Theological Reflections on a Pastoral Letter

We owe a deep debt of gratitude to our bishops for their splendid Letter and to Fr. Bryan Hehir for his brilliant analysis of the genesis and content of that Letter. The final draft strikes me as being vastly superior to the first two and serves as a fine example of what can be accomplished through patient discussion, charitable debate, a genuine openness to opposing viewpoints, and a gentle nudge from on high, by which I mean of course the Holy Spirit! The Letter has the great merit of reminding us that politics and especially nuclear politics should not and cannot be divorced from considerations of morality, as it so often is in the minds of our contemporaries. It also has the merit of restoring a measure of unity among the bishops themselves, who in the recent past have given the impression of being at odds with one another, at the risk of confusing some of the faithful who expect them to speak with roughly the same voice at least on fundamental issues. Here at last is a statement to which virtually all of them could subscribe, which is more in line with the teaching of the universal church, and which is bound to have a considerable impact on the nation as a whole. It is by far the most ambitious statement to come out of the USCC in the last fifteen years or so and it fully deserves the acclaim with which for the most part it has been greeted by Catholics and non- Catholics alike. Since I mostly agree with the positions taken in the Letter, I shall limit myself to a few brief remarks about some points that call for further discussion or clarification.

The first of these has to do with the so-called “limited” or “just war” theory. The Letter as I read it endorses that theory and rightly credits St. Augustine with having supplied it with its central insight, which is that the New Testament command of love must be understood in such a way as to include the defense of the innocent. Simply put, to allow one’s family, one’s friends, or others for whom one is responsible to be tyrannized or massacred by an unjust aggressor is not an act of love. Unless I am mistaken, however, the Letter’s account of the just war doctrine owes more to the Spanish and Dutch theorists of the 16th and 17th centuries than it does to any of their predecessors. The result is a conception of the just war that is more juridical or legalistic in tone than the one advocated, for example, by Augustine or Thomas Aquinas, both of whom seriously doubted whether matters as complex as these could be legislated with any degree of precision, if only because decisions pertaining to them are necessarily affected by the immense web of ever-changing and largely unforeseeable circumstances in the midst of which they have to be taken. The Spanish theorists obviously thought they could be so legislated, but then they were faced with the problem of justifying Spanish imperialism on the one hand and of curbing its excesses on the other. Well-intentioned as it may have been, their theory runs the twofold risk of granting to war a stronger legal sanction than it might otherwise have and of depriving statesmen of the flexibility required for the discharge of what Cardinal Casaroli recently called their “awesome responsibilities.”

Let me illustrate this by means of a simple example. The Letter expresses “profound skepticism” about the morality of any nuclear attack, whether it be by way of a first strike or by way of retaliation. The reason alleged is that the new weapons probably could not be used without endangering the lives of millions of noncombatants and hence without violating one of the basic tenets of the just war theory. At the close of the May meeting at which the final draft was emended and approved, the current president of the National Conference of Bishops was quoted as saying that he could not conceive of any situation in which the use of nuclear weapons would be morally justified. Neither can I, right now. It is nevertheless hard to believe that Catholic teaching can be adequately formulated on the basis of what anyone, even a bishop, is or is not able to imagine at any given moment. Say that a country is being attacked by a powerful enemy and that its existence is threatened by a fleet of nuclear submarines which can be destroyed in mid- ocean, or by an orbiting nuclear missile which can be destroyed in outer space, but only by another nuclear device. Would the same restrictions still apply? No one can answer that question in advance for the simple reason that the answer would depend on one’s assessment of the total picture at the time of the emergency. This is why Thomas thought that warfare was first and foremost a matter, not so much of moral and legal principle, but of political prudence, duly informed by a proper regard for the requirements of the common good 50, 4). If time permitted I would argue that the original just war theory does greater justice to the non-violent position than does the present one, even though the Christian tradition has never accepted nonviolence as a universally valid option.

In fairness, it should be added that the bishops’ remarks are hedged in with all kinds of “whereases,” so many of them in fact that assessing their exact meaning is like trying to pin a tail on a vanishing donkey. The Letter states flatly that our “no” to nuclear war must be “definitive” and “decisive.” Yet, when asked point-blank whether the bishops had condemned the use of nuclear weapons altogether, Archbishop Roach admitted that he was not sure. All he could say was they had certainly moved “closer to” that position. I admire his candor but I also understand his predicament. There are moments when the Letter almost sounds like the Athanasian Creed, which is supposed to be the only nonheretical statement ever to be written about the Trinity because every time it affirms something, it immediately proceeds to deny it. Maybe the bishops could ask Fr. Hehir to tell them what they voted for!


My second point concerns the distinction between “principle” and “policy,” which is more sharply drawn in the final draft, in response to some legitimate criticisms elicited from above and below by the earlier drafts. Accordingly, the bishops make it clear that the general principles enunciated in the first part of the Letter carry more weight than the policy judgments contained in the second part. Unfortunately, the lines often crisscross, and ordinary laypeople, who lack the theological sophistication of the bishops, cannot always tell which hat they are wearing when they make this or that statement. Such at any rate has been my experience in talking with them.

This may be only a minor problem, however. The crucial question is whether bishops really need to be as specific as ours have chosen to be in formulating proposals about nuclear policy. One can appreciate their desire for concreteness, since by their very nature moral principles are meant to be applied; but this still leaves open the question of the level of application, about which opinions tend to vary. The Letter strongly favors nuclear disarmament and takes a rather dim view of nuclear deterrence. What if its recommendations, once implemented, were to lead to a nuclear holocaust? There are, after all, some highly reputable analysts who hold different views on this matter and who seem to think that, given the present world situation, the prospects for a lasting peace would be diminished rather than enhanced by the adoption of the bishops’ proposals — that, until a better solution can be worked out, we should look instead for a more reliable balance of nuclear power, even if this means conducting further tests such as those to which the bishops want to call a halt. The sad fact of the matter is that no one today, not even the greatest experts, as they themselves will testify, knows what the best solution to the problem might be.

If, in spite of all their disclaimers, the bishops insist on speaking as strategists, they must expect to be judged by criteria other than the ones that normally apply to episcopal pronouncements. It is ironic but not at all surprising that one of the latest articles on the subject should be entitled precisely, “Bishops, Statesmen, and Other Strategists on the Bombing of Innocents.” I mention this only to indicate that it may not be in the bishops’ interest to allow themselves to be cast in that role and have their views discussed on a par with those of, say, McGeorge Bundy, Stanley Hoffman (whose name they cannot seem to spell right), and Albert Wohlstetter, to cite only three authors who have dealt with this issue in the last month alone.

No one denies that the Church has a vital stake in the political life of the nation, and it is regrettable that, through no fault of its own, it has been removed from it for so long. But to say, as the Letter does, that it “should become involved in politics” is not the most prudent way to voice that concern, especially in a country such as ours. It does not suffice to reply that, as private citizens, the bishops have every right to make their opinions known to others. A statement issued in the name, of a national hierarchy will always be perceived as having some sort of official status and claim more respect than the opinions of a private individual. Bishops are at their best and most convincing when they speak as theologians, not as military strategists. Unless they can show that their views on nuclear deterrence are self-evidently or demonstrably superior to other possible choices, they should exercise the greatest restraint in articulating them in a public document such as this one. The trouble with the Letter, if I may say so, is that it does not take the threat of nuclear annihilation seriously enough, just as in my opinion it is not sensitive enough to the impulse at work in the non-violent option. Its lofty talk about respect for human life would have been even more compelling if greater attention had been paid to the possible outcome of some of the strategies that it outlines. As Cardinal Lustiger, the Archbishop of Paris, suggested not long ago in a different but related context, the position of the American bishops is that of “people who know or believe that nothing will happen to them anyway.”

The usual objection to this line of questioning is that a mere rehash of the old Catholic teaching would have been trivial at this point, that more was needed in order to catch the dilemma of the age, that a specific program of action had to be laid out if the bishops were to make a positive contribution to the national debate and influence government policy while it is still in the process of being formed. All well and good. Still, the nuclear crisis has been with us for quite a while now, decades in fact, and there are those among us who have been striving to alert students to its gravity for a quarter of a century or more, with little support from the ecclesiastical establishment at a time when that support would have been most useful. Better a belated statement than no statement at all, I suppose, but one cannot help wondering why it was produced at this time and not earlier. The answer is fairly obvious. Without the prodding of a powerful and still growing antinuclear movement, paradoxically summoned into existence by the deployment of Soviet missiles in Europe, the bishops would never have dared to speak out as loudly as they did.

The same answer accounts for the political preferences evinced in the Letter. Nobody expected or even wanted a pure and simple reiteration of the timeless principles of Catholic moral theology. The difficulty is that, by following those principles to their logical conclusion, one does not necessarily come out on the bishops’ side of the political agenda. It is no mere coincidence that the policy which the bishops would like to shape has already been shaped to a large extent by “prophetic” forces outside the Church and without the benefit of its assistance. One emerges from a reading of the Letter with the odd feeling that the bishops as a bloc are not really haunted by the specter of a nuclear war, all protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. To outsiders, their recent conversion will undoubtedly appear too sudden to carry much conviction. Besides, there are just too many inwardly more pressing issues which they have yet to address and on which they seem somewhat reluctant to pronounce themselves. Having read the “signs of the times” (as they call them), they sense very well that an equally `courageous statement on those issues would not muster half as much support. Clearly, there are times when silence is golden. It must not be easy these days to preside over a Church which stands for so much that runs counter to popular sentiment.

In all of this I have not said anything that is not already said or hinted at in the Letter. I have merely tried to refocus the issue by stating it in slightly different terms and from a slightly different perspective. My real regret is that there is so little about peace in a document published under the heading, The Challenge of Peace. To be sure, the Letter contains a long section on peace, but that section is itself devoted mainly to problems of negotiation, arms control, arms reduction, the establishment of a national peace academy, reverence for the United Nations, the improvement of relations between the superpowers, and the like. One searches in vain for a genuine discussion of peace, based on a profound analysis of the human soul, such as the one that accompanies Augustine’s treatment of the just war theory. Since our bishops have already done so much however, it would be cruel to reproach them with not having done more, and I for one am not about to do so.

Ernest Fortin


Ernest L. Fortin, A.A. (1923 - 2002) was a professor of theology at Boston College. While engaged in graduate studies in France, he met Allan Bloom, who introduced him to the work of Leo Strauss. Father Fortin worked at the intersection of Athens and Jerusalem.

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