A Reality Check in Geneva

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Rome — On Friday, my friend Ashley E. McGuire defended the Holy See Friday before a United Nations committee on torture on behalf of Catholic Voices USA (a group I help found). In an interview for National Review Online, we talk a bit about what’s going on here.


KJL: What was it like testifying on behalf of the Holy See?

MCGUIRE: I would use the same word that I used in my opening remarks to the committee: “surreal.” It is always an honor to stand up and defend the Church, but it was surreal to have to pack my bag and leave my world behind to fly thousands of miles to sit in a small room and tell a panel of men and women that no, the Church is not a house of torture. That should be obvious, but groups that hate the Church and everything that she stands for are trying to use this committee, just as they did the Committee on the Rights of the Child, to bully the Holy See.


KJLWhy bother defending the Holy See? Can’t it take care of itself? Isn’t God supposed to be on its side? Isn’t Pope Francis a superhero?

MCGUIRE: Catholics so often fall into the trap of thinking that it is only the job of someone with a collar to defend the Church. If the Second Vatican Council, which Pope Francis just affirmed by canonizing together the two men most emblematic of the reforms the Council brought, has taught us anything, it’s that the laity has a role to play as well. We see this in America, where the Department of Health and Human Services abortion-drug mandate has forced lay people to step up to the plate. And now we are seeing it in the international arena. We know that the truth will prevail in the end. But that does not give lay Catholics license to sit back and watch the Church struggle against a culture that is increasingly intolerant of her views.

KJL: What is it that is overkill about this latest round of hearings and accusations?

MCGUIRE: The Holy See just went through the ring of the fire at the U.N., and the result was a report that was ignorant of all the reforms that have taken place over the last decade. But the report went beyond that and demanded the Church change her canon law on a host of moral issues. This was a violation of religious liberty, a core principle undergirding the values of the United Nations. The Committee Against Torture is setting itself up for the same overreach by allowing groups like the Center for Reproductive Rights to use the committee to make ludicrous arguments such as the Church’s teaching on contraception amounts to psychological torture for women.

The committee needs to be very careful. If it issues a sloppy report and calls the Holy See a sponsor of torture, it will endanger the lives of Catholic aid workers on the frontlines in areas torn by sectarian strife. It will also make a mockery of itself and do a major disservice to those who are being tortured in places like North Korea or Cuba.


KJL: Why is it important to note that it is not just the Holy See before the committee?

MCGUIRE: Anti-Catholic groups are trying to frame this as the Holy See being “dragged” before this committee. In fact, they are submitting a routine country report along with several other countries. And while it’s accurate to say they are being bullied by certain groups trying to use the committee to advance an ideological agenda, it’s not accurate to frame this as the committee dragging anyone, anywhere. The Holy See has stressed that it is voluntarily cooperating with its reporting requirements as a signatory to the governing treaty of this convention.


KJL: Has anything encouraged you since arriving in Geneva?

MCGUIRE: I was encouraged to see that the committee seemed interested in the facts. The committee was very interested to hear about the important reforms that the Church has put into place, the reforms that are now being modeled by other institutions looking to put into place better safeguards for children. I got the strong sense that the committee is leery of getting the same public backlash as the Committee on the Rights of the Child did when it way overreached.


KJL: As a young Catholic, what scares you the most about your own witness and about the world?

MCGUIRE: It’s undeniable that the current trend is towards intolerance of views that are not mainstream. This was the theme of the Catholic Voices USA shadow report to this committee, namely, that intolerance is at the root of much of the bullying of the Catholic Church. So I am well aware that I may be ruling myself out of a lot of opportunities by defending an institution that takes a counter-cultural view.


KJL: As a young Catholic, what encourages you?

MCGUIRE: There are so many reasons to be encouraged — Pope Francis is a big one. He’s been like a defibrillator to the public perception of the faith. He has helped to refocus attention on the fact that love and mercy are at the root of our faith. Especially for the vulnerable. He has helped to place Catholic social teaching into a bigger picture — which makes it easier to defend the teachings that are less popular.


KJL: Do you like the Catholic Voices approach to the world?

MCGUIRE: My Catholic Voices training was essential in preparing me for this U.N. intervention. An important part of the Catholic Voices is affirming the good intention behind criticism of the faith. We can all agree that wanting to protect children is a noble goal. My remarks were about affirming that intention and then providing the facts and showing all the ways in which the Church is helping children.


KJL: You’re a convert to the Catholic faith, and you did so despite the scandals this U.N. committee has brought up in a torture context. Why? Any regrets?

MCGUIRE: Many wonderful priests helped to bring me into the faith. When I sat there speaking to the committee, they were very much on my mind. My heart grieves for any person who has suffered because of a priest or anyone else. But I have no regrets about joining the Catholic Church – there is no other institution that has done more to elevate the dignity of every human being, born or unborn, young or old, man or woman. The Church is made up of sinners. Pope Francis spoke to this when he described becoming pope – a feeling of surprise that he would be called to such a task despite being a sinner. In his America magazine interview he responded to the question, “Who is Mario Bergoglio?” by saying, “I am a sinner.” The Catholic Church is where I find hope as a sinner, hope for a better world. When I defend the Church at the U.N. or elsewhere, I am defending the right of others to have the same chance at that hope.