THE US bishops' pastoral letter on war and peace will be a factor in the 1984 presidential election, according to Fr J. Bryan Hehir, the US Catholic Conference's director for international justice and peace.
"I think the bishops' letter will help keep the nuclear question before the American public as one of the central issues by which any candidate or party ought to be judged, and in that sense I think it will have an impact on the election," Fr Hehir said in an interview in the July-August issue of The Inter Dependent, a New York-based monthly.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a pastoral letter on war and peace. "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Responsiblity," in May.
Fr Hehir told The Inter Dependent that three factors had prompted the American bishops to endorse a letter which challenges fundamental assumptions of U.S. Strategic planning:
— The bishops decided to look at the nuclear weapons issue from the point of the specific responsibility of a hierarchy in one of the two nuclear superpowers; and — Believers and the U.S. public in general had looked to the Church for answers.
The "multidimensional process" that produced the bishops' pastoral letter crystalized with the growing public realization that "the arms race was headed in a more dangerous direction," Fr Hehir stated.
President Reagan's election and fundamentalist religious forces did not contribute significantly to the bishops' decision in 1980 to tackle the question of nuclear weapons, he added.
Shortly after Reagan took office, however, he said, "there were some careless statements about nuclear weapons" that "enhanced the anxiety of the bishops." But "the November '80 meeting would have gone ahead no matter who had been elected," he said.
To The Inter Dependent's query about who will decide at what point disarmament is so far out of reach that dcterrance has to he jettisoned as a policy, Fr Hehir responded that "there is no simple grid" to decide when deterrent policies become intolerable.
In the pastoral the bishops concluded that deterrence is morally defensible only as a transition to disarmament. "One purpose of that judgment is to highlight the unsatisfactory nature of our present security and therefore to resist efforts at being complacent with the state of deterrence," Fr Hehir continued'.
"The bishops want to resist the argument that because it's worked for 38 years one can be entirely confident that it's going to work for the next 38," he said. "They want to challenge that by talking about it as a transitional strategy."