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A Moral Challenge for Pope Francis

By       Message Ray McGovern     Permalink
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Pope Francis.
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Pope Francis could use his visit to the U.S. this week to make unmistakably clear that the Catholic Church's teaching on the "sanctity of life" applies to more than just the first nine months of gestation.

If he does so, he would face formidable opposition. The bishops appointed by Francis's two predecessors had to swear allegiance to anti-abortion principles while showing less commitment to saving lives from war. The phalanx of right-wing bishops that Francis inherited were eager to be used, twice, to help elect President George W. Bush because he said he opposed abortion.

These bishops then aped the silence of the German bishops who could not find their voice when Adolf Hitler began what the post-war Nuremberg Tribunal defined as a "war of aggression." Bush's unprovoked attack on Iraq fit that definition to a T -- complete with what Nuremberg called the "accumulated evil" that inevitably results from such a war. Think lies, racism, kidnapping, secret prisons, torture, millions of refugees.

One can only hope that someone has told Francis that he would not have to start at Square One to rescue "the sanctity of life" from those who would confine it to abortion. The Pope needs no jackhammer to break through abortion-hardened concrete. Readily available are the writings of the justice-oriented Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, whose most important contribution before he succumbed to cancer in 1996 was a simple formula he proposed -- the "seamless garment" -- to link the Church's "consistent ethic of life" to a whole range of moral and social issues.

Bernadin raised consciousness about the sanctity and reverence due all human life from conception to death. "The more one embraces this concept, the more sensitive one becomes to the value of human life itself at all stages," wrote Bernadin. "This consistent ethic points out the inconsistency of defending life in one area while dismissing it in another. ... there is a linkage among all the life issues, which cannot be ignored."

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If Pope Francis has the courage to endorse Bernadin's approach to the sanctity of life, many presidential candidates will have to find a way to dance around it. One, Sen. Marco Rubio, told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on Sunday: "I'm a Roman Catholic. For me, the Pope ... has authority to speak on ... theological matters. And I follow him 100 percent on those issues; otherwise I wouldn't be a Roman Catholic. And so I believe that deeply. ...

"On the social teachings, essential issues, like the sanctity of life and things of this nature, those go deep to the theology of this -- of the faith. And I do believe -- those are binding and I believe strongly in them."

However, during the same interview, Rubio told Stephanopoulos that Obama was not forceful enough in making war in the Middle East. U.S. airstrikes, Rubio said, "are not, quite frankly, as vibrant as they should be." Odd word, "vibrant."

Will Francis find words to make it clear to Rubio and other U.S. officials that sanctity of life includes those tens of thousands of non-Americans who may not look like Rubio but who nonetheless deserve to be protected from the death that rains down from U.S. bombs, Bernadin's "consistent ethic of life"? Will the Pope go beyond applauding the countries that are taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees and address Washington's role in the wars and other violence that create refugees?

Will the Pope remind the Catholic majority of the U.S. Supreme Court justices that execution is against Church teaching? And will he remind flamboyant, right-wing Catholic Justice Antonin Scalia that it has been 500 years since the Church condoned torture?

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Techniques Like Waterboarding

It will be interesting to see if Pope Francis has enough sensitivity to the horrors of the Inquisition, and the role played by the Jesuits in it, to suggest that presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham go easy on using that sordid history to brag about the "effectiveness" of torture. At a May 13, 2009 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing discussing waterboarding, Graham said: "One of the reasons these techniques have been around for 500 years is apparently they work."

That torture "works" is a lie, unless your aim is to produce false confessions. That worked like a charm when President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney ordered interrogators to obtain "evidence" of operational ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq in order to associate Saddam Hussein with the 9/11 terrorists. (Before the invasion of Iraq, 69 percent of Americans had been led to believe that Saddam Hussein played a role in the attacks of 9/11.)

However, whether or not torture "works" is not the point here. When the Jesuits taught me ethics at Fordham College a half century ago, we learned of a moral category called "intrinsic evil," inhabited by rape and slavery as well as torture. I had no idea that "intrinsic evil" could be somehow rehabilitated. But at Fordham, at least, it has been -- and in a most Jesuitical way.

Those graduating from my alma mater in 2012 encountered this not-so-subtle change when they objected to the invitation extended by Fordham's President Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J. to "extraordinary rendition" aficionado John Brennan to give the commencement address in 2012 -- and to receive an honorary doctorate in humane letters (I am not making this up).

McShane had fallen victim to what more grounded Jesuits call the "celebrity virus." At the time, Brennan, a Fordham College alumnus, worked in the White House (before becoming CIA director). It did not seem to matter very much what he did for the U.S. government. Confronted by graduating seniors who had been taught that torture was always and everywhere evil, McShane gave a glib gloss on torture -- and on Brennan's role in compiling lists of those to be killed by drones -- with these words: "We don't live in a black and white world; we live in a gray world."

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
 

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