Educational Resource

Torture is a Moral Issue: a Study Guide

Year Published
  • 2012
  • English

Waterboarding? Electric Shocks? References to torture can be found in newspapers, radio and TV programs, and even in cartoons. What does the Church have to say about torture? This four chapter study guide will offer reflections on torture as a moral issue. Get a group together to discuss this timely issue and what you can do to stop torture. To download the entire study guide as a PDF, click here.

This four-chapter discussion guide on torture was developed in early 2008, as a collaboration between the Catholic members of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and the Office of International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The chapters are designed for use by discussion groups and classes in Catholic settings, as well as by individuals, families, and others. The intent of this material is to prompt thinking and reflection on torture as a moral issue.

What has Pope Benedict XVI said about the use of torture in prisons? What does the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church say about this? Have the Catholic bishops of the United States spoken out on torture? You’ll find answers to questions like those in the chapters that follow, along with reflections on torture and prisoner abuse by numerous Catholic bishops, theologians, and other commentators.

Chapter 1 is devoted to Catholic thought on the dignity of every human person. For when Catholic leaders today turn attention to the use of torture in prisons of any kind anywhere in the world, they consistently view it as a violation of the human person’s God-given dignity.

Chapter 2 focuses on torture itself, and the reasons why it is a source of such concern for the Church at this point in the third millennium. What forms does torture take? What reasons are given for the torture or abusive treatment of prisoners today? What specific objections are lodged by Catholic leaders against torture?

Chapter 3 closely examines Jesus’ Gospel instruction to love our enemies. Is it actually possible to love enemies in these threatening times of terrorism? Is it possible to love an enemy who may harbor information we seek to defend ourselves? The teaching of the Gospel on love for our enemies is not easy to follow, but Catholic leaders tell in this chapter why they view it as a teaching of utmost seriousness.

Chapter 4 is designed to promote discussion of actions that individuals, families, small groups in parishes, schools and others might take to address the issue of torture, and to raise awareness of its importance as a moral matter.

Finally, in an appendix to this discussion guide, you’ll find the text of a letter written in late 2007 by Bishop Thomas G. Wenski, Chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, to members of the Senate. This appendix serves as a valuable overview of the Church’s reasons for opposing torture


Catholics enter into the public discussion of the great issues their society faces because they hope to contribute—in the light of faith—to resolving these issues. There is, in addition, the confidence that people of faith can contribute in highly positive ways to building up and transforming the world around them.

With that in mind, two basic convictions give shape to this discussion guide:

-- First, that torture is a moral issue, one that deserves to be understood and addressed by Christians.

-- Second, that an atmosphere of fear and desperation within society opens the door to the torture and abuse of prisoners, but that there is much Christians can do to help create a new atmosphere within society – an atmosphere in which respect for human dignity rules the day.

Thus, this discussion guide examines torture within the larger context of Catholic social teaching in an era of globalization. That is why each of our four chapters includes, in addition to its main point of discussion, the exploration of a positive way to help create a new atmosphere within our society and even in the larger world.

Building a culture of life as an antidote to a culture in which human dignity often goes unrecognized is a key element of chapter 1.

Bringing the virtue of hope back into a society pervaded by fear and anxiety is a key element of chapter 2.

Striving to become a genuine people of the Beatitudes is a key element of chapter 3.

Participating in interreligious dialogue, fasting for justice and peace, praying for enemies, overcoming evil with goodness, and advocating for the abolition of torture are among the actions proposed in chapter 4.

In preparing this discussion guide, it was recognized clearly that the times in which we live and the issues we face are tough. Nonetheless, we were led to ask the following question:

In these challenging times, is it still possible—even in the face of serious threats—for a people and a nation to defend and conduct themselves in ways that consistently demonstrate respect for human dignity, and that put the Gospel into practice?

Look for more information and resources about the Church’s position on torture by going to our Web site: In the study guide, you will find links to other Web sites for your convenience. By providing these links, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops assumes no responsibility for, nor does it necessarily endorse, these Web sites, their content, or sponsoring organizations.    

A Catholic Study Guide

Chapter 1 Recognizing Every Persons God-Given Dignity Chapter 2   The Problem with Torture
Chapter 3   Do Christians Love Their Enemies Even Now?
Chapter 4   Action Steps To Address Torture
Appendix   Letter from Bishop Wenski to Senate on Torture

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