Page 2, 2nd July 1982

2nd July 1982
Page 2
Page 2, 2nd July 1982 — National nuclear policy fails to match up to Catholic morality

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Locations: Cincinnati, Collegeville


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National nuclear policy fails to match up to Catholic morality

As the UN session on disarmament continues the US ishops draw up a manifesto on nuclear arms.

IMPORTANT , elements of current United States nuclear deterrence policy are condemned as immoral in a draft national pastoral letter written by a committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The document specifically rejects, on the basis of traditional Catholic moral principles. any policy that holds out the option of nuclear response to a non-nuclear attack, or any strategic deterrence policy that involves the targeting or even the threat of targeting of nuclear warheads on civilian populations.

The former policy is part of the US-NATO defence policy in Western Europe. The latter is a policy operative in current global US nuclear strategy.

The document sharply questions even the possession of nuclear weapons without substantive progress toward their elimination.

Saying that "we face.. .a deterrent that is in place and which we cannot, according to Catholic moral principles, approve," the authors conclude that the only justification for possession of nuclear weapons is the principle of temporary "toleration of moral evil." The principle of toleration, however, demands that all efforts be made to get out of this "objectively evil situation" in an orderly, controlled way, the authors say. They emphasize that the principle of toleration invoked is not "a comforting moral judgment, but an urgent call to efforts to change."

The draft pastoral letter, written by a committee of five bishops headed by Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin of Cincinnati, was distributed on June 19 to about 250 US bishops attending an 11-day assembly at St John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

The document was not made public. Nevertheless, stories on it appeared in the general press and elsewhere. They were apparently based on what reporters were being told about the document, however, rather than on a reading of the document itself.

The document itself reveals tightly reasoned applications of moral principles which, if agreed to by the rest of the US hierarchy, would make the final statement one of the strongest moral condemnations of nuclear deterrence yet issued by a major church body in the United States.


As a first draft. the document is still subject to committee changes based on comments and criticisms by the bishops. A revised draft will then be subject to further debate and amendment when the county's bishops hold their annual general meeting this November. It would require approval by a two-thirds vote before becoming a national pastoral letter expressing the collective moral guidance of the US hierarchy on war and peace issues today.

The key section of the draft pastoral letter, dealing with the moral issues of nuclear war and nuclear deterrence, calls reliance on such weapons "fundamentally abhorrent." It says they would have "no place" at all in a world of peaceful reconciliation towards which all people should strive.

"Certain practices of nuclear warfare or deterrence, moreover, clearly cannot be compatible, even now, with the most basic Christian teachings," the draft says.

It lists six "immediate" principles applying to the morality of nuclear weapons in the present context: — "Under no circumstances may nuclear weapons or other instruments of mass slaughter be used for the purpose of destroying population centres or other predominantly civilian targets." In addition, nuclear attack on military targets is virtually impossible to justify "as proportional to any conceivable rational objective" when "the targets lie so close to concentrations of population that destruction of the targets wothW likely devastate those nearby populations." Even if an enemy attacks US civilian centres, a counterstrike against civilian populations "must be condemned."

— "We do not perceive any situation in which the deliberate initiation of nuclear warfare, on however a restricted scale, can be condoned. Non-nuclear attacks by another state must be deterred by other than nuclear means." Without judging the complex technological questions involved in the dangers of escalation once nuclear weapons are used, the committee says that, in the face of "very substantial doubt" about the possibilities of control. there is an obigation to the "safest possible moral course," and first use of nuclear weapons does not meet that moral obligation.

— "Our objections to the use of nuclear weapons against civilians and to the initiation of nuclear warfare apply equally to the threat of such use." The threat of such use cannot be condoned. even if it "is not intended to be carried out at all," for several reasons. Among these are the "degradation it produces" in relationships between the two sides and danger of loss of control over events regardless of the original intent.

— "Christians and others of goodwill may differ as to whether nuclear weapons may be employed under any circumstances." But even if a categorical moral condemnation does not seem required from Christian teaching, "it is difficult for us to see how what may be legitimate in theory may indeed be justifiable in practice."

The conditions that must be met for justification are that if nuclear weapons are to be used at all it can be done "only after they have been used against our own country or our allies, and, even then, only in an extemely limited, discriminating manner against military targets...In all candor, we have no confidence whatever that retaliatory and restrictive usage can be kept limited." In light of the dangers that at sonic point deterrence will fail and that an initial limited use will start a chain of escalation, the principle must be asserted that "no use of nuclear weapons can be considered moral if even indirectly it wocad result in significant violation of the principle of discrimination."


— "If we were to reject any conceivable use of nuclear weapons, we would face the very difficult question whether it is permissible even to continue to possess such weapons." The committee confronts the paradox of having laid out a weighty moral reasoning against any use of threat to use nuclear weapons, versus the evaporation of the deterrent value of the possession of nuclear weapons if use is renounced and backed by guarantees. It warns against "rapid, abrupt" abandonment of nuclear weapons on grounds that the instabilities that would be created could themselves lead to catastrophe. "But a temporary toleration of some aspects of nuclear deterrence must not be confused with approval of such deterrence."

— Finally, "we have hereby outlined what would be at most a marginally justifiable deterrence policy," but "we find ourselves at odds with elements of current deterrence policy" and are "sceptical" of the basic argument of deterrence. Faced with "a deterrent that is in place and which we cannot, according to Catholic moral principles. approve," the committee invokes the principle in Catholic moral theology of "toleration of moral evil." It notes that this is a technical term for dealing with what is "objectively a sinful situation. yet movement out of this objectively evil situation must be controlled lest we cause by accident what we would neither deliberately choose nor morally condone."

The document rejects immediate, unilateral disarmament as a moral requirement, saying "We do not think the facts are so clear, or the moral imperatives so compelling that we can advance a judgment that is more stringent than toleration of the deterrent."

But it emphasizes that this "toleration" does not mean approval and is conditioned on substantive efforts to modify the current state of affairs and move out of the "objectively evil situation." It calls for controlled, negotiated and verifiable multilateral disarmament process, at the same time warning that past efforts at "gradual" disarmament have made that term "relatively meaningless."

The document also lists several imperatives while the process of orderly. negotiated disarmament is under way. Of primary importance, it says, is the prevention of development or deployment of "destabilizing" weapons on either side. It also says the tendency toward "automatic control" of weapons systems and further proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world must be prevented.

The document's section on nuclear weapons, which repesent an advance over previous church teachings in making specific moral judgments on nuclear deterrence, is likely to be the focus of most attention, but the section is only part of a broader overview on the scriptural. moral and pastoral aspects of war and peace questions.

The draft document begins with analyzing the basic Christian commitments to life and to peace from a scriptural perspective. It then discusses in detail the just war theory, which has been a cornerstone of the Catholic moral approach to war and peace issues since the fifth century.

While noting that the just war theory sees right of self-defence as "an extension of the commandment of love," the authors comment, "It is too often forgotten that the 'theory' of just war elaborated through the centuries was an evolving effort to discourage war" by placing strict limits and conditions on it and making a presumption in favour of peace.

'Just war'

Saying that modern weapons of war "give special urgency to questions of when, if ever, violent resistance can be permissible," it places its analysis of nuclear warfare within the context of the classical moral position of the just war theory — the conditions required for legitmate entry into warfare and the limits place upon the conduct of war, particularly the protection of non-combatants from attack and the requirement that the means used in war be proportional to the ends for which the war is being fought.

Even if waging war can be justified in a particular situation, it says, "the particular means used to wage war may not be permissible. The distinction is critical, especially in view of the very practical questions raised today about nuclear weapons."

The draft document also addresses other issues of warfare today. It notes, for example, .under the question of the competent authority to wage war, that "far too little analysis has been made for the moral issues involved in revolutionary-counterrevolutionary or insurgency-counterinsurgency conflicts." It also notes that the right of self-defence required for a just war "does not include the mere defence of all material possessions, seizing the possessions of others, or the imposition of rule on others."

It also says that a decision to forego a nuclear deterrent itself poses difficult questions and might "require a willingness to pay higher costs to develop conventional forces."

The pastoral draft speaks at length of the moral duty of "waging peace." It calls on the United States to be prepared to take some "independent initiatives" toward arms control and disarmament and says the resonsibility for disarmament cannot be evaded "by one side's pointing accusingly at the other as treacherous and aggressive."

It calls for a shift of military the easing of misery in the world, noting that true peace must be based on justice and human dignity.

It urges the development of effective non-violent means to resolve conflicts between nations and guarantee their security, and the development of a "compelling vision of peace, justice and a positive world order" in the international community, ences on the moral dimensions of war and peace issues, to develop a reverence for life, to pray and to do penance for peace.

It praises "heroic persons" who have adopted a position of pacifism and non-violence for the sake of the Gospel and says that pacifists deserve a better understanding by the American Catholic community.

At the same time it defends the role of Catholics in the military and other defence-related work and urges them to bring the depth of Catholic tradition to their work, to assure that American policies and practices in the field of defence are carried out on a sound moral basis.

It urges Catholics engaged in peace activities to be sensitive to the rights of other Christians to hold different positions in good conscience, and to "build bridges" of mutual understanding and respect.

It also addresses Catholic educators, priests, religious. scientists, doctors, technicians, industrial workers, workers in the media, public officials, young people and parents. and Catholics as citizens, suggesting ways they can work for peace and justice in their specific context in life.

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