Educational Resource

Action Steps to Address Torture

Year Published
  • 2011
  • English

Chapter Four - Study Guide

Revisiting Paul's Writings

You have taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another. (Col 3:9-10; 16)

Every so often a news report astonishes us. Maybe it makes us aware, as if for the first time, of a challenging situation in the world around us. Maybe the report disturbs us and leaves us wanting to do something about the concern it brought to our attention.

Think back to a news report that affected you this way. Was there, for example, a report that awakened you as if for the first time to the number of abortions performed annually in the United States? Were you astonished by a report that detailed the profound effects of poverty on children? Was there a report on the plight of homeless people, human trafficking or elder abuse that really brought the problem into the light for you and left you feeling disturbed?

When a new awareness of a particular challenge emerges within us, it is common to feel personally challenged. At first we may just want to learn more about the issue. Soon, however, well very likely want to share our new awareness with others, to draw them into the circle of our concern. And before long we may begin to ask what we can do to address the problem personally or together with others.

At the time of this writing, torture makes an appearance almost daily in news reports. It is investigated, analyzed, debated. Torture even has become the subject of primetime TV dramas, with some even seemingly justifying it.

Most current news reports that discuss torture relate to how the United States and its allies have treated and interrogated captives of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, and others detained in an effort to deter future terrorist attacks. That is this discussion guides primary concern. At the same time, an organization known as the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition reminds us that torture currently is practiced by more than 150 governments of the world. Torture has not become merely a reality of the past. You may well know a torture survivor or find yourself sitting next to one while commuting to work.

Many people were astonished to learn of the ways prisoners were interrogated by U.S. personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Often, what people heard about this had an awakening effect upon them; it brought to the front of their minds a moral concern that up to that time hadn't come into their full view.

Not surprisingly, people began to ask what they could do about torture and prisoner abuse. Where could they learn more about this? How could they share their concern about this with others? What constructive action could they take alone, or with others to act upon their concern?

What to do about torture is the focus of this chapter. In keeping with the twin concerns that shaped our three earlier chapters, well examine

1. Ways to raise awareness of torture in and of itself, and to address its current use.

2. Ways to view torture within the larger context of Catholic social teaching and a consistent ethic of life, in hopes of establishing a less fearful and desperate tone within society, and thus helping to build a society less likely to resort to practices such as torture.

Perhaps we can begin this discussion by pondering the following question, which may give direction, and lend substance, to our investigations:

What can any of us do, alone or together, that makes a difference in matters of great public concern such as poverty, or abortion, or human trafficking, or torture?

Each of this chapters ten brief essays discusses actions that individuals, families, groups, or parishes might take to raise awareness of torture in our world, to act upon this awareness, and to build the kind of world in which it can be hoped that torture will simply become a reality of the past. In what follows, it is suggested that we

1. Listen to the voices of torture survivors;

2. End the use of euphemisms for torture;

3. Educate, educate, educate, and pray!

4. Consider signing a statement of conscience; make our voices heard;

5. Pray for our enemies or those who consider us their enemies;

6. Overcome evil in the world with goodness;

7. Participate in interreligious dialogue; know who our enemies are NOT;

8. Prepare the young for a new world of dialogue;

9. Fast for justice and peace; foster solidarity with torture victims;

10. Promote justice in the world.

A. Tortures Immense Toll Invite a torture survivor to speak at your church, your school, or in another context. That is an action recommended by the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC) as a means of helping to abolish torture wherever it is practiced in the world today.

TASSC was established in 1998 by Ursuline Sister Dianna Ortiz, a U.S. citizen and missionary who, in November 1989, was tortured and raped in Guatemala. Sister Ortiz wrote in The Blindfolds Eyes (Orbis Books), her 2002 account of the suffering she endured and her long quest for justice, that she is but one of millions worldwide who has ascended from the torture chamber. She notes that according to one source, in 2001 more than 150 governments engaged in torture or ill treatment.

In The Blindfolds Eyes, Sister Ortiz said that while working as a missionary in Guatemala, I was abducted by security forces and taken to a secret torture center in the capital city. She explained, People who were considered threats to the status quo were abducted and tortured at a rate of nearly two a day.

As a teacher working with indigenous children, the security forces considered her a possible subversive, Sister Ortiz said. She said that with Vatican Council II in the mid-1960s and the subsequent 1968 meeting of the Latin American bishops in Medellin, Colombia, the Church made a commitment to work toward social justice on behalf of the excluded, poor and underprivileged. The Guatemalan army, accordingly, considered Catholics to be allies of the guerrillas, as Guatemala's truth commission would find years later.

After she was tortured, Sister Ortiz promised to tell the world what I have seen and heard. Yet, she writes, every time I have spoken publicly about what happened to me in that secret prison in Guatemala, I have relived the experience.

In an October 2003 Catholic News Service report by Tara Dix, Sister Ortiz said it was ironic that in Guatemala she had found herself, her mission in life, but that in Guatemala, she also lost herself in the darkness of despair, and saw evil at its worst.

Tortures toll is immense, Sister Ortiz makes clear in her book. The damage torture does can never be undone. If I survived for any reason, it is to say that.

B. Visit the TASSC Web Site The mission of TASSC is to end the practice of torture wherever it occurs and to empower survivors, their families and communities wherever they are, the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalitions Web site explains. TASSC actively works on behalf of torture survivors, especially those seeking asylum and living in fear that they will be deported back to their nation of origin. It encourages local groups to aid torture survivors, noting that many live in poverty. You can make an online visit to TASSC at

Survivors of torture live all over the world, says TASSC. Survivors of torture may be working in offices beside us, cleaning our homes and caring for our children.

The TASSC Web site includes a helpful list of Frequently Asked Questions and Answers About Torture. You can access the questions and answers by clicking on the sites About Torture section.

Truth Speakers is TASSCs public speaking network, promoting education about torture by providing speakers for local groups. These speakers are torture survivors. Contact TASSC at 4121 Harewood Rd. N.E., Suite B, Washington, D.C. 20017, or by telephone at 202-529-2991.

How important is it to label a reality accurately, to call it what it is? Some commentators believe that by avoiding the use of certain terms in discussions of disturbing social realities, we actually avoid dealing with these realities themselves.

The use of sanitized or evasive terminology and skewed definitions in discussions of the handling of prisoners in the current combat against terrorism has a way of keeping torture itself from coming into full view, the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition suggested, in a 2006 submission to the U.N. Committee Against Torture. TASSC called it highly deceptive for government officials to use such language.

Father Bryan Massingale, a Catholic moral theologian who teaches at Jesuit-run Marquette University in Milwaukee, also has called attention to the terminology sometimes used in discussions of major social realities, including torture. In a July 2007 speech to the Roundtable Association of Diocesan Social Action Directors, Father Massingale said, Consider some contemporary euphemisms, that is, how we describe social reality in ways that disguise and misrepresent it to dull our awareness of injustice. We speak of ethnic cleansing instead of genocide; of gated communities instead of racially segregated neighborhoods; of neutralizing the enemy instead of killing; of downsizing instead of unemployment; of domestic surveillance instead of spying; of corporate restructuring instead of profit maximization; of enhanced interrogation techniques instead of torture.

Enhanced interrogation techniques : This terminology, cited above by Father Massingale, undoubtedly represents the euphemism most frequently cited by commentators on the contemporary use of torture. And the second most frequently cited euphemism for torture is surely the extraordinary rendition of prisoners, meaning that the United States or its allies sends a prisoner into another nations custody for interrogation. Often, commentators point out, it is well known that these other nations practice torture.

But any terminology that waters down the reality of torture, or that masks its reality, may be a euphemism. Thus, sleep management might replace sleep deprivation, forcing prisoners to sit or stand in stress positions might mean forcing them to assume cruelly punishing postures for long periods.

Sometimes severe forms of interrogation are labeled abuse, rather than torture, apparently out of a sense that abuse somehow sounds less cruel. Some might say that a certain interrogation technique is tantamount to torture, as if to suggest that it is almost, but not quite, torture. And some commentators consider even the term waterboarding euphemistic a term that they say does not fully call to mind the reality of a simulated drowning.

What do you think? Do you find it difficult even to use the term torture in discussions of the treatment of military prisoners held by your country? If so, why?

Franciscan Father Kenneth Himes, chairman of the theology department at Jesuit-run Boston College, reports seeing a display at one time in the home church in Rome of the SantEgidio movement that vividly called attention to the issue of prisoner abuse. SantEgidio is a contemporary church movement actively working for peace and justice in the world in quite specific ways, for example, helping to negotiate peace settlements between nations and campaigning against the death penalty.

Father Himes said that when he visited the church some years ago, a display had been set up in one of the niches of the church that had been a side altar. The exhibit was set up like a prison cell, painted dark gray, with bars across the stained-glass window and various instruments of torture on display: chains, pincers, handcuffs, a whip, needles, blindfolds, etc.

The display included photos of a half dozen or so people who were recent victims of torture in different regions of the world, Father Himes added. He said there also was a placard on a small stand that was a prayer for healing and courage for victims. Whenever Father Himes visited the church while the exhibit was up, he saw someone kneeling in prayer before it.

Raising awareness of the reality of torture is a first step to creating a consensus of the need to end this practice. Distributing reading materials about torture or sponsoring a workshop can raise awareness. You can show a film to raise public consciousness or write to television producers to protest programs which appear to justify torture.

You can keep abreast of current news and legislation related to torture by checking out the Web site of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT),, for a list of other sites to visit as further sources of information about torture and activities undertaken to combat its use. And you can keep track of USCCB actions against torture by visiting the human rights page of their Web site,

What are some contexts in your church community classes, small groups, etc., where a religious educational effort might be undertaken to address torture and prisoner abuse in today's world?

More than 18,000 concerned people have signed the Torture is a Moral Issue Statement of Conscience of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. The president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has endorsed this statement. Anyone can join them, simply by signing the Statement of Conscience online at Here is the text of the statement:

Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved: policy-makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation's most cherished ideals. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable. Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed? Let America abolish torture now, without exceptions.

You can visit the Web sites People of Faith Act section for a discussion of additional actions to take against torture. At the NRCAT Web site, in addition to its many other materials and offerings

  • You can order an anti-torture banner to display in your faith community, or school, or in some other location, as a means of raising awareness of the reality of torture today. Just click on the sites People of Faith Act section to order a banner with the message torture is wrong or torture is a moral issue.

  • You'll find a sample letter to the editor to send to your local newspaper, opposing legislation that allows the use of practices commonly regarded as torture. (Click on Don't let this be ignored! on the NRCAT home page.)

  • You can phone, e-mail, or write your representatives in Washington, D.C. (call the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121, or go to and to locate your representative) to urge them to support legislation banning torture

What are some ways for people of faith to make their voices heard in society on the issue of torture and its use today?

Does it make sense to pray for those we perceive as enemies or who perceive us as their enemies?

We need every day to pray for our enemies in order to avoid the toxin of hatred. Praying for our enemies enfolds this chaotic world into the harmony of God's kingdom, Jesuit Father Frederic Maples, a chaplain and spiritual director in Littleton, New Hampshire, wrote in a 2004 article for the Catholic News Service religious educational service Faith Alive! (January 12, 2004).

Jesus says in Matthews Gospel, Pray for those who persecute you (Mt 5:44). Those words have been recalled frequently since September 11, 2001. Often it is said that in praying for our enemies, we begin to see them more clearly as persons, that prayer counters a temptation to demonize them. How important is this at a time when, as Holy Cross Father Edward Malloy, former president of the University of Notre Dame, wrote recently, we are increasingly tempted to characterize our enemies as satanic, demented ( Portland magazine, winter 2007, p. 28).

Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, says that the love of God and of neighbor is so firmly linked that to say that we love God becomes a lie if we are closed to our neighbor or hate him altogether. In his 2001 Lenten message, Pope John Paul II said that when the Church speaks about loving enemies, it hopes to inspire within the human family a new way of relating to each other, a somewhat difficult way, but rich in hope. He said, To love those who have offended us is to disarm them and to turn even a battle-field into an arena of mutual support and cooperation.

One opportunity to pray for enemies arises in the Prayers of Intercession during the Mass. What form might an intercession for enemies take? In a 2002 article, Father Thomas Faucher of the Diocese of Boise, Idaho, cautioned against turning any prayer of intercession -- including a prayer for enemies -- into an editorial statement or brief sermon. With that in mind, he wrote, All the parts of the Mass that we compose (homily, General Intercessions, announcements) must truly be anchored in the Gospel, must challenge everyone and must be written with theological care. That might be as simple as praying for those who consider themselves our enemies (Catholic News Service, Faith Alive!).

Is there a way for your parish community to pray for those your nation regards as enemies or who regard your nation as an enemy, including prisoners accused to terrorist acts?

In a September 2002 homily, one year after the attacks of 9-11, Bishop John Kinney of St. Cloud, Minnesota, said, As difficult as it is at this moment, we even pray for our enemies as Christ has commanded us to do. We pray for all those whose hatred has become so great that they are willing to commit such horrible crimes against our common humanity. How is it possible for people to commit such horrible acts of cruelty and ferocity against other human beings? We must struggle beyond our anger to search out the reasons why they hate us so much.

Prayer is the breath of the soul. Without prayer, the soul suffocates, Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, who was imprisoned for 13 years in Vietnam, wrote in his book Prayers of Hope, Words of Courage. What is risked by us when we do not pray for our enemies? Should we pray for captives of the battle against terrorism? How would such prayer provide breath for the soul?


We must be convinced that the power of good can overcome evil in each and every human heart and nation, Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, Virginia, wrote in a pastoral letter for the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in America.

Bishop Loverde cautioned that revenge and resentment are deeply entrenched human emotions which we have all experienced. He said, As Catholics we know a higher road. We are called to respond to terrorism by imitating our Lord, the loving author of peace and justice. For Jesus said, Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.

The Arlington diocesan offices are located near the Pentagon, one target of the 9-11 attacks. Bishop Loverde described the horror of the morning of 9-11. He said, The memories I have  will never leave me.

How can peace be found in times such as these? Appeasement, Bishop Loverde wrote, has never shown itself to be the friend of peace; therefore we must act in a just manner to confront the evil of terrorism, so that the world may be a safe and peaceful place.

Here the bishop quoted Pope John Paul II, whose 2002 World Day of Peace message said that the shattered order cannot be fully restored except by a response that combines justice with forgiveness. Are forgiveness and justice irreconcilable? In the popes words, forgiveness is the opposite of resentment and revenge, not of justice. In fact, true peace is the work of justice (Is. 32:17).

Several ways of responding to the attacks of 9-11 were proposed by Bishop Loverde. He urged respect for Muslims, many of whom live in his Northern Virginia area, even attending diocesan schools. (Our respect is always for the dignity of the person. There is no dignity in terrorism, the bishop said.) He encouraged authentic interreligious dialogue.

Other ways of responding were suggested by Bishop Loverde:

forming consciences so that our response is in accord with the teachings of Jesus Christ

praying, seeking divine guidance for our own actions and those of our nation

insisting that just-war criteria are met

doing all that we can to avoid the taking of innocent human life in military undertakings aimed at eliminating the scourge of terrorism.

Catholics know a higher road than that of revenge and resentment for responding to terrorism, Bishop Loverde said. Do you think that revenge and resentment often condition our society's response to terrorists? Is there an alternative to this?

Dialogue among the people of the worlds religions is essential in these times, the Vatican has said. Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican's equivalent of a foreign minister, spoke about this in an address October 1, 2007, at U.N. headquarters in New York. He said, Dialogue among peoples of different cultures and religions is not an option; it is something indispensable for peace and for the renewal of international life.

In the present era of globalization, the world grows smaller. The citizens of nations once considered distant from each other now find themselves in much closer contact. The forces of international trade, instant communications and rapid travel are major factors in the shrinking of the planet.

At the same time, globalization has given rise to increased nationalism in numerous places. Concerned that globalization will lead to a loss of respect for their unique identities, nations, and religions, are tempted in some cases to retreat into themselves.

Therefore, one goal of the dialogue between religions that Catholic Church leaders consider essential is to foster respect: a respect for each others God-given human dignity and a respect born of recognizing the right of each person to seek the truth for himself or herself, and to reach out and listen to each other on the basis of that mutual respect. The risk, otherwise, is that the people of differing religions, instead of moving toward a closer relationship, could, even in an era of globalization, drift further apart.

Interreligious dialogue also is regarded today as necessary for world peace. This is particularly important at a time when terrorists typically attach a religious justification to their actions. It becomes ever more vital that the worlds religions show themselves to be positive forces for goodness and peace; it is vital that religion not be thought of by anyone as a font of violence.

Pope John Paul II brought leaders of the worlds religions together a number of times to address the role of religion in promoting peace. Speaking at the Vatican to more than 200 representatives of some twenty religions and Christian denominations in October 2000, he said, Either we learn to walk together in peace and harmony, or we drift apart and ruin ourselves and others.

There is an additional benefit of interreligious dialogue to mention: Interreligious dialogue fosters a clearer awareness of who our enemies are NOT. Since the time of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many religious leaders have gone to great lengths to make clear that the worlds Muslims as such are not enemies of the United States, or of the West, or of Christians.

Archbishop herself, and Martin of Dublin, Ireland, spoke about this in November 2003, in a speech to the Catholic bishops of the United States. He said that because the enemy  is difficult to define in the fight against terrorism, we have to be careful to avoid that everyone becomes a potential enemy, to avoid regarding the combat against terror as a war against the other. For, said Archbishop Martin, a society built on fear and mistrust of the other will never be a peaceful society.

Does your parish, diocese, or local Catholic college conduct an ongoing interreligious dialogue, perhaps one involving Jews, Catholics and Muslims? If so, might you attend or help to plan this dialogue? If not, how can you encourage your parish, diocese, or local Catholic college to initiate such a dialogue?

Cardinal Francis Arinze spoke in 2000 of the need to prepare young people to live in a new kind of world. Today, the education of young people ought to encompass the fundamental values of human dignity, peace, freedom and solidarity, he said. Moreover, their education ought to evoke the desire to know other people, to be able to share their sorrows and to understand their deepest feelings. Cardinal Arinze, then president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, presented these thoughts in his December 2000 message to the Muslim world marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Education for dialogue means nurturing the hope that conflict situations can be resolved through personal and collective commitment, Cardinal Arinzes message said.

In accompanying young people along the highways of life, attention has to be given to the preparation required for living in a society marked by ethnic, cultural and religious pluralism, Cardinal Arinze said. Such education implies that we broaden our vision to an ever wider horizon  so that we can see humanity as a single family in both its diversity and its common aspirations.

Finally, the cardinal noted, education for dialogue is not just for children and young people; it is also important for adults.

How can you support an educational effort or program in your church community that could focus for a period of time on the reasons why it is important to create positive relations with the others living alongside us in this globalized world, such as members of the worldwide Muslim community?

Two months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Catholic bishops in the United States urged Catholics to begin fasting one day a week. In a statement titled Living With Faith and Hope After September 11, the bishops said, A successful campaign against terrorism will require a combination of resolve to do what is necessary to see it through, restraint to ensure that we act justly and a long-term focus on broader issues of justice and peace.

Fasting was among actions the bishops encouraged. They said, This fast is a sacrifice for justice, peace and for the protection of innocent human life. Your group may want to consider dedicating one day during your examination of the torture issue to fasting.

What is fasting good for? It can be penitential; it often is regarded as a form of prayer and it facilitates conversion (turning our lives around). Fasting also can express solidarity with others.

The fact that fasting is a practice shared by Christians and Muslims was noted in November 2001 by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. (The cardinal retired as Washington's archbishop in 2006.) Cardinal McCarrick said, during an interfaith commemorative service in Washington, that among its various purposes, fasting can assure our Muslim brothers and sisters of our love and respect, and remind ourselves that it is never right to indict a whole people for the crimes of a few.

Also in November 2001, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles encouraged Catholics to fast for an end to fear and terror, and that paths of peace might be found throughout the world.

How can a sacrificial means of fasting that you, your family or a group in which you participate might undertake as a means of saving money to contribute to Catholic Relief Services ( ) or some other organization that aids suffering people, work for justice and thus help to create a basis for peace in the world?

A more just world will likely be a more peaceful world, a world less vulnerable to terrorism and other violence, the Catholic bishops of the United States said, in their November 2007 statement on political responsibility. The United States, they said, has a unique opportunity to use its power in partnership with others to build a more just and peaceful world. In a February 2002 statement regarding September 11, bishops said, Without in any way justifying the unjustifiable, the U.S. must do much more to address policies and problems that provide fertile ground in which terrorism can thrive.

When leaders and educators in the church call attention to the role of social development in the creation of world peace, they are echoing the voice of Pope Paul VI, who, in a 1967 encyclical titled Populorum Progressio, called development the new name for peace.

Pope Benedict XVI visited Turkey in November 2006, where he had this to say, in an address to the diplomatic community in Ankara: We have come to realize that true peace needs justice to correct the economic imbalances and political disturbances that always give rise to tension and threaten every society. The pope said, More than 40 years ago the Second Vatican Council wrote that peace is more than the absence of war: It cannot be reduced to the maintenance of a balance of power between opposing forces ... but it is the fruit of the right ordering of things with which the divine founder has invested human society and which must be brought about by humanity in its thirst for an ever more perfect reign of justice.

To promote international justice and peace and oppose the use of torture, go to USCCB's Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development Web site. See the attached link,

Are you aware of actions carried out by your parish to foster social justice on the local level? What are some additional actions you might take to promote justice locally or on the larger national and international levels?

Lord, my allotted portion and my cup,
you have made my destiny secure.
Pleasant places were measured out for me;
fair to me indeed is my inheritance.
I bless the Lord who counsels me; even at night my heart exhorts me.
I keep the Lord always before me;
with the Lord at my right, I shall never be shaken.

( Psalm 16:5-8)

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