I’ve been meaning for some time to address the question of nuclear weapons and the social teaching of the Church. I’ve wanted to because…well… I don’t believe I have enough stress in my life, and taking up complicated moral issues and addressing them in a readable format and in 1000 words or less is just the kind of stress I like.

Bl. Pope John XXIII

Bl. Pope John XXIII

Let’s first get some things out of the way. I’m only going to use ecclesial documents to address this issue. I am not interested so much in the quote from a bishop, even a wonderful bishop, from some speech from some event years ago. Second, I think all of us, including myself, should realize that we might be rather surprised by what the Church has said about this issue. In typical ecclesial style, with the kind of panache only the Church can provide, there will probably be people unhappy on both sides of the political spectrum… And that’s okay. Okay?

The first instance of the word “nuclear” in the social teaching that I can come across is in Mater et magistra the first of Bl. Pope John XXIII’s two social doctrine encyclicals. He mentions nuclear power as first having been a force used for war but then used for “peaceful ends,” presumably for energy. From the first, then, we see that nuclear power can be used for good and for ill. This is important because we want to know if we’re dealing with something intrinsically evil or not.

Pope John expands on this view in Pacem in terries (“Peace on Earth” in English), where he notes that he is disturbed by the arms race, in full swing by that year of 1963. He is also bothered that so many resources are being poured into amassing these arms when such funds could be used for other purposes. He has a point, you know.

He then describes the arms race and mentions the theory that through a balance of power or through mutually assured destruction a kind of strange “peace” can be maintained. The Holy Father then notes that people are gripped by the fear that, even if no one pushes the button on purpose, some glitch or problem could occur causing a massive amount of human death. He’s got a point there too. But then he says something interesting:

Moreover, even though the monstrous power of modern weapons does indeed act as a deterrent, there is reason to fear that the very testing of nuclear devices for war purposes can, if continued, lead to serious danger for various forms of life on earth.

Pope John XXIII admits that the arms race “does indeed act as a deterrent.” To me that sounds very much like saying that mutually assured destruction is effective to some degree in avoiding purposeful war. But do not move so fast as to miss this next point by the roly-poly pontiff. Because of the environmental concerns and the fear of a glitch he states:

Hence justice, right reason, and the recognition of man’s dignity cry out insistently for a cessation to the arms race. The stock-piles of armaments which have been built up in various countries must be reduced all round and simultaneously by the parties concerned. Nuclear weapons must be banned. A general agreement must be reached on a suitable disarmament program, with an effective system of mutual control.

So the Church is for nuclear disarmament. Got it? Good. But what does that mean?

Well, this same pope recognizes that there is a deterrent factor in the race. Therefore he wisely says that this disarmament must “be reduced all round and simultaneously by the parties concerned.” So, the principle here is that nuclear arms must be gotten rid of. But the way they are gotten rid of, the speed and the means, the treaties involving the disarmament, the decisions around such details are decisions to be left up to the “parties concerned.” Nations, then, must determine the prudence of disarmament.

Reagan and Gorbachev in Red Square

Reagan and Gorbachev in Red Square

That is a huge hole through which to drive whatever bus you might like. To me this sounds like saying that a nation like the U.S. could determine that it is prudent to maintain its stockpile of weapons given the open belligerence of unstable nations (hello North Korea). In a sense we are back where we started. Nuclear weapons are bad, but how they are to be gotten rid of is a question that requires more than slogans and protests. It requires prudence, and prudence is grounded in the realities, global and otherwise, which surround such questions.

The next statement on disarmament comes from the Vatican II document Gaudium et spes. Written just two years after Pacem, there is little wonder that not much changes. In the context of desiring the end of all war, the Council Fathers say:

Since peace must be born of mutual trust between nations and not be imposed on them through a fear of the available weapons, everyone must labor to put an end at last to the arms race, and to make a true beginning of disarmament, not unilaterally indeed, but proceeding at an equal pace according to agreement, and backed up by true and workable safeguards.

Again we see that unilateral disarmament is NOT considered by the Church to be a moral necessity. With the word “indeed” thrown in there, the language almost seems to suggest that such a unilateralist approach would be ill-advised. Rather, the ending of the nuclear arms race must and can only happen gradually, with “workable safeguards.”

Apart from later references to the need to disarm and the desire to end war, not much changes in the documents or is even mentioned that isn’t covered in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. I think, therefore, that it is important to reproduce the entire text from that document here.

c. Disarmament

508. The Church’s social teaching proposes the goal of “general, balanced and controlled disarmament.” [JPII 1985.10.14 on the 40th Anniversary of the UN] The enormous increase in arms represents a grave threat to stability and peace. The principle of sufficiency, by virtue of which each State may possess only the means necessary for its legitimate defense, must be applied both by States that buy arms and by those that produce and furnish them.[Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace International Arms Trade 1994.5.1] Any excessive stockpiling or indiscriminate trading in arms cannot be morally justified. Such a phenomena must also be evaluated in light of the international norms regarding the non-proliferation, production, trade and us of different types of arms. Arms can never be treated like other goods exchanged on international or domestic markets. [CCC 2316]

So after talking about the need to make sure the responses within war are appropriate to the defenses of the enemy, which coincides with the just war principle of proportionate response, the Compendium states that the international trade of nuclear weapons cannot be justified. I’m personally fine with this. I’m a fan, after all, of the non-proliferation treaties that exist. If indeed Israel got her nuclear arms from us, then this was a terrible mistake.

The Compendium continues:

Moreover, the Magisterium has made a moral evaluation of the phenomenon of deterrence. “The accumulation of arms strikes many as a paradoxically suitable away of deterring potential adversaries from war. They see it as the most effective means of ensuring peace among nations. This method of deterrence gives rise to strong moral reservations. The arms race does not ensure peace. Far from eliminating the causes of war, it risks aggravating them.” [CCC 2315] Policies of nuclear deterrence, typical of the Cold War period, must be replaced with concrete measures of disarmament based on dialogue and multilateral negotiations.

The Compendium uses strong language to say that the moral evaluations on this issues are from the Magisterium, i.e. this is Church teaching here folks. The teaching is that the stockpiling of weapons, justified by most through the theory of deterrence, must stop. Rather, disarmament must go forward “based on dialogue and multilateral negotiations.” Note again, please, that this disarmament involves the negotiations between more than one party. This is not unilateral disarmament. The Compendium goes on to say:

509. Arms of mass destruction – whether biological, chemical or nuclear – represent a particularly serious threat. Those who possess them have an enormous responsibility before God and all of humanity. [CCC 2314] The principle of the non-proliferation of nuclear arms, together with measure of nuclear disarmament and the prohibition of nuclear tests, are intimately interconnected objectives that must be met as soon as possible by means of effective controls at the international level. [JPII to Diplomatic Corps 1996.1.13] The ban on the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical and biological weapons as well as the provision that require their destruction, complete the international regulatory norms aimed at banning such baleful weapons, [The Holy See is  a party to juridical instruments dealing with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in order to support such initiatives of the international community] the use of which is explicitly condemned by the Magisterium: “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.” [Gaudium et spes 80]

As for the use of nuclear arms, well the Magisterium is pretty clear. They may not be used or rather aimed “indiscriminately” so as to cause the destruction of “extensive areas” because of the result of the death of innocents. Now, this has become a point of contention amongst military types. They claim, and I don’t have the expertise to know either way, that nuclear weapons can now be used tactically to limit significantly the indiscriminate nature of the blast thus making it just a very powerful smart bomb. The use, for instance, of nuclear power to drive a bomb down into the earth to destroy a bunker is one such use. Civilian casualties would be non-existent… assuming the offending nation didn’t build their bunker under a town.

If it’s true, therefore, that using nuclear arms does not equal indiscriminate killing over a wide area, well then, it seems that a nuclear weapon could be used. This is not a contradiction of the Church’s teaching. The technology has changed. The principle upon which the Magisterium made its decision still stands.

nuclear explosianWhat’s the bottom line with all of this? Well, for me it seems that the position of the Magisterium is that nuclear weapons are generally bad. Okay. But I think it useful to note that the Magisterium is generally down on all weapons of war. The Church would rather make sure that all weapons go the way of the dodo bird. This doesn’t strike me, then, as a peculiar condemnation of nuclear arms as much as the very Christian and Scriptural hope that all war would come to an end.

The call from the Church for nuclear disarmament is certainly solid. However, it is equally clear that this is not to be unilateral disarmament but rather one worked out on the international scene, between nations, in order to maintain the balance of power.

Claims, therefore, from the more progressive wing of the Church that there is somehow a grave moral evil in just having nuclear weapons or that America is at risk of losing her soul for keeping nuclear weapons or that bishops are failing their duty for not protesting against nuclear weapons… well such claims fall flat when compared to what I read in the documents. In point of fact the Magisterium is pretty clear that the process of disarmament is one to be handled by the governments involved in mutual collaboration and not by Churches or protest groups.

Now, is it possible that a government like ours would, in order to maintain a sense of power, delay the disarmament process unnecessarily thus violating the Church’s mandate to disarm? Sure. It may even be likely. But then I don’t know what the President knows about the North Koreans, or the Chinese, or the Russian missals, or any of the partner nations with whom we are supposed to be working. If the Chinese or the Russians refuse to give up their weapons then why should the United States? The Church tells us our nation has no obligation to do so. That’s good enough for me.

Still…one of my favorite people in the world is Dorothy Day. She was known for her virulent hatred for the nuclear weapon. As nuclear weapons were a symbol of indiscriminate destruction, I can understand why. Furthermore, the use of that weapon against the innocents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, still very vivid in her mind, ought to produce a degree of horror in our souls as it did for Dorothy. But if “the bomb” has changed in nature, and in light of what the Church has taught, and with the end of the Cold War which occurred without a single shot, would Dorothy have been of a different mind today? Probably not.

Whatever the case, I think Dorothy would have wanted to remind us that we cannot just trust the states involved to disarm. Pressure must be exerted, as governments are all too likely to just keep stockpiling. I would join Dorothy in that fight. But I disagree with the idea that getting arrested for the umpteenth time is really putting pressure on anyone to do anything… except maybe visit you in jail.

Long live Christ the King.