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On Sunday, I attended an informal talk given in a parish hall by the Justice Department's Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. His topic: "The way his work for justice is defined by his faith."
During the Q&A after his talk, I had a chance to pose some questions:
Question: Thanks Tom, for making yourself available to us. You raise the issue of torture, and intimated that there is consensus among Catholics that torture is wrong. Polling conducted two years ago indicates that this is far from the case.
[According to the Catholic News Agency, a survey by the Pew Center Forum on Religion & Public Life found that Catholics are more likely than the general U.S. population to favor the use of torture against suspected terrorists. More than half the Catholics surveyed said that torture could be often or sometimes justified, while another 27 percent said the practice could rarely be justified. Only 20 percent said it could never be justified.]
You are head of the Civil Rights Division at Justice. I am sure you would agree that a person's right not to be tortured is a civil right.
Your immediate boss, Attorney General Eric Holder has stated in testimony to Congress that waterboarding is torture. President Obama has said the same thing. Now the President -- that is former President George W. Bush -- has written a book in which he brags about authorizing waterboarding and says he would do it again. Former Vice President Dick Cheney earlier endorsed waterboarding.
Like you, Tom, I went to a Jesuit high school, and I know what a syllogism is. If waterboarding is torture, and those who authorized it now admit that and brag about it, is not your boss Eric Holder bound by his oath of office to prosecute those who admit having done that?
I refer here not only to those tortured at Guantanamo, at the huge prison complex at Bagram, Afghanistan, and at "black sites" around the world where my former colleagues at CIA were given carte blanche to ply their trade. I refer also to American citizens like Jose Padilla born, like me, in New York City, who was deprived of his civil rights and subjected to the cruelest forms of debilitating torture right here in the U.S.A.
Again, you are head of the Civil Rights Division at Justice. You have talked a good bit about conscience. Your boss, the Attorney General, appears unwilling to see to it that the law be faithfully executed. Has your faith or your conscience led you to raise this subject with Eric Holder?
Perez: It's a matter of prosecutorial discretion. We have discussed these matters, and I am not about to reveal information on those discussions.
Question: Your talk is billed as a discussion of how your faith defines your work for justice. I am not asking you to reveal information about the discussions you have been part of at the Justice Department; I am asking you how you come at the issue of torture from a faith perspective.
Perez: You are very clever; but I am not going to let myself be drawn into this discussion. Next questioner.
Perez had begun by expressing appreciation for the education he had received from the Jesuits at Canisius High School in Buffalo -- a sentiment I share from my four years at Fordham Prep in the Bronx. As far as moral theology and justice are concerned, though, it appears that Perez was exposed to the same dictum at Canisius as I was at Fordham. Moral theology? Ethics? Simple. The whole deal is to: Do Good, and Avoid Evil.
It was not until the mid-80s, when I completed a Certificate in Theological Studies with the more up-to-date Jesuits at Georgetown, that I learned that the Do-Good-and-Avoid-Evil proposition was only half correct. Jesus of Nazareth called us to do good, certainly. But not to avoid evil; rather to confront it.
This shows through clearly in the first chapter of the first gospel written (Mark 1:16-28). After recruiting his fisherman freshman to enroll in Discipleship 101, Jesus brings them into the synagogue at Capernaum and provides a vivid illustration of what his followers are called to do in the face of evil -- confront it.
His message: No confronting of evil, no true discipleship.