Defining Torture Down: An Ecumenical Defense Against the Latest Attack on Religious Freedom

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

David Rivkin and Lee Casey write in the Wall Street Journal today:

No one doubts the evil of child sexual abuse, but attempting to shoehorn it into the Convention Against Torture is legally incorrect. However monolithic the Catholic Church may seem, it is not a sovereign state, and the Vatican (which is) has no legal authority over the church hierarchy or the millions of Catholic believers around the world.

Although the papacy has enormous spiritual authority, its secular, legal power—which is what the treaty addresses—extends only to the 100 acres of Vatican City, which has about 800 residents. Accordingly, the Holy See in 2002 acceded to the Convention Against Torture for “the Vatican City State” and undertook “to apply it insofar as it is compatible, in practice, with the peculiar nature of that State.” Claims that the Vatican exercises such compelling control over all Catholic institutions and individuals that it bears responsibility for all of their actions reflect a basic misunderstanding of how the treaty and the church operate.

The treaty requires member states to refrain from torture and to take other actions to prevent and punish it by their citizens and within their territory. When Catholics, including Catholic clergy, commit crimes outside of Vatican City, their trial and punishment is up to the countries where crimes occurred. If church officials in those countries were complicit in the offenses, addressing that remains a matter of domestic law. All of this is well-known and accepted international practice.

Attempting to internationalize the very serious crime of child abuse by defining it as “torture” is also misguided. The treaty defines torture narrowly and is directed at states for a reason: to focus attention on repressive governments engaging in torture as a form of terror and as a means of preserving the regimes’ hold on power.

None of this makes a difference to the activists who want to accuse the Catholic Church of violating the Convention Against Torture. Among the most determined are those whose claims are a thinly veiled effort to use a U.N. forum to attack Catholic doctrine, especially the church’s stand on birth control and abortion. The Center for Reproductive Rights has even claimed that these key aspects of Catholic belief are themselves tantamount to psychological torture. How so? Because they insidiously shape human behavior, bringing feelings of shame to individuals who seek access to birth control or abortion services, and improperly use the church’s formidable spiritual authority to influence numerous governments to limit access to contraception and abortion services.

By that preposterous logic, any religious faith—or secular doctrine, for that matter—could be condemned for practicing torture if it seeks to motivate adherents to lead their lives in particular ways. This attempt to hijack the Convention Against Torture for political purposes degrades the definition of torture and undermines the treaty’s efforts to end these terrible practices.

Even critics of Catholic doctrine should appreciate that the Convention Against Torture is not the proper instrument, and its U.N. monitoring committee not the proper forum, to challenge anyone’s religious beliefs. Were a sovereign state to act in this manner and attempt to suppress or penalize religious beliefs, its behavior would violate other critical international instruments, including the U.N.’s own International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, with their explicit protections for religious liberty.

If the Convention Against Torture committee stretches the treaty to condemn an entire religious institution for the criminal behavior of individuals who belong to it, the treaty’s credibility will be dramatically diminished. That’s bad enough. But if the Convention Against Torture were used to single out the Vatican for condemnation, Catholics and Catholic clergy around the world would be marked as somehow collectively responsible for individual offenses, leaving these innocent people open to attack and persecution, particularly in countries where religious liberty is already threatened. This is not the mission of the Convention Against Torture—or of the United Nations.

Again, the truth is not hair-splitting. And the U.N. should not let itself be misused as a cultural bludgeon. Over the weekend, addressing media after the recent meeting of Pope Francis’s reform commission, Boston’s Cardinal O’Malley talked about educating people out of denial about sexual abuse in our culture. There’s common cause here, but that would require honesty on the part of people who have chosen the Catholic Church — and other religious believers (think: the Green family who run Hobby Lobby) who offer an alternative lifestyle to the radical secularism that all too many of us have surrendered to as a ruling ideology – as a convenient enemy.

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