Another Side of Unilateralism

In 1968, at midpoint in the Nuclear Age, Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, reiterating the Church’s historic opposition to contraceptives. One is frequently reminded that some who rose up in wrath against the encyclical, now embrace to the letter mere drafts of a proposed pastoral on war and peace from the bishops of the United States. I of course accepted without qualm or question Humanae Vitae, nor would I dismiss out of hand a letter on nuclear weapons written by my bishop William McManus. It needs saying that the draft of the pastoral does not now have even the status of an issued letter. To discuss it, to question it, even to make fun of it, should not be construed as even remotely like dissent from the magisterium. Far better to see what is going on as the buffeting of a committee whose members did not perform their task very well.

It being thus made clear that there is no analogy at all between Humanae Vitae and a draft distributed to the press prior to the bishops’ discussion of it, so far as dissent and docility and the role of the laity are concerned, there is a parallel which may be worth pondering.

In restating the traditional Catholic position on contraception, Paul VI recalled that the marriage act, like any human act, must be responsible and provident. The ends of marriage can be furthered by limiting fir size of a family provided this is done in a legitimate fashion. The Pope thus urged research into methods which would enable husbands and wives so to limit their families that in doing so, they did not deny the total gift of themselves to one another.

The Pope’s wishes have long since been realized. The Catholic who is responsive to Humanae Vitae, and that should be all Catholics, cannot be portrayed as one doomed to a family of unlimited size. There are natural methods of family limitation available, easy to use, reliable. Those who continue to grouse about Humanae Vitae have something other than married life in mind. It turns out that they have an ecclesiology which, while it never made it into the documents of Vatican II, they nonetheless brand as a post-Vatican II ecclesiology. In its most simplistic form, this ecclesiology would have it that Catholic doctrine is what the majority of Catholics think or do on a given question.

This populist ecclesiology, which is laced with references to the role of the laity, is as clerical a phenomenon as can be. One will be forgiven for being amused by those who, like Monsignor Higgins, appeal to Father Richard McBrien for aid against the menace represented by the editors of CATHOLICISM IN CRISIS. The new ecclesiology is a colonels’ revolt with a small number of pliant lay people used as pawns. Humanae Vitae continues to provide a rallying cry. One half expects dark allegations about the role of the CIA. The last thing the new populist ecclesiology wants to hear from is a laity which is untutored by the new theologians. In that perspective, one counts on opposition to CATHOLICISM IN CRISIS from certain quarters.

But this is an irony on which it is not seemly to dwell. Here is the parallel to which I wish to draw attention. There is no one insensitive to the moral problems posed by our nuclear deterrent. Justifiable though it be, it is scarcely a means to be complacent about. Furthermore, there is reasoned and respectable wonderment as to its morality, either in general or as employed in certain fashions. Who could disagree with Father Hesburgh when he says we should get rid of nuclear weapons? He does not mean unilateral disarmament, of course. He means there must be a better way to insure the survival of the country, of freedom, of the West.

Now those who are agreed that the end of defending our society is not to be doubted can of course disagree on the means of doing so. Many who disagree on the morality of the nuclear deterrent are in agreement on the great end in view. Those who, like John Paul II, think the nuclear deterrent is morally justifiable will nonetheless think, like Father Hesburgh, that we would be better off if we could defend the country in some other way.

There do seem to be on the horizon better ways. I would not number among them any agreement with the Soviet Union. It is naive to suggest that any agreement with the Russians could be a reliable one. If we are to get beyond the nuclear threat, we are going to have to do it unilaterally. Not by laying down our arms, but by devising means less morally equivocal of defending the country and western civilization. M. Stanton Evans, in a recent article in Human Events made this point. The High Frontier concept, developed by the Heritage Foundation, seems a way out of the woods.

Catholics who did not agree about the immorality of contraception need no longer disagree since it has become a dead issue. Now we can all read Humanae Vitae and be inspired by its vision of marriage. When a nonnuclear deterrent has been developed, and it can be, then Catholics can stop disagreeing about the nuclear deterrent.

The basic assumption is that America is worth defending, that western civilization is not to be delivered over to the new barbarians without a fight. Some, like Jonathan Schell, oppose nuclear weapons because they oppose the notion that there is anything worth defending. They dream of a world which no longer contains nation states — and ‘dream’ is the operative word. Catholics who are concerned about the nuclear deterrent, that is, all Catholics (see above), should support the unilateral effort to devise an alternative deterrent. This is a rational unilateralism.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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