Silence from the Pulpit: Torture and a Moral Voice

Until I was 17-years-old, I was what you could refer to as a “Christmas Catholic.” I’d had the baptismal waters flicked on my face as a baby, and from that point on my sole connection with the Church were the annual trips to Christmas mass with my dad; though by then agnostic and on my way to atheist, Christmas mass attracts many once-a-year Catholics and non-believers who enjoy the carols. Thus, I might have continued tagging along, if not for the unfortunate circumstance of missing Christmas mass that year, and attending the Sunday after as a substitute.

Christmas mass always presented a love and peace affair, so I’d never discovered that the priest in my dad’s town was one of the more political preachers, fond of mixing extremely conservative rhetoric in with his Bible passages. Between the lurid denunciation of murdering unborn babies and exhortations to support the war in Iraq (the war, not the soldiers, completely separate issues), I determined that I would not be attending any mass again. I couldn’t find any pleasure in the carols, knowing what the congregation supported.

Liberal Catholic friends assure me that political priests like this are unusual; I’m not sure whether this is true or not. I’m also not sure whether it’s a positive fact.

A Consortium News article clued me in to an April Pew survey that found a positive correlation between church attendance and support for torture. 54 percent of people who attend religious services at least weekly believed torture was often or sometimes justified, versus 42% of those who go seldom or never. Furthermore, people unaffiliated with any religious organization were the least likely to believe that torture is often justified; white Protestant evangelicals the most. Kudos to mainline Protestants (Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians), who are the most likely to state that torture is never justified.

I’m an atheist, and I’d fall in the “torture is never justified” bracket. But what interests me–and what Consortium News author Ray McGovern also considers–is that belief in God is not being measured here, but rather affiliation with and attendance for organized religion. McGovern hypothesizes: “My guess is that those who go to church on Sunday expect a modicum of moral leadership.  If the pastor is silent on torture, then torture must somehow be okay.” So, unlike my dad’s priest on abortion and the war, it’s not about what is being said from the pulpit–it’s about what isn’t.

There’s a lot of religious meddling in politics that bothers me–clergy telling congregations that a vote for a Democratic candidate is a sin oversteps their bounds, and the Mormon Church’s role in funding Prop 8 springs to mind. Nonetheless, separation of church and state hardly means that individuals will not take their religious morality into consideration when they head for the voting booth. I believe that the Catholic Church’s stance of abortion is misguided, rather than that clergy shouldn’t discuss such issues. Many churches played an important role in organizing during the civil rights movement because it was a moral issue; Reverend King was a political preacher. Churches claim to be moral guides, which endows them with a certain responsibility–silence is complicity, anyone?

Even when there are documents in the higher levels of church bureaucracy, such as a Catholic Study Guide “Torture is a Moral Issue,” the don’t always filter down to the church-goers. This particular publication was not distributed because the Catholic hierarchy didn’t anticipate enough interest to justify a print run–of 1,000 copies. (McGovern points out there are 70 million Catholics in the United States.) Maybe this particular work is just terribly written, but it seems that on a current hot-button issue like torture, churches should be creating interesting; they have a core, relatively captive weekly audience, after all, power that most activists can only fantasize about.

In conversation with a woman who went to Catholic school in the 60s, she recalled the priests discussing issues like hunger and poverty as important moral issues. Denouncing abortion and homosexuality was not a priority in her parish. Too many of today’s churches, Catholic, Protestant, and other, have their priorities off-base: the money poured into the anti-choice movement could go to fight the hunger, homelessness, and disease that is a real global murderer of children; the time, energy, and cash that went into stripping gay individuals of the right to marriage could have been donated to bolster education or welfare in the rapidly failing state that is California; and pastors should not be supporting an unjust war, but calling attention to the immorality of torture–or maybe to the appropriation of Crusdader rhetoric by military contractor Blackwater in “encourag[ing] and reward[ing] the destruction of Iraqi life.”

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