Waterboarding: WWJD?

According to Mark Oppenheimer in today’s New York Times, Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen is a “practicing Roman Catholic.” After reading Oppenheimer’s article, it’s clear that Thiessen needs to keep practicing, because I don’t think he’s doing it right.

In “Courting Disaster: How the C.I.A. Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack,” Mr. Thiessen, a practicing Roman Catholic, says that waterboarding suspected terrorists was not only useful and desirable, but permitted by the teachings of the Catholic Church.

This does not square, to put it mildly, with the common understanding of Catholic teaching.

Yes, that’s putting it mildly.

For instance:

“The thought of Jesus being stripped, beaten, and derided until his final agony on the cross should prompt the Christian to protest against similar treatment of their fellow human beings. Of their own accord, disciples of Christ will reject torture, which nothing can justify, which causes humiliation and suffering to the victim and degrades the tormentor.”

– Pope John Paul II, before the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, June 1982

“Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; 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, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat laborers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: 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 honor due to the Creator.”

– “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” Second Vatican Council

Oops. Popes and Councils are kind of a big deal in the Catholic church. But there’s more.

Oppenheimer details other challenges to Thiessen’s interpretations of Catholic teaching, but there’s one big one that Oppenheimer misses. At the very end, he writes,

But what if the church specifically prohibited waterboarding?

“On what competence would they do that?” Mr. Thiessen said. “I don’t think the church would be competent to judge whether the way we did it was torture.”

“Perhaps,” he added, “they should clarify it. We were in the middle of a war, and there was no teaching on that. But the church only gives general moral guidance, and people of good faith have to interpret that guidance.”

Three problems here — and the last is the big one.

First, the argument that “the ends justify the means” in time of war just won’t fly. Said Bishop John Ricard in 2004,

We recognize and share the concerns of lawmakers and citizens for the safety of U.S. soldiers and civilians abroad in these times of great uncertainty and danger. In the face of this danger, our nation must not embrace a morality based on an attitude that “desperate times call for desperate measures” or “the end justifies the means.” The inherent justice of our cause and the perceived necessities involved in confronting terrorism must not lead to a weakening or disregard of U.S. and international law.

Second, the Roman Catholic church is on record as considering waterboarding to be torture and therefore beyond the pale, specifically as practiced by the United States in the War on Terror, as the Jesuits make clear (emphasis added):

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks inside the United States in September of 2001, the United States government launched a “war on terror.” Those prosecuting this war argued that the nature of the threat we faced required new tactics so that long-standing international prohibitions against torture, as well as cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners or detainees, could no longer bind agents of the United States government. Evidence would emerge that United States military personnel did, in fact, engage in abusive and degrading treatment of detainees, and that United States intelligence agents were using interrogation techniques such as waterboarding that had long been considered torture.

Bishop Thomas Wenski, on behalf of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, signed a February 28, 2008 op-ed [pdf] along with religious leaders of various faith traditions that was quite blunt about equating waterboarding and torture:

“Enhanced” interrogation practices – like waterboarding, hypothermia, long-time standing, sleep deprivation and the use of psychotropic drugs – contradict our democratic values as well as essential principles of morality and faith.

Torture is an intrinsic evil. It exercises a corrosive effect on the very fabric of our society. It is to be rejected not only for the profound damage it wreaks upon the victim, but also because of the damage it inflicts, spiritual and physical, on those who are called upon to practice it and on the citizens of the country in whose name it is done. It contradicts the rule of law which must be a focal virtue for any society that seeks the security and well-being of its citizens.

More problematic for Thiessen, however, is that he is questioning the competence of the USCCB to make moral judgments on this at all. He tried to walk it back, to say “OK, you can make general judgments, but not specific ones,” but that still says to the bishops “You don’t know what you are doing.”

That kind of talk doesn’t generally sit well with Catholic bishops.

Thiessen’s next visit to the confessional could be rather long, if his priest has seen Oppenheimer’s story today.