for my own part: given the number of people who have been falsely found guilty (as confirmed by DNA tests) I’d rather know that if I were ever accused of something, at least from the point of view of the church, I still possess a fundamental human dignity.

Culturally, however, it’s far more difficult.  Accusations have a way of becoming “fact” in peoples’ minds – not only in courts, but in jobs, schools and daily interactions.  Gossip and he said/she said scenarios feed our sense of righteousness over against the accused person.  And so we seek safety against the ones we perceive to be criminals, rather than doing this much harder work of presuming innocence. 

I know what one counter-argument will be: what about the safety of the innocent who have already been harmed by the crimes?  Shouldn’t we be expressing a preference for their pain and suffering?  My response is the old means/ends question in moral theology: even if we express a preference for seeking justice for the victims of crimes, it is not good to use means that may only punish innocent people (by convincing them that they are guilty even if they are not) and that take away from the dignity of people who are accused.  It’s a tough word – but Jesus gives us a tough word.

Does torture make us safer?  The conference organizers say no – but I’d go further and suggest that for Catholics it is the wrong question.  Safety is not ultimately what Christians are called to profess, especially in the light of a savior who made very unsafe moves.  And that is ultimately the driving force behind the church’s teachings on torture in the first place – it is trying to school us into understanding humanity very differently from the ways our culture would want us to think. 

Related to all this, I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend Bill Cavanaugh’s book
.  His book discusses torture in relation to the Chilean Pinochet regime and suggests that the Eucharist provides an other vision of humanity and the world.