Dr. Steven Miles, a world-renowned scholar, author and anti-torture activist, has won many awards in his career on the faculty of the University of Minnesota's Center for Bioethics. But the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has bestowed an especially rare distinction on Miles, one that puts him in excellent company:
He just got Tutu'd.
As you recall, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu recently was barred from speaking at the University of St. Thomas. Now Miles, who has written extensively about torture practices authorized by the Bush administration and who has warned that America is becoming "a torturing society," has received the Tutu treatment.
Miles was invited months ago to talk about torture and its effects on society before masses at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Minneapolis on Sunday. The invitation was issued by the peace and justice ministry at St. Joan's, which has a tradition of social justice work in the Twin Cities. In addition, Miles was scheduled to speak Tuesday to an adult education class at the church.
But last Wednesday, four days before Miles was scheduled to speak, the archdiocese intervened: St. Joan's was ordered not to let Miles talk before mass. Or Tuesday, either.
He was persona non grata.
According to a spokesman for the archdiocese, Miles was barred from St. Joan's because he supports abortion rights, a position "contrary to the teachings" of the church. Miles acknowledges that, but says he had no intention of speaking about abortion and that he sent the text of his talk on torture to the archdiocese.
"I wasn't asked about my position on abortion, euthanasia (he opposes it), divorce, papal infallibility or the Nicene Creed," he says. "The issue is whether I have something relevant to say to Catholics on torture."
On that, there is no doubt. Miles believes passionately that torture violates fundamental rights of life and dignity. And causes abortions.
"Torture causes women to abort at a horrendous rate," Miles says, "and people who have been tortured are much more likely to commit suicide. The point is that an anti-torture campaign is a pro-life campaign."
But at a time when the archdiocese is clumsily tightening the chancery's control on parishes and demanding orthodoxy from pulpit and pew, a whispering campaign developed against Miles after word of his St. Joan's appearance appeared in a recent church bulletin.
According to the archdiocese, anti-abortion activists called to complain about Miles' appearance at St. Joan's. Miles has been seen as a highly visible antagonist by some since he helped reverse an anti-abortion scare tactic by the Minnesota Department of Health.
The department was telling women that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. There is no established connection between abortion and breast cancer, and that spurious assertion was removed after scientists, including Miles, testified at the Legislature that it had demoralized the health department and "besmirched" (Miles' word) its reputation.
Miles, a geriatrician, has performed no abortions. But when the Catholic Bulletin threatened to publish the names of doctors who provided abortions to indigent women, Miles wrote a letter to the editor asking that he be named, too, since he supported safe, legal and affordable abortion for those who needed them.
"As a Christian," he wrote, "I will continue to try to respond with compassion to the complex and sometimes tragic situations [in] which my patients find themselves in a way which is sensitive to the hard facts, difficult choices and individual differences which are present."
His letter was published in 1978.
Last week, 30 years later, it was circulated by those who wanted the archdiocese to ban Miles from speaking at St. Joan's. Many in the church are perplexed by the ban.
"Steve Miles is the country's leading expert on torture, and I believe his message on torture is very pro-life," said Julie Madden, coordinator of the peace and justice program at St. Joan's. "We wanted to have him speak to us about how religious communities can get active around the issue of eradicating torture. We're very disappointed that Dr. Miles will not be allowed to speak."
He will speak. Just not at St. Joan's.
Miles' presentation on torture has been shifted from St. Joan's to the Carondelet Center in St. Paul, at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The center is next to the College of Saint Catherine, at 1890 Randolph Av.
Miles will give the talk he prepared for St. Joan's, including his comparison of torture in the modern world to the passion of Christ. Like all torture, he says, the crucifixion of Jesus was intended to destroy a movement, not just a man.
'Torture is government by intimidation, horror, fear and division," reads the prepared text of Miles' banned St. Joan's remarks. "It is antithetical to [efforts] to create societies that flourish by loving kindness, justice and inclusion."
By the way, according to a poll published by the National Catholic Reporter, Catholics are more likely than other Americans to approve the use of torture.
Maybe they need to hear from Dr. Steven Miles.
Nick Coleman • email@example.com