On Anniversaries – Happy and Sad

The time after Advent in the Liturgical Year of our Roman Catholic tradition is a season filled with commemorations of many joyous events in the life of our Savior. Whether we are celebrating Jesus’ birth at Christmas, His first manifestation to the gentiles at the Epiphany, or His entry into public life at His baptism this past Sunday, the first few weeks of January allow we Catholics to celebrate the anniversaries of the happy times in Jesus’ life, and this is a very good thing. As creatures of memory, we human beings seem almost hard-wired to commemorate the events of the past: on a personal level, of course, we mark our years by celebrating the happy events, be they the anniversary of the date of our birth, or the commemoration of the creation of our family. As a society too we mark time by recalling the events of our collective past, although – oddly enough -the dates we best recall in a plural context are often not the joyous events, but instead events of great tragedy. The mere mention of the dates of December the 7th, November the 22nd, and September the 11th often bring with them vivid visions of the consequences of human evil, and the tremendous suffering that accompany it.

January is sadly a month that contains a number of difficult dates in our collective past as a nation. In just about a week’s time, hundreds of thousands of people will travel from around our country to assemble on the National Mall in Washington D.C. to march in the bitter cold to mark the date of a 1973 Supreme Court decision that codified in law lethal discrimination against millions of our fellow human beings based upon their gestational age, thereby institutionalizing a violation of human dignity on a massive scale. In a similar way, this past week additionally marked a less well known – but likewise grim – anniversary of retreat from the promotion of human dignity in both law and in fact.

On this past Sunday – January 11th – I was a participant in an Interfaith Prayer Service to End Torture at the Community Church on 35th Street and Park Avenue. This prayer service – which was held on the seventh anniversary of the arrival of the first detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – was sponsored by the Metro New York Religious Coalition Against Torture (MNYRCAT), and was held to protest the United States retreat from the requirements of the Third Geneva Convention (the one regarding the treatment of enemy prisoners taken in wartime) that ultimately led to practices such as water-boarding used on U.S. detainees held at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq as well as Guantanamo Bay. As a member of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (a broad coalition, first formed in 2006, which includes Protestant and Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Jews, Bahais, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs as well as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) the goal of MNYRCAT’s Prayer Service was to encourage the incoming administration to issue an executive order on its first day in office banning the use of torture as a violation of the Golden Rule. (see this related article.)

Catholic Social Teaching, of course, is clear when it comes to the issue of torture: the act is abhorrent and can neither be condoned or tolerated. Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has stated, “the prohibition against torture cannot be contravened under any circumstance”. Our own Bishops, in the document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, have declared torture “intrinsically evil“(one of very few actions to be labeled as such), describing it as “fundamentally incompatible with the dignity of the human person and ultimately counterproductive in the effort to combat terrorism” (No.81). Simply put, torture is a classic moral case of ends and means. Good ends cannot legitimize immoral means. In the context of torture, we cannot defend our life and dignity by threatening the lives and attacking the dignity of others. Just as the moral test contained in the Parable of the Last Judgment in St. Matthew’s Gospel is how we treat “the least of these“, the moral test in this area – to paraphrase John Carr, Executive Director of Justice, Peace and Human Development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops - is “how we treat the worst of these – those who would violate all boundaries in their attacks on us”.

This past Wednesday, representatives of the USCCB joined with other faith groups in a meeting with members of President-elect Obama’s Transition Team. At that meeting, they presented a letter signed by 34 religious leaders, including Bishop Howard Hubbard, Chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on International Justice and Peace, urging quick action by the President-elect to issue an executive order ending torture as a way to help restore America’s legal and moral credibility in the international arena. There is some reason to be hopeful in this area: at the Senate Confirmation Hearings for U.S. Attorney General this past Thursday, Eric Holder – President Obama’s nominee – told the committee that he believed that water-boarding (an interrogation technique that induces the sensation of drowning) a terrorism suspect is torture, and vowed that the new administration would close Guantanamo Bay prison as soon as it can (link). To ensure that the incoming administration make good on these commitments, the USCCB has urged concerned Catholics to contact President-elect Obama and urge him to issue an executive order banning torture as soon as is possible, you can find the link to do so here.

In less then a week, President Obama takes office. We have areas of agreement and differences. But we hope that he will take this important step to promote a culture that respects life. In the end, this is not about the detainees alone – they have made their choice; this is about us – who we are, what we believe about human life and dignity, and how we act as a nation.

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