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Religion: The Bishops vs. the Bomb

5 minute read
Richard N. Ostling

Catholic leaders sharply criticize U.S. nuclear arms policy

The meaning of this moment is not about weapons systems, megatonnage or complicated treaties. [It] resides in the vivid awareness people have of the danger of our times and the public determination that governments be challenged to take decisive steps against the nuclear threat.” So declared Joseph Cardinal Bernardin as 262 Roman Catholic bishops of the U.S. last week met in Bernardin’s Chicago to debate a 44,000-word pastoral letter on the morality of nuclear arms policy. After two days of discussion, the bishops endorsed by a large margin (238 to 9) a sweeping and, to critics, ill-advised attack on theories of nuclear deterrence that have been central to the defense policy of a series of U.S. Administrations, Democratic and Republican.

The third draft of the pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” was written by a five-member committee headed by Bernardin. The first and second drafts had given grudging acceptance to the concept of nuclear deterrence, if the U.S. worked for mutual disarmament with the Soviets. In its most controversial passage, the second draft also called for a “halt” in the deployment and development of U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons; that stance was rejected by conservative bishops and criticized by the Administration because it amounted to an endorsement of a nuclear freeze that would maintain Soviet superiority. The draft of the third version under consideration called for both sides to “curb” their nuclear activities rather than halt them.

Many bishops had been upset by the way the Reagan Administration had praised the third draft; for example, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger two weeks ago declared that the document was “consistent” with the Government’s policy. The bishops, who felt the draft was far more critical than that, were unhappy with the impression given that they had watered down the document in response to criticism from the White House.

The tone of the Chicago meeting was set during debate on the first of 478 proposed amendments. The bishops overwhelmingly revived the call for a halt in the spread of nuclear arms. In effect they were endorsing the nuclear-freeze resolution. But they added a waffling footnote stating they had no wish “to be identified with a specific political initiative.”

Another important alteration clashed with U.S. and NATO policy, which allows for the possibility of an Allied first-strike use of nuclear weapons; the theory is that this threat will deter an attack by the superior non-nuclear forces of the Soviet bloc. The bishops adopted an amendment offered by San Francisco’s archbishop, John R. Quinn: “We do not perceive any situation in which the deliberate initiation of nuclear warfare on however restricted a scale can be morally justified.”

Would it, then, be moral to fire nuclear weapons in retaliation against an enemy’s nuclear strike? The bishops first endorsed an amendment by Quinn opposing any conceivable use of nuclear weapons. But the bishops later rejected Quinn’s wording, preferring to express “profound skepticism” that any use would ever be moral because innocent civilians would be killed in a retaliatory attack.

The most persistent conservative was Archbishop Philip Hannan of New Orleans, a chaplain with the 82nd Airborne Division during World War II. As the antinuclear wave rolled on, Hannan lectured his fellow bishops: “I don’t think you know what you’re talking about at all, not having been in war. You’re just inviting the enemy in if you withdraw those nuclear weapons we have.”

A State Department spokesman repeated the Administration’s fears that the bishops’ hoped-for halt of nuclear deployment would diminish prospects for a major arms-reduction agreement with the Soviet Union. Whatever his private dismay, President Reagan mildly observed that the document “is a legitimate effort to do exactly what we’re doing, and that is to try to find ways toward world peace.”

The main question raised by the bishops’ approval of the pastoral letter is whether it would indeed work for peace in the long run. The document is a classic example of the church’s age-old effort to use moral idealism to change the realities of politics. But the steps that the U.S. bishops advocate may make it more difficult to maintain a precarious peace. Facing the same issues, but at closer range, West European bishops have been far less critical of NATO’s nuclear strategy.

To work for mutual nuclear disarmament, the U.S., paradoxically, must operate from nuclear strength. Although they supported the policy of deterrence, which ultimately depends for its credibility on the will of the U.S. to use nuclear weapons if attacked, the bishops doubted that any use of nuclear arms by the U.S. would be moral. Catholic Philosopher Michael Novak, a leading conservative critic of the pastoral letter, argues that the U.S. must be ready to use its nuclear arsenal, if need be, “to prevent the most awful aggression against innocent peoples here and elsewhere.” In addition, the bishops’ proposal that the U.S. and NATO should forgo the first use of nuclear arms against an overwhelming Soviet conventional attack would probably mean that Europe would be lost.

At the insistence of the Vatican, the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter explicitly states that only the church’s broad moral principles are absolute (for example, the immorality of indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians); it also concedes that Catholics of good will might differ over how these principles apply to the intricacies of nuclear weaponry. But the bishops also contend that their “moral judgment in specific cases, while not binding on conscience, is to be given serious attention and consideration” by America’s 50 million Catholics as they develop their own thinking on the morality of nuclear arms. —By Richard N. Ostling. Reported by J. Madeleine Nash/Chicago

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