Ethics and Nuclear Arms

The second draft of the bishops’ pastoral letter developed a number of interesting and insightful views concerning the ethical character of the possession, threat to use and actual use of nuclear weapons.1  This document ought to be carefully studied by all because of its authority, the seriousness with which it considers the matter and the important insights manifested in it. The clear intent of this draft is to put an end to the threat of wholesale destruction and slaughter posed by the present nuclear arms race, an objective which all people of sane intelligence can endorse, and to stimulate discussion and debate on the topic of nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare. But the controversial and radical positions that the draft has adopted have made it legitimate to doubt the truth and validity of some of its assertions. This paper presents views on the following topics:

(1) The nature and authority of the pastoral.

(2) The nature of deterrence.

(3) The duty of deterrence and the moral character of strategic nuclear deterrence.

(4) The morality of indirect killing in strategic nuclear warfare.

These topics require analysis because of misunderstandings about the nature of this letter and because there are strong reasons for doubting some of the moral, political and strategic theoretical principles that have been invoked in the draft. Our analysis will show that respectful refusal to assent to some of the claims of the draft is warranted, permissible and even invited by the draft. We will show that some forms of nuclear deterrence and the use of strategic nuclear weapons in some contexts is morally permissible and cannot be condemned.


The teachings of the second draft are not binding on the consciences of Roman Catholics under mortal sin for the reason that they are not taught authoritatively by the ordinary magisterium. If they were binding, they would have to be taught in a manner described as follows by the Second Vatican Council:

“Although the bishops individually do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nonetheless proclaim the teaching of Christ infallibly even when they are dispersed throughout the world, provided that they remain in communion with the successor of Peter and that in authoritatively teaching on a matter of faith and morals they agree on one judgment as that to be held definitively.” 2

The viewpoint expressed is the result of a long historical tradition. It notes four conditions which must be satisfied if a teaching is to be infallible, binding conscience under pain of mortal sin. First, the bishops may or may not teach in a collegial manner.’ No single act of the bishops is required in order to make the teaching authoritative. The bond of communion by which the bishops are united with each other in the Church is sufficient for their teaching to be done in unity.

The second condition that must be fulfilled for a teaching to be infallible, thus making dissent from it a mortal sin, is that the bishops must teach authoritatively on a matter of faith or morals; this makes it part of the ordinary magisterium.4  That is, bishops must be teaching in their official capacity, and not expressing their personal opinion or speaking as private theologians.

Third, the bishops, dispersed throughout the world, have to agree in one judgment on the teaching.5 The ordinary magisterium is universal, as the unity of the bishops is a moral unity and not an arithmetical one. The teaching of the bishops will not fail of infallibility because some dissent. True moral unity is had when a teaching has been proposed by bishops in times past in response to different challenges and situations and defended with different reasons. It must be clear that a bishop who dissented in the past has been admonished by his brother bishops who were authorized to participate in the Church’s teaching mission. Further support for the judgment that the teaching of bishops is universal is found in the faith and practice of the Christian people whose lives were in harmony with the teachings of the ordinary magisterium as well as in comments by approved authors.

Fourth, the bishops must propose one judgment to be held definitively.6 A definitive judgment need not be a solemn declaration by the bishops. What is required is that the bishops regard the teaching as certainly true, not doubtful, not probable, but such that it can be proclaimed by them as a matter of obligation. The bishops must make it clear that the teaching is not one a Catholic may accept or reject; it must be accepted as a matter necessary for salvation.

It is clear that these four conditions are not satisfied by the second draft of the Pastoral Letter. Thus, the teachings of the letter are not infallible and Roman Catholics are at liberty to refuse respectfully to assent to some of its teaching. The letter explicitly acknowledges the legitimacy of discussion and debate on the topic of nuclear arms and warfare, a sign that the teachings of the letter are not held definitively. Indeed, debate is positively encouraged by the letter in the hope that dialogue will lead to further understanding of the issues. Moreover, it is highly doubtful that the bishops are unified in one judgment on the teachings of the draft, making refusal to assent to it morally legitimate. Further, the letter nowhere states that its teachings are certainly true or anything but probable and revisable in the future. The letter nowhere states that the bishops would be violating their duties by not addressing the topic or by coming to conclusions different from the ones reached in the second draft. Nor do the bishops anywhere state that assent to their judgments is necessary for salvation. What all of this means is that respectful refusal to assent to the teachings of the second draft is morally legitimate.

Although it is thus clear that this letter is not infallible teaching, it should also be made clear that the authority of the bishops to render judgments on these issues ought not be disparaged by those who decline to assent to the teachings of the document. It is fully within the scope of their authority as pastors and teachers to render judgments on relevant moral issues, no matter how complex and technical these issues may be. And the fact that the bishops have not declared infallibly on these issues does not mean that they may not do so on topics such as these in the future. And the non-infallible character of these teachings should not diminish the force and authority of the infallible teachings of the ordinary and extraordinary magisterium of the Church.

The non-infallible character of this document shows that refusal to assent to it is permissible. But there is an aspect of it that can give cause for positively refusing to accept the conclusions reached. This is the claim that the dawn of the nuclear era has made traditional principles governing moral judgments concerning warfare irrelevant. Traditional ways of viewing warfare are said to be obsolete because “unique dangers and dynamics of the nuclear arms race present qualitatively new problems.”7 The letter seems to contend that the unprecedented scope of destruction that would come about from a nuclear exchange would make these principles obsolete. This claim has been made before, and it has been shown to be false. Nor is the claim that all human life is in danger from the current stockpile of nuclear weapons true. The capacities of modern society for reconstruction exceed anything seen before in history. The claim about traditional moral principles is proven false by the document itself, since it rejects a number of kinds of use of nuclear arms by invoking principles established in the classical just war theory.8

There is another reason for rejecting the notion that nuclear warfare renders traditional moral principles obsolete. Much the same claim has been made by dissenting Roman Catholic moral theologians in order to reject Church teachings on divorce, contraception, artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization.9 Were dissenting moral theologians to bring the Catholic bishops of this country to accept the principle that supposedly new and different historical circumstances can destroy the authority of moral principles taught by the ordinary magisterium, then the Church’s condemnations of divorce, artificial insemination, contraception, abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, adultery, sodomy and other acts could be rejected as historically conditioned and limited.

Moral theologians have made this assertion because the ethical methodologies they employ are so imprecise and ineffective that they cannot make the precise judgments needed to come to a true assessment of the moral character of nuclear deterrence and the use of nuclear arms in war. Dissenting moral theologians, one of whom was a key advisor on the second draft, use either updated utilitarian methodologies that are fundamentally unworkable or proportionalist methodologies which are current forms of ethical voluntarism, or relationalist methodologies which are so subjective and ambiguous that they are little more than rationalizations of personal preferences.10  The assertion that nuclear warfare has made traditional moral teachings obsolete should be taken as tacit admission by dissenting theologians that their methodologies cannot handle intricate moral problems involved in contemporary warfare. Traditional just war theory is quite capable of coming to truthful and convincing judgments concerning the morality of nuclear warfare.

This view of deterrence is rejected by the second draft as immoral for the reason that the “concept of ‘disproportionate’ or ‘unacceptable’ damage implies (more strongly in some variants of deterrence than in others) the willingness to strike targets of ‘value’ in the adversaries’ country.  ‘Targets of value’ either explicitly include the civilian population or include industrial targets which invariably would involve killing large numbers of civilians.”11 This portrayal of the nature of strategic deterrence is not adequate, and because of this, the criticism offered in the second draft of deterrence is not justified.

Only the most naive could believe that we do not live in a hostile and dangerous world. War and unjust aggression are possibilities at all times and in almost all places in our world. Wars do not happen accidentally. They may happen because of what history will judge trivial or disproportionate reasons, but practically every war was the result of reasoned and informed calculations of expected success or failure.12 It is the rationally calculated and initiated war, and not the accidental war, if there is such a thing, that is the concern of peacemakers, for this is the war that is preventable.13  This section will analyze how it is that wars which could take place because of the rational calculations of national leaders, but do not, are prevented by the policies and actions adopted by various parties to prevent their outbreak. This will be done because the second draft gives no serious consideration to how nations may defend themselves and just causes from unjust aggressors. To show how unjust wars can be prevented, we first cite a case in which an unjust war broke out as a result of rational calculations, and then a case in which a war that could have erupted from rational calculation was prevented. These cases help to identify factors that operated to prevent one unjust war from erupting and which did not function to prevent the other from happening.

  1. 1.      On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea with 90,000 troops and 150 T-34 tanks. They swept over lightly held South Korean positions and drove southward in an attempt to capture the whole peninsula. It was quite clear that they were dependent on Russian materiel and advisors, and were clearly the aggressors. In the years prior to this attack, American strength in the Pacific was steadily reduced. In 1950, there were only one and one-third standing divisions in the United States. Speeches concerning the foolishness of fighting a land war in Asia were regularly heard. And Formosa and South Korea were declared beyond American defense perimeters. American units were withdrawn, the last units leaving on June 29, 1949. Americans said in rather clear language that they were unwilling and unable to defend South Korea.14

The early twentieth century Dominican theologian Gerald Vann had a most insightful view of the nature of modern warfare. Although he was not writing about nuclear arms, what he says is applicable to them:

“Modern methods may or may not be more cruel and savage than the methods of former days; that is not the point. Let it be supposed that they are considerably more humane: the essential difficulty remains. The essential difficulty is that the objective is different. It has always been held that the only licit objects of attack, as far as human beings are concerned, are the combatants; it has always been held that the slaughter of non-combatants could be excused only if it were not a direct intention, not deliberate and directly willed, but per accidents, outside the intention of those directing operations. Today, the civil population is the object of deliberate and directly willed attack.”15

This aptly expresses that modern weapons are not any more indiscriminate in their nature than other types of weapons. In ancient times, siege tactics could kill as many innocent people as contemporary weapons can. When used in various configurations, these weapons can murder a great many people, but so can many other weapons. This does not invalidate the classical just war theory or render it obsolete. Any assertion that the situation is otherwise should be received with caution.



Nuclear deterrence is criticized in the draft because of what is presented in the Military Posture Statement for FY 1983 which reads as follows:

“The prime objective of U.S. strategic forces and supporting C÷ is deterrence of Soviet nuclear attack on the United States and its allies. Deterrence depends upon the assured capability and manifest will to inflict damage on the Soviet Union disproportionate to any goals that rational Soviet leaders might hope to achieve.”16


  1. 2.      During the Second World War, Russia and Great Britain found it desirable, for strategic purposes to station troops in Iran. To normalize the presence of these troops, an Anglo-Saxon-Iranian treaty was signed on January 29, 1942, which stipulated the withdrawal of all foreign troops six months after the end of the war, that is, March 2, 1946. Great Britain and the United States (which later subscribed to the treaty) complied, withdrawing their foreign troops on that date. The Russians did not. Indeed, in the early days of March 1946, they increased their contingent in the Iranian region of Azerbaijan from about 30,000 to 60,000 men. In November 1945, a revolt occurred and an Iranian detachment of 15,000 troops sent to quell it was refused admission by the Soviet troops. Iran protested to Russia and to the United Nations Security Council in January, with no apparent results. During February 1946, the premier of Iran, Ahmed Ghavam, went to Moscow to negotiate the removal of Russian troops. It later came out that Russian demands in these negotiations included (a) Iranian recognition of the autonomy of Azerbaijan and (b) Iranian acceptance of Russian troops on parts of Iranian territory for an indefinite length of time.

Given the overwhelming strength of the Red Army compared to that of Iran, and given the presence of Russian troops in Iran, Ghavam was clearly in a poor bargaining position. In Iran, the anti-communist parliament, although harrassed by the pro-communist Tudeh party, approved a measure invalidating any agreement Ghavam might make with Russians. Ghavam had made no concessions when he left Moscow on March 7, 1946. Obviously in the absence of any countervailing threat against the Russians from Great Britain and the United States, neither Ghavam nor the Iranian parliament could have been able to withstand the Russian demands.

In early March of that year, the crisis deepened, as the rebels expanded their control of Azerbaijan and the Russians voiced territorial demands on Turkey. The Iranians protested to the United Nations on March 19, 1946, and the Security Council voted to consider the complaint. After the Security Council voted to consider the complaint, the Russians steadily relaxed their position, until they agreed to withdraw all of their troops in five or six weeks. Given Stalin’s insensitivity to world opinion, as manifested by his treaty with the Nazis, his attack on Finland and his share in the partition of Poland, it is highly unlikely that he was responding to world opinion. What was clear to Truman was that the Russians were intent on invading Turkey and seizing the Black Sea straits in the Mediterranean. Truman consistently voiced strong protests in private, and the Soviets probably expected that the U.S. would use the atomic bomb in a ground war if it went badly. The Americans had used it twice the year before, and there was no tradition against its use. And if this weapon forced them into a retreat, they probably feared that the ‘capitalists’ would force them into further retreat elsewhere.17

What was it about the second case that permitted a rationally calculated war from erupting whereas in the first case war was not prevented? The difference is probably most clearly

seen in the rather blunt language of Truman himself: “There isn’t a doubt in my mind that Russia intends an invasion of Turkey and the seizure of the Black Sea straits to the Mediterranean. Unless Russia intent is faced with an iron fist and strong language another war is in the making. Only one language do they understand —”how many divisions do you have?”18 Truman had stated a threat to use force, nuclear force, in order to stop the Soviets from gaining domination of Iran and the Black Sea Straits. It is also clear that the Russians perceived this threat also. On March 11, 1946, Pravda published an extended editorial (which was broadcast four times in Russian and four times in English on the radio) pointing out that Churchill “urges a new war and a war against the Soviet Union.”19  American public announcements never publicly mentioned the atomic bomb, but the Soviets apparently believed that it would be used if necessary. In Izvestia on March 12, 1946 the Russian writer Eugene Tarle said that Churchill was threatening Russia with “the latest forms of military weapons.”20 This is a rather clear reference to the atomic bomb, and an outright acknowledgement of an American threat to use the bomb was seen in a statement in the New York Daily Worker describing “an exhibition of American atomic bomb diplomacy.”21 And Alexander Leontiev later said in Pravda that “certain quarters in the United States were still attempting to employ ‘atomic diplomacy’ to bend the world to American will.”22

What all of this indicates is that the very nature of the threat posed in the second case was such that the Soviets were convinced that aggression would not succeed and that any attempts to do so would be unprofitable. The threat posed in the second case showed that any attempt at unjust aggression could not be undertaken with any reasonable hope of success. This threat was met by a clear manifestation of the will and capability to assure that aggression would not succeed, a point that was certainly made through private channels of communication and possibly through public channels. By the manifestation of will and capability, the expectation was created in the minds of Russian decision makers that they would suffer punishments that would be intolerable in comparison with the values they could expect to gain from their aggression.23

It should be clear that the presentation of credible threats to inflict unacceptable punishment as a consequence of acts of unjust aggression deters these forms of aggression from occurring in some instances.24  But what is it that makes a deterrent threat credible, capable of deterring aggression, and to preserve its credibility over time? The mere voicing of threats is not always sufficient to deter aggression, as the study of history makes clear, for there must be the present and demonstrated military capability of enforcing these threats. What is critical for establishing and preserving credibility in threats is the presence of a manifest will and motivation to do what is being threatened.25  Demonstration of a will and determination to respond to unjust aggression is the most difficult aspect of creating a convincing deterrent, but it can be done if the following conditions are present:

a) A reputation for repelling aggression and doing what is threatened must be established by doing both of these in response to small forms of aggression, and by doing this with consistency.26  If an adversary knows that small forms of aggression will be met with an appropriate deterrent response that makes these unprofitable, he will then conclude that larger forms of aggression will also evoke a response that will prevent success and make aggressions costly failures.

b)   There has to be a proportion between the unjust aggression and the threatened response.27 If there is no proportion between the threat and the response, the justice of the situation will shift from the aggressor to the one attacked, and this will undermine the moral force of the threat.

c)   A formal similarity between the act of unjust aggression being deterred and the threatened response is required for the threat to be seriously regarded if the threatened response is not explicitly communicated as the result of the unjust aggression.28 It is necessary that the unjust aggressor know that the punishment is directly and proximately related to the act of unjust aggression.

d)   There ought to be an immediacy of response to the aggression so that the aggressor will know that the punishment is the result of the aggression and not of something else.29

e)   For a deterrent to be compelling, convincing and credible, there must be both the manifest will and capability of deterring unjust aggression at all levels of violence.30 This is necessary because an aggressor will formulate his aggressions at levels of violence where there is no deterrent threat. Those who believe that the will and capability to deter aggression at all levels of violence is not necessary fail to see that refusing to deter aggression is an implicit toleration of it at some levels of violence. If an adversary discerns that the unjust aggression will not be opposed at a specific level of violence, such as terrorism, conventional war or unconventional war, then he will pursue his objectives by initiating violence at one of those levels. Thus, a credible threat demands a thoroughgoing capability and will to render any unjust aggression unsuccessful.  It would, of course, be preferable of the rights of the peoples in the world were respected and unjust aggression never occurred, for then it would not be necessary to develop the will and capabilities to deter aggression.  But as there is aggression in the world, the only options open to those who choose to defend their rights are either threats against would-be aggressors to prevent them from initiating aggression of the repelling of aggression once begun without having made threads to do so before it is initiated.  The second way of defense is faulty since it does not in and of itself deter aggression, only repels it after it has started.

These qualities are essential for a credible and convincing threat. It must be acknowledged that posing a threat to respond to unjust aggression raises the risk of escalation into wider conflicts.31 But the refusal to pose credible deterrent threats ultimately raises greater risks of conflict; the same is true of the refusal to respond to acts of unjust aggression. Either refusal indicates that aggression will be tolerated and creates the expectation that aggression will not be opposed. Posing a threat to deter aggression raises risks of conflict, and this is not a pleasant aspect of maintaining peace, but it is not wrong and the alternatives are worse. For failing to react to aggression at limited levels of violence creates an expectation in the adversary that no reaction will be forthcoming if more violent acts are attempted.32 The policy of pot reacting to unjust aggression is ultimately inconsistent: at some point the nation that does not react will be compelled to try to prevent aggression.33 When a deterrent threat is finally made, the aggressor will regard it as merely a verbal threat, not the expression of a determined will to act. The aggressor will continue the policy hitherto tolerated and successful and be quite surprised when a war erupts. This was the case in Korea. War was not averted there precisely because the United States reversed its policy of not seeking to deter and repel unjust aggression. When the threat was finally made, it was not regarded as credible and the North Koreans continued their policy of unjust aggression into a full scale war. There is no doubt that the policy of threatening a response to unjust acts of aggression is dangerous in a world where rights, obligations and duties are not respected. But it is ultimately less dangerous than a policy of not responding to aggression for the simple reason that appeasement must finally become deterrence and when this change is made the risk of war is significantly increased.

If it is true that a policy of deterrence does in fact prevent aggression in some instances, can this policy be undertaken in good conscience or is it inherently immoral?



The question of the moral permissibility of a policy of deterring unjust aggression has often been considered, in a precise and detailed way, by the magisterium and by Roman Catholic authors. Traditional Roman Catholic moral theology has regarded national policies of deterring unjust external aggression to be not just an option which states are at liberty to exercise but as a duty and obligation incumbent upon all nations. The clearest and most authoritative enunciation of this duty is found in the Christmas Address of Pope Pius XII in 1948.


In relation to the first point, the Holy Father clearly says that nations have a duty to defend themselves and the goods of humanity from unjust attack when there is sound probability these goods can be defended.35 This unexceptionable duty is imposed on nations by the very nature of the moral order. What are the goods that demand defense? A complete list would be too lengthy but an illustrative one is possible. Most moralists would include on the list: aesthetic experiences and their pursuit; religion and the freedom to worship according to one’s conscience; sociability and freedom of association; justice and the physical health and well-being.36 If a state were positively to choose not to defend these goods, it would make a morally evil choice, since they are inherently good, worthy of choice in themselves and worthy of defense.

It should be pointed out that the Holy Father indicated that the state is bound to defend not just the lives of its citizens from unjust attack, but also the various goods of humanity that are necessary for society. This is a much less restrictive view of the permissibility of the use of force in self-defense than some other authors permit, and it is based on the high esteem the Holy Father had not just for human life but for all the human goods that perfect the person and society.37

As for the second point, notice that the care and protection of its citizens is the first and most important duty of the state. This view was confirmed by Thomas Jefferson: “the care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.”38 Pope Pius XII sees more duties incumbent on government, but would agree on the most important one. Concerning the third point, it should be said that of all the human goods not related proximately to the individual human person, the highest of these is the common good. And the highest, most complete and most extensive natural common good is the international common good. It is the foundation of the common good of individual states, nations and societies.

In the light of these principles, it can be shown that the behavior of the Soviet Union in the nuclear era warrants the possession of a strategic nuclear deterrent by the United States.’ This is so first of all because of the way the Soviet regime treats its own citizens and the way it permits citizens to be treated by regimes it endorses. The Stalinist purges, the invasions and annexations, the silence about atrocities and genocide in such nations as Cambodia, testify that Soviet leaders are not simply brutal and violent. The Marxist-Leninist regime aims positively and intentionally at the violation of basic human goods. The government is organized in such a way as to subordinate all institutions of society to the imperatives of the ruling elite. Legitimate liberties, freedoms and rights are suppressed if they jeopardize the security of the power elite. Law, art, medicine, science, education, religion, literature, music and the family, are promoted only to the extent that this enhances the political security of the ruling elite. The centralized economy and massive internal security structures have the same purpose. There is no good of nation or individual that the Soviet regime will not violate to enhance its own power.

There is a duty to resist the imposition of this form of rule on anyone. Gerald Vann wrote, “Resistance may be a duty to the community of nations. Aggression may be more than political, more than imperialism. It may result in the imposition of paganism on the world.”39 The Soviets seek more than increased regional power or universal political power. Theirs is a peculiarly new form of paganism that ought to be resisted, not only by Christians, but by any person or nation of sincere moral convictions. Such opposition is justified because Marxism- Leninism has a deliberate, official and positive policy to violate basic human goods.

The second reason that justifies a U.S. strategic deterrent is that the Soviets have set themselves positively, deliberately and directly against the international common good. The invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan and Korea, the insurrections supported in Vietnam, Iran, Angola, the Horn of Africa, Cambodia, and elsewhere, against regimes that had the endorsement of their people, indicate that the Soviets and their allies positively intend the destruction of the present international order.40 The rights and freedoms of the members of the community of nations are not objects of respect for them and they have stated this publicly. At the 25th Party Congress, Leonid Brezhnev stated: “… it is clear as can be that detente and peaceful coexistence relate to interstate relations. Detente in no way rescinds, or can rescind, the laws of the class struggle.”41 This clear statement of intention to destroy the international common good morally warrants resistance.

The third reason why a strategic nuclear deterrent is warranted is that the Soviets pursue their goals and objectives at any level of violence they find useful and expeditious. Terrorism, unconventional warfare, conventional warfare, even nuclear means have all been tried by them in attempts to advance their power. The nuclear era has seen aggression initiated at all levels of violence and it has also seen this aggression stopped and discouraged by the application of threats to respond with violence at any and all levels of violence. Attempts to put curbs on the levels of violence in confrontations have failed. After World War II, the Western- Allies all but disarmed themselves, only to find their authority challenged by the Soviets in a number of, areas. In the last decade, the United States initiated what was for all practical purposes an arms freeze and did not deploy any new strategic nuclear systems. This action was not reciprocated; the Soviets produced massive amounts of weaponry and deployed a number of new strategic systems. As former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown once said, “When we build, they build. When we stop building, they build.” The Soviet Union is not interested in supporting and sustaining the community of nations but in imposing their rule wherever they can.

If a strategic nuclear deterrent is thus morally justifiable, can its use be justified if this involves the killing of large numbers of non-combatants?


To come to a right conclusion about the moral character of the use of nuclear weapons in contemporary warfare, it must be acknowledged that there are serious and difficult dilemmas involved. The dilemmas are caused by the duty we have to defend human goods and the duty to refrain from using means to defend them that are intrinsically and inherently immoral. Evil may not be done so that good may come of it. No matter how justified one’s intention in going to war, if the means chosen to prosecute it are unjust, immoral, the war will be unjust. The principle cannot be escaped by arguing that retaliation against an unjust aggressor in kind is legitimate, or that inherently immoral means may be used because they are lesser evils than are some other means. No matter how good the cause, it is never permitted to make non-combatants the direct object of attack. Yet when it is morally demanded that unjust threats be repelled, and the only means available to defend basic human goods are inherently immoral, the dilemmas seem real and serious. These are the dilemmas faced today by those who understand the dimensions of the Soviet threat, and do not wish to employ nuclear weapons to deter or repel the threat because they believe that the means they would have to use are not Christian. There is a dilemma for those who believe that the proper Christian response would be to submit to the oppression of others, but who are reluctant to impose this belief on others. There is a dilemma for those who do not want to give scandal to others by using means of violence against those whom their Christian faith tells them are brothers, but who also do not want to give scandal to those who look to them to defend and vindicate their rights.

Gerald Vann put it very strongly.

“So we come to the ultimate dilemma. It is possible that we shall find ourselves impelled by our consciences to fight because the issue at stake is, we feel, wholly just and wholly vital to our existence, the preservation of Christian principles in our world; but at the same time confronted by the fact that we are powerless to choose our weapons: if we are to fight, it must be in a war not arranged by ourselves but by others who do not share our views in this respect, a war in which the methods we regard as criminal will be used, not incidentally, by this or that individual, but consistently, as part of the general plan of the campaign. What are we to do?”42

The choice cannot be to do nothing.

“There is even a deeper principle involved: the shielding of the world’s moral order from injustice in the name of God and man. Worse than the attack on human life is the attack on God’s order which is destroyed by this crime. Where the innocent are saved through the death of the guilty aggressor, the Fifth Commandment is not broken. What is right for the individual is right for the State. If all other means have been tried and have failed, armed defense is justified both in self- defense and in defense of God’s moral ordering of the world —God does not will that injustice should go unpunished.”43

One must defend the moral order, but one cannot do so by choosing an immoral means. Is there an escape from this dilemma? Both Vann and Stratmann believed that the solution was to refrain from direct killing of non-combatants, and in this judgment they were correct. But it is our belief that the use of nuclear weapons as a last means of self defense is such that the direct killing of non-combatants can be avoided, thus permitting their use. This is the case for the reason that when nuclear weapons are the last and only certain means of defending from an unjust strategic first attack, the deaths of non-combatants that come about are indirectly intended.44 This is the case because in this situation, and in this one alone, the lack of freedom for those who are intending only to defend the moral order changes the character of the human act they perform, and makes the intention to kill non-combatants an indirect and not a direct intention. To see this it will be helpful to refer to a case familiar to medieval moralists which shows how the radical constriction of freedom can alter the intentionality of a human act.

George is fleeing with his wife on horseback from a man who wants to murder both him and his wife. The attacker is also on horseback, and his wife is sitting right behind him. She does not approve of his murderous intentions, but she is powerless to stop him as he has a loaded gun. George only has a stone, which might stop the attacker if he used it, and a pistol that has only one round in it, which would certainly stop the attacker as George is an expert marksman. If the attacker succeeds in shooting George, George’s wife would also die, for the shot that would kill George would also kill his wife. If George uses the pistol, he can certainly protect his own life and that of his wife, whose life he believes he has a duty to protect as she is his spouse. But if he shoots the attacker, he will also kill the attacker’s wife, even though she is innocent and George does not want to kill her as that will do nothing to protect him. If George uses the stone or if he refuses to do anything at all, he will be positively refraining from using his last and only certain means of self defense. George uses the pistol and kills the attacker along with his wife. He intended only to defend his life and that of his wife, and the death of the attacker’s wife was an unintended and indirect side effect of his intention to repel an unjust attack. If the use of the stone would have repelled the attacker with any reasonable certainty, he would have used it, but it did not hold out this prospect. So George used the pistol for the reason that it was his last certain means of self defense, because this means was determined for him by the nature of the attack posed against him, and because he was not free to choose another means of self-defense.45

In morally relevant terms, the situation George confronts is identical to one in which nuclear weapons are employed to repel an unjust strategic first strike, for the proportionalities are the same, and the duties and goods are identical. George’s use of the pistol was proportionate to the evils brought about by the death of the attacker’s wife for the reason that, while she is completely innocent, her unintended and indirectly willed death permits the saving of the lives of innocent persons who are acting to protect their lives and prohibit unjust actions from succeeding.

Some might object that this case is not relevant to the issue of killing with nuclear arms because it is one in which the killing is clearly indirect while this is not the case with non-combatants in nuclear war. In reply, it should first be pointed out that the death of the attacker’s wife was not indirect simply because she was shot right after the attacker was. The physical order of their deaths is not of immediate relevance there; simultaneously occurring deaths can be direct or indirect, depending on the intention of the act.  This can be seen in the famous case of Hydro.

Because of the top secret priority Manhattan Project already undertaken, the Allies in early 1942 suspected that the Nazis were seeking to develop their own atomic bomb. An obscure hydro-electric power plant located about 70 miles from Oslo in Norsk, Norway was known to be producing deuterium oxide 2 which had the capability of breaking a nuclear chain reaction by absorbing fast moving neutrons from a radioactive pile of uranium. They believed that the German nuclear research program was based in Hechingen, Bavaria, and they raided this installation at the end of the war. An atomic bomb in the hands of the Nazis would have been fearful in 1942, for its use could have destroyed London, stopped an invasion, and broken open the eastern front. Thus, an extensive sabotage program was launched, for allied researchers firmly believed that the Nazis led the world in nuclear research.

The Norsk plant was bombed twice, but the missions were not wholly successful. Teams of saboteurs were flown in from England to attack the plant, and they did succeed in destroying most of the reserves of 2 on February 27, 1942. But by mid-1943, it was decided that the Norsk operation had to be completely destroyed. Later, 153 Allied planes raided the plant, and this convinced the Nazis to move the whole operation to Germany. They chose to move the 2 reserves to Germany on the ferry Hydro. The Allies knew they could not attack this boat on the high seas, and the rail line from the hydo-electric plant was too well guarded to permit the reserves to be attacked while in transit to the port. Fortunately, the port was lightly guarded, and on the night before the Hydro was to sail, saboteurs slipped on board and planted explosives on the hull. The next day when the Hydro sailed, it was blown up in a fjord and sank in 1300 feet of water. The remaining reserves of deuterium oxide went to the bottom, along with twenty-six civilian passengers.46

This episode illustrates that acts that appear to be instances of direct killing are actually instances of indirect killing. Knute Haukelid, who led the saboteurs, physically killed the passengers in a direct manner, but their deaths were indirectly intended; the reason and purpose of his act was to attack a legitimate military target. This episode and the case of George show that in situations where the last certain means of just defense involve the taking of human life, the deaths of the innocent become indirectly intended when there is no other means available. This principle enables one to escape the dilemma posed by Vann, to account for the permissibility of certain forms of killing that are physically direct, and for the permissibility of hard cases such as ectopic operations. The morality of these operations has been upheld by the Church, and they are important, for they are morally identical to a situation where the use of nuclear arms is the only means available to repel an unjust nuclear first strike. Traditional moral theology has allowed the removal of an ectopic pregnancy by removing the diseased tube sustaining the pregnancy when doing this is the only means available of saving the life of the mother.47 If there were any other means available to protect her life, it would have to be chosen, but when removing the pathological tube containing the unborn person is the only means available of protecting her, the death of the unborn person becomes indirect. In a situation where another means of saving the mother’s life is available, a means which does not bring about the death of the unborn person, the choice to remove the pathological tube would be direct killing of the unborn person.

The use of nuclear weapons in defense against an unjust strategic first strike is morally identical to an ectopic operation because there is no other certain means available of protecting life and defending the moral order. A strategic nuclear deterrent is certain and safe in comparison to others for the simple reason that other deterrent threats cannot respond with the necessary deterrent force in sufficient time.

Some would doubt that all of the deaths that would come about from the use of a strategic capability in defense against an unjust strategic first strike could be indirectly intended. But to show that these deaths could be indirect in a counterforce and counter -value attack a case can be cited in which an attack of this kind did involve an indirect attack on non-combatants.

During the summer of 1940, Hitler’s Luftwaffe attacked British Royal Air Force bases almost uncountable times. By late August, more than 150 RAF pilots were out of action, and those who remained were so exhausted that they were losing their effectiveness. In preparation for the invasion of England, Operation Sea Lion, Hitler launched an all out air attack against RAF fighter bases called Adlerangriff or Eagle Attack, which was designed to drive Fighter Command out of the skies. Had he succeeded in this operation, the way to invasion would probably have been open, as the Royal Navy would have lost most of its air cover, and the British army would not have been able to stand up to the Germans after the disaster of Dunkirk. Air Chief Marshall Dowding feared that the combat value of his fighter pilots was declining because of their exhaustion, for many of them had flown seven or eight sorties a day for over two months. While he still had almost 750 planes available, there was the distinct possibility that his pilots would be shot down in large numbers in coming weeks simply because they were so exhausted.

But on August 24, two Luftwaffe bombers accidentally bombed London, and Churchill used the accident to bomb Berlin, in the hope that the Germans would be goaded into diverting their attacks away from the RAF bases to the cities, thus giving Dowding’s fighter pilots a respite. Eighty one Hampden bombers attacked Berlin, did little damage and caused few deaths, but their attacks did succeed in goading Hitler to divert his attacks. Ultimately Fighter Command recovered, and they went on to gain such dominance over the Luftwaffe that Hitler canceled Operation Sea Lion.48

Many would regard Churchill’s attacks on Berlin as direct because they involved attacks on civilian populations. But when one considers that Churchill’s intention was to divert Luftwaffe attacks, the fact that he had no other means to stave off their unjust attacks, and also the fact that the deaths of German civilians could not cause German bombers to stop attacking RAF bases, it becomes more evident that their deaths were indirectly intended. These deaths were physically direct, but morally indirect because the intention of the attack was directly to divert bombers and only indirectly to kill civilians. This is not to justify later attacks on civilian populations, but only to justify the attack on Berlin as the last means Churchill had available to him to fend off an unjust attack. If he had had another means, it probably would have been used, but it is not evident that there was any other option available to him.

If this principle is not true, there is no way of escaping the dilemma Vann posed. If it is not true, it is not clear how the removal of a tubal pregnancy can be anything but a direct killing. This principle eliminates the need to justify a strategic nuclear deterrent as a lesser evil. All that is required is to show that the good of protecting the moral order is proportionate to the evils involved in the indirectly intended deaths and the physical damage. This is not an impossible task when a comprehensive view of the Soviet threat is taken and the levels of violence threatened by the Soviets are considered.

In the year that Hitler invaded Poland and there was a great pacifist demand for an end to war, Father Gerald Vann wrote the following:

“The conflict, if it is to come, will be decreed by others than ourselves. We shall then find that others are fighting for our interests, fighting to defend, not Christianity itself perhaps, but the fundamental liberties which make the spread of Christianity possible. So that if we refuse to take any part in the conflict we shall be open to the accusation of refusing to defend our defenders, of turning the other cheek, not simply in the sense of failing to resist injuries done to others, but in the sense of failing to resist injuries done to those who are fighting to redress our own. This is why these pages have been concerned to argue that there is a real dilemma, that there is no slick solution, and that it is absolutely vital to remember both sides of the problem, because otherwise we may bring Christianity into disrepute. There are millions today who are as convinced as we can ever be of the futility of war, of the barbarism to which it will lead, of the evil it will do. And they are ready to sacrifice one thing: the liberty of the world, the liberty which, in Christian eyes, is ultimately the liberty to worship God and to ensure that one’s children shall worship God.

If then such a conflict is to come, it is the question of methods of warfare which is the real problem. Is it or is it not possible to take any part whatsoever without ever doing what is intrinsically evil, or cooperating in what is intrinsically evil, or giving scandal by appearing to acquiesce in what is evil? That is why it is so terribly urgent that we should be of one mind and be able to speak with one voice. For then if we were to find it impossible, on any of the grounds discussed above, to take part in hostilities, at least we could make it clear that our non- participation was not the result of a lack of concern for international justice or for the preservation of the fundamental rights of man; if, on the other hand, we were to find it possible to take part in this or that aspect of the conflict, without doing or cooperating in what is intrinsically evil, we could make it clear that at the same time we did wholly disassociate ourselves from what was in fact intrinsically evil, and so could avoid the danger of scandal. Unity of mind, and of voice, on this question is perhaps the most urgent need of our time. The eyes of the world are upon the Church. Never perhaps has there been a time when a greater opportunity has been offered to Christians of vindicating their faith by standing up without compromise for the principles of the faith, the teaching of Christ; on the other hand, never perhaps has there been a time of greater danger, a time when a failure to stand up for those principles, a cowardly choosing of compromise, would so dishonor and discredit the faith. This is no matter, then, for hasty conclusions; still less for the irresponsible virulence of newspaper controversy. It is a problem which demands all of our energy, and our prayer, to the finding of the right solution; and the finding of it quickly, or we shall be late again.”49

Father Vann ultimately came to the conclusion that it was better for a Christian to violate the duty to the international common good than to violate a duty to Christ. We have shown that in the situation where the use of nuclear arms is the last and the only option available to defend against an unjust strategic nuclear first strike, this dilemma and conflict is resolved because the deaths brought about are indirectly intended. This principle enables Christians to refrain from participating in inherently evil acts while also fulfilling their duties to the common good.

“It is true that a Christian community may submit to servitude rather than involve the world in the horrors of war and run the risk of betraying Christianity by using unchristian means of resistance. As far as those immediately called upon to suffer are concerned, it would be a heroic act which might convert the world. But what of those indirectly involved? We are bidden to turn the other cheek; but it is our own cheek we have to turn, not other people’s. What right have we, then, to involve others in our sacrifice? Two things especially call for notice. A Christian community can accept pagan domination and yet remain Christian, for matter cannot defeat spirit if spirit is strong. But the paganism of today is likely, as Pope Pius XI pointed out, to achieve the success of Julian the Apostate: for it attacks Christianity through education: it takes control of the child. The Christian community’s act of self-sacrifice might turn out to be an act of the sacrifice of its children to Moloch. Secondly, there is a temptation to think of ourselves, Christians, as a self-contained community; to think of a nation as a hundred percent Christian. It is not the case that Christian principles have the controlling influence in national affairs. Just as we have to remind ourselves that we cannot arrange our war, so that even in a cause indisputably just we may find ourselves unable to excuse the methods used; so, on the other hand, we might be called upon to refrain from the use of force in order to bear witness to the Gospel, but in fact we are a minority in a society which will choose other means. And so we return to the same point: if we concentrate on the other cheek we shall in fact be turning other people’s cheeks.”50

If George can use a pistol to defend his wife and himself from an unjust attack, why cannot a nation subjected to an unjust strategic nuclear first strike use nuclear weapons when they alone will assure that the aggression will not succeed?

The purpose of this article has been to show that, not only is it legitimate for Roman Catholics to dissent from the second draft of the Pastoral Letter, there are as well good reasons, if not compelling ones, for doing so.



1.   Origins. National Catholic News Service. Documentary Service. October 28, 1982, Vol. 12, No. 20, pp. 305-328. (Hereafter cited as Challenge.)

2.   See: Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post- Conciliar Documents. “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” Lumen Gentium. Para. 25.

3.   Germain Grisez and John Ford. “Contraception and the Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium.” Theological Studies. Vol. 39, June 1978, p. 272.

4.   Ibid. p. 272.

5.   Ibid. p. 273.

6.   Ibid. p. 275.

7.   Ibid. p. 307.

8.   Timothy O’Connell. Principles for Catholic Morality (New York: Seabury, 1978) p. 151, and Charles E. Curran “Natural Law and Contemporary Moral Theology” in Contemporary Problems in Moral Theology (Notre Dame: Fides, 1970) p. 118.

9.   Germain Grisez and Joseph Boyle. Life and Death with Liberty and Justice (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979) p. 349. Also see: Benedict Ashley and Kevin O’Rourke. Health Care Ethics. 1st edition (St. Louis: Catholic Hospital Association, 1977) pp. 163-165.

10. Gerald Vann, O.P. Morality and War (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1939) pp. 46-47.

11. James L. Payne. The American Threat: The Fear of War as an Instrument of Foreign Policy (Chicago: Markham, 1970) pp. 62-64.

12. Thomas Schelling. The Strategy of Conflict (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960) p. 6. For further discussions of rationality in strategic theory, see: Graham T. Allison. Essence of Decision (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971); David Braybrook and Charles Lindbloom. A Strategy of Decision (New York: Free Press, 1963); Patrick Morgan. Deterrence (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1977); James N. Rosenau, ed. International Relations and Foreign Policy (New York: Free Press, 1969).

13. Cited from Payne, op. cit. pp. 1-2.

14. Ibid. pp. 23-31.

15. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, Military Posture Statement, FY 1983 (Washington: 1982) p. 19.

16. Challenge, p. 316. This assertion is disputed by Colin Gray in his “Defense, War-Fighting and Deterrence”. War College Review, September 21, 1982, pp. 38-43. “But, it should never be forgotten that the United States has no inherent interest in punishing the Soviet Union, and still less interest in punishing Soviet citizens for the actions of their government. In practice, in the undesired event of war, the American president is going to be much more interested in saving American lives than he is in taking Soviet lives.

17. Harry S. Truman. Memoirs, Vol. 1: Year of Decisions (Garden City: Doubleday, 1955) pp. 551-52.

18. The New York Times. March 12, 1946, p. 4.

19. Ibid. March 13, 1946, p. 2.

20. Ibid. April 2, 1946, p. 9.

21. Ibid. April 1, 1946, p. 1.

22. Payne, op. cit. p. 4.

23. Morgan, op. cit. pp. 77-82.

24. Payne, op. cit. p. 12.

25. Ibid. p. 9.

26. Ibid. pp. 78-80.

27. Ibid. p. 78.

28. Ibid. p. 77-78.

29. Ibid. p. 131. The necessity for a thoroughgoing deterrent capability is established by the obligations imposed by a global deterrent strategy that require deterrent threats to be made that are not always foreseen.

30. Ibid. p. 6.

31. Ibid. p. 14.

32. Ibid. pp. 14 and 212.

33. Pope Pius XII. Christmas Address, 1948. I.U.A. pp. 95-96.

34. Francis Stratmann, O.P. War and Christianity Today (London: Blackfriars, 1956) p. 49.

35. Germain Grisez. Abortion: The Myths, the Realities and the Arguments (New York: Corpus Books, 1970) pp. 312-313. Grisez counts the following as being basic human goods, even though there may be more:

1. Life itself.

2. Activities engaged in for their own sake (e.g., games and hobbies).

3. Experiences sought for their own sake (e.g., esthetic experiences and watching professional athletic competitions).

4. Knowledge pursued for its own sake.

5. Interior integrity – harmony and peace within one’s own self.

6. Genuineness – conformity between one’s inner self and outward behavior.

7. Justice and friendship – peace and cooperation with others.

8. Religion – the reconciliation of all humanity to God.

36. Stratmann, op. cit. p. 50.

37. Ibid. pp. 43-49.

38. Speech to the Republican Citizens of Washington County, Maryland. March 31, 1807. Reprinted in J. Bartlett. Familiar Quotations, 14th edition, 1965, pp. 472-473.

39. op. cit. p. 68.

40. Richard Pipes. “Soviet Strategic Doctrine: Another View” in Strategic Review December 14, 1982, p. 56. In contrast to this, it is worthwhile to quote from an address by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger to the Massachusetts Medical Society on May 19, 1982:

Our policy to prevent war since the age of nuclear weapons began has been one of deterrence. Our strategic nuclear weapons are only retaliatory. Their purpose is to provide us with a credible retaliatory capability in the event we are struck first. The idea on which this is based is quite simple: to make the cost of fighting a nuclear war much higher than any possible benefit. This policy has been approved, through the political processes of the democratic nations it protects, since at least 1950. Most important, it works. It has worked in the face of major international tensions involving the great powers and it has worked in the face of war itself.

But while the idea of deterrence has stood the test of time and usefulness beyond reproach, the things we must do to maintain that deterrence have changed substantially as the Soviets’ quest for nuclear superiority grew to fruition.

In the fifties the requirements of deterrence were minimal. Our overwhelming nuclear superiority both in weapons and the means of their delivery made moot the question of whether an adversary would be deterred by unacceptable costs, if he attacked first. It also gave us the ability to deter conventional attacks on our allies. By the mid-Sixties however the Soviets’ nuclear force had grown greatly in strength. They had also achieved a major edge in conventional weapons in Europe. To discourage the prospect of conflict there NATO decided that it would meet and answer force at whatever level it might be initiated, while retaining the option to use even greater force as the most effective preventative against aggression in the first place. It is important to remember here that the retention of this option is absolutely consistent with our original view of the purpose of our nuclear weapons, that is, to deter aggression and to prevent other nuclear weapons being used against us or our allies. In simple language, we do not start fights – in Europe or anywhere.

41. Vladimir Bukovsky. “The Peace Movement and the Soviet Union”. Commentary, May 1982, p 28.

42. Vann. op. cit. pp. 54-55. Also see: Payne, op. cit. p.


43. Francis Stratmann, O.P. The Church and War: A Catholic Study (New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1928) p. 54.

44. See: Michael Walzer. Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1977) pp. 152-159. Walzer contends that the theory of double effect must be amended to include the condition that everything possible be done to minimize damage. But this condition is implicitly contained in the notion of the last certain means available of self-defense. If there is a means available that will bring about less damage than one being contemplated, then the one contemplated is not the last certain option available.

45. This case is constructed on a similar one found in Gabriel Vasquez: Opuscula Moralia. De Restitutione. Lib. 3, par. 1, dub. 7 (Lyons, 1631). Walzer disagrees with this view (p. 137 ). He is correct in asserting that a citizen may not attack another citizen in order to protect himself, but it is not clear if he means a direct or indirect attack on an innocent bystander. For, under most codes, it is not unlawful to indirectly inflict injuries on innocent bystanders in the course of an act of self- defense. For an enlightening discussion of direct and indirect action, see: William E. May, ed. “The Natural Law and Objective Morality: A Thomistic Perspective,” in Principles of Catholic Moral Life (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1980), p. 174. “A natural object or physical action, which is the subject matter of speculative inquiry, is determined in its species by a naturally given form. A human act, which is the subject matter to be known in practical deliberative inquiry, is not determined to be an instance of a specific class by reason of any natural form but rather by a form that is determined by practical reason itself. But in order for practical reason to make this determination, it must take into account the various contingencies or circumstances in which the act is done.”

46. This is based on an account in Russell Miller and the editors of Time-Life Books. The Resistance (Alexandria, Va: Time-Life Books, 1979), pp. 151-159 and Gerald Simons and the editors of Time-Life Books. Victory in Europe (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1982), p. 104.

47. Acta Apostolicae Sedis (1897-98) pp. 703-704. Also see: T. Lincoln Bouscaren. Ethics of Ectopic Operations (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1933).

48. Leonard Mosley and the editors of Time-Life books. Battle of Britain (Alexandria, Va: Time-Life Books, 1977), pp. 99-119. Also see: Walzer, op. cit. for a differing viewpoint, pp. 255-264.

49. Vann, op. cit. pp. 69-71.

50. Ibid. pp. 68-69.


Robert L. Barry, O.P. was at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.

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