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A consistent ethic against torture

Elise Italiano

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. If Charles Dickens was characterizing the recent events at the United Nations, he would also add that it was the oddest of times. Odd, strange, perplexing, nonsensical. This because the Holy See found itself on some kind of trial by the U.N. Committee Against Torture. The argument is, in part, that the Catholic Church – one of the world’s largest providers of humanitarian aid – is inflicting “psychological torture” on women because of its teachings on human sexuality, contraception, and abortion. As Ashley McGuire, in Geneva on behalf of Catholic Voices USA, has said, “The UN is saying that to be pro-life is to be pro-torture.”

Given that in the very same section of the Catechism where it talks about abortion, the Catholic Church affirms “from first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life” and “torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity,” (nos. 2290 and 2297) it seems the Center for Reproductive Rights either misunderstands what it means to have a consistent ethic of life, or they are declaring an ideological war against the Church on the international stage. If it’s the latter, then they have some studying up to do on their opponent.

The Holy See – as a nation state – is the only religious body to have a seat at the U.N. The very reason they are welcome is because the Church is interested in the common good, which she understands to be “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and easily” (no. 1906). Any time the Vatican presents a case at the U.N. when the issue of reproductive health emerges, they offer an alternative voice to a room which presumes that virtues like chastity or monogamy are outdated or impractical, and that the Church’s refusal to change its view of “normal sexual behavior” is dangerous to public health.

But it is the very mission of the Church to encourage the world not to lower its moral barometer, not to give up on virtue, character, or charity. The Holy See refuses to pit women against their children, because both can be loved and cared for with global resources. They refuse to provide contraception as a means to lower birthrates or sexually transmitted infections, instead preferring to encourage what Pope Benedict XVI called the “humanization of sexuality,” which calls men, women, and children to authentic love. They also refuse to demand that “better maternal healthcare” means preventing motherhood altogether.

At the same time, the Church does not sit and wag her finger at persons who do not abide by her teachings, including women who find themselves pregnant outside of marriage or pregnant with a child for whom they are worried they cannot provide. She does not chastise the person with AIDS or other sexually transmitted infections. She does not condemn women who have had abortions – even repeat abortions. She offers love, compassion, and practical means of support.

The teachings of the Church on abortion and contraception, and the pastoral care that she provides for pregnant mothers, orphaned children, and post-abortive women, are founded not exclusively on revelation or the moral law but also on the sociological reality that these things harm the very people they are attempting to protect. To say that these “reproductive services” are essential for women’s health and flourishing is simply untrue. Oral contraceptives have been classified as a carcinogen. Post-abortive women suffer from (largely unreported) thoughts of suicide and psychology trauma. Depression is ravaging the health and well-being of teenage girls, and it is increasingly linked to consensual (but unwanted) sexual experiences.

If anything could be characterized as torturous, it would be these “services” and “choices.” And yet the Church is not declaring a war on those who promote them. She is simply asking for the ability to witness to authentic love as she has always been able to.

To support all life includes advocating against torture and abortion. In the words of Blessed Mother Teresa, who the U.N. invited to speak at the Fourth Conference on Women in Beijing, “Abortion is the worst evil, and the greatest enemy of peace... Because if a mother can kill her own child, what will prevent us from killing ourselves or one another? Nothing.”

Perplexing times, but with an opportunity to rethink what we’re doing to our most vulnerable and lengths we’re going to avoid confronting it with the tender alternatives the Catholic Church offers.

Topics: Abortion , Contraception , Current Events , Feminism , Sexuality , United Nations

Elise Italiano teaches bioethics in Washington, DC and is a contributor to Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves, edited by Helen Alvaré. She is a volunteer with Catholic Voices USA.

View all articles by Elise Italiano

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October 25, 2014

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