Letter of Catholic Congressmen to Archbishop Bernadin

Dear Archbishop Bernadin:

As Catholic members of the United States Congress, we feel a profound responsibility for the direction of our nation’s defense policy. As laymen, we are responsible for the concrete application of moral principles, and we are grateful for the spiritual guidance provided by our common faith. Naturally, then, we have a unique stake in the success of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in its preparation of the Pastoral Letter on War and Peace.

However, from our perspective as legislators, we see a number of difficulties with the draft version of the Pastoral Letter which has been made public by the U. S. Catholic Conference. Precisely because we are so interested in the success of that endeavor, we hope that you will take into account our thoughts on this difficult issue.

We are ever mindful that lawmakers, sworn to uphold the public trust, have a sacred duty to protect the people they represent. Pope John XXIII emphasized this obligation in his great encyclical Pacem in Terris, echoing the words of Pope Leo XIII, “that the safety of the commonwealth is not only the first law, but is a government’s whole reason for existence.” The preamble to the Constitution we are sworn to uphold asserts as among its primary purposes to “provide for the common defense” and additionally, to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

That special calling gives us a special perspective on the question of national defense, and prompts our reflections on the draft Pastoral Letter. We can divide our concerns into five categories, as follows:

I. The Nature of the Soviet Threat.

Our national defense posture — especially insofar as it involves nuclear weapons — is poised to counter the very real threat of Soviet communism. The tensions generated by Soviet expansionism cause the greatest fears of war. Without a threat from the Soviet Union, there would be no arms race. But the policies of our adversary have made the arms race inevitable. In recent years, the Soviet government has undertaken the greatest arms build-up in history. And the historical record compiled by the Soviet leadership gives us every reason to suspect that, if we let our defenses lag, we will pay an enormous price in lost human liberties —not only for ourselves but for free people everywhere.

Pope Pius XII instructed us that “there are human goods of so high an order that immense sacrifices may have to be borne in their defense.” Among those human goods are the rights to liberty and to freedom of conscience —rights that are crushed under communist regimes. The Connecticut Conference of Bishops has made the point succinctly: “In view of its proven record, Communism now actively threatens the existence of all religions and of all places of worship in the world.” We cannot, in good conscience, allow the degradation of God-given human rights — in our own country or in the countries that depend upon our support for their liberty. We think it worth noting that after the communist coup in Afghanistan, the loyalty of Afghan officers was tested by the demand — under pain of death —that they walk on the Koran.

History also teaches us, quite clearly, that the Soviet government will take advantage of any lapses in the defense of the free world. In Hungary, in Czechoslovakia, and now in Afghanistan, the Soviets have demonstrated their aggressive intentions.

In short, our real threat is not embodied in weapons — however gruesome modern weaponry might become. Our real threat comes from an ideology that challenges our fundamental faith in human dignity. As Father John Courtney Murray pointed out, “Only Soviet doctrine makes Soviet power a threat to the United States. Only Soviet doctrine explains the peculiar nature of Soviet imperialism and shows it to be unappeasable in its new dynamism. Only Soviet doctrine illuminates the intentions of the new messianism that has come out of the East, fitted with the armature of power, and organized implacably against the West.”

2. The Nature of Contemporary Warfare.

The threat of a Mil-scale nuclear war arouses the greatest possible fears in modern society, and secular commentators invoke an apocalyptic vision of modern warfare. But for most of the people in the world today, the greatest danger of war still involves conventional weapons. Since World War II there have been hundreds of conventional wars, local insurrections, border conflicts, and guerrilla attacks; the death toll from this warfare runs into the tens of millions. To date, despite years of international tensions, none of those smaller battles has escalated into a world conflagration. Although we have never truly seen peace, we have at least seen limitations on wars. Those limitations are imposed largely by the strength of the U. S. defense posture, which denies aggressors the prospect of an easy victory. Our defenses deter conventional attacks, sparing untold human tragedy, by imposing risks on potential aggressors. Given the nature of our adversary, there is no other way to stave off violence. “But if there is no risk,” Father Murray concluded, “or only a minimal risk, aggressive policies will be carried through, as they were in Hungary, where nothing was done to create a risk.”

Particularly in Western Europe, where recent generations have seen so much bloodshed, the Soviet Union has an awesome preponderance of conventional weaponry. Only our nuclear deterrent force inhibits the Soviets from using that advantage to intimidate our allies on that continent.

In view of these strategic realities, our nuclear deterrent force should be seen not as a threat to peace, but as a guarantor of peace. A capable, flexible defense posture allows us to deter war and spare human lives in two different but related ways. First, we prevent the occurrence of some wars of aggression. Second, and equally important, when war does break out we limit it as much as possible to local, conventional conflict.

Since we cannot entirely eliminate the possibility of war, our goal as legislators is to create a national defense that could hold warfare in check. If war does break out we must bring the fighting quickly to a halt. To accomplish this objective, we must have weapons that can be used quickly, efficiently, and discriminately to halt aggression.

We do not wish to enter into a discussion of whether or not a limited nuclear war is possible, because the answer to this controversy is not essential to our general position. We do not encourage, nevertheless, research and development of new and more discriminate weapons — whether nuclear or conventional — that can more precisely target military as opposed to civilian targets.

As the bishops judge the morality of nuclear weapons, we ask that they consider that conventional weapons can indeed impose levels of destruction that may be indistinguishable from nuclear weapons, as Dresden, Tokyo and Coventry bear witness. From the perspective of the survivors of Hiroshima or Dresden, the bombing strategy was at least as crucial as the type and number of weapons used.

Our nuclear deterrent is designed to preserve the peace by offsetting Soviet nuclear and massive conventional military forces. Thus should we dismantle our nuclear deterrent we actually increase the danger of war, whether conventional or nuclear.

True, as in the past, a European conventional war might spare the United States. But we recall the words of Stephen Spender, in his horror at the violence of the Spanish Civil War: “It came to me that unless I cared about every murdered child indiscriminately, I didn’t really care about children being murdered at all.” We cannot forsake our allies simply to allay our own fears.

3. Nuclear Strategy.

The draft letter condemns any strategy that envisages the massive bombing of civilian population centers. This condemnation is clearly in line with Catholic teachings since the advent of nuclear weapons. We would only add that the documents of Vatican II are somewhat more precise when they condemn “modern scientific weapons” rather than nuclear weapons as such. Again, conventional weapons can carry out the same grisly mission.

The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction does indeed contemplate massive retaliatory bombing of Soviet cities, and we welcome the bishops’ injunction against that policy. However, the N.C.C.B. should be aware that American defense policy in recent years has shifted dramatically away from the MAD doctrine. Our strategic planners (under President Carter as well as President Reagan) have been moving toward a more rational nuclear posture, in which our own weapons are not aimed at Soviet cities, but at our adversary’s own strategic forces. In our view, this new direction makes American policy both more effective and more moral.

However, the draft Pastoral Letter does not recognize the shift in American policy — a misunderstanding that Judge Clark has emphasized in his letter to the Bishops. Moreover, the draft Pastoral does not allow for a nuclear strategy that emphasizes “counter-force” rather than “counter-value” targeting. In fact, the draft condemns “the willingness to foster strategic planning which seeks a nuclear fighting capability.”

If the United States did not have a nuclear war-fighting capability, how could we preserve our deterrent? Deterrence depends entirely on the Soviets’ perception of our ability to withstand attack. If our adversary knows that we cannot fight a nuclear war effectively, he has no reason to inhibit his own aggressive instincts. If we retain our nuclear weapons, but eliminate our strategic options for waging war, the only remaining possibility is a return to the MAD strategy — the strategy we have condemned as immoral.

Ambassador Rowny, our top negotiator in the present arms-control talks, has summarized this point quite well. Without a war-fighting capability, we would limit ourselves to only one response in case of Soviet aggression. And, Ambassador Rowny observes, “there would be only one feasible target for that response — Soviet cities and their civilian population. The moral condemnation of such targeting of cities is crystal clear in the documents of Vatican II and in post conciliar papal statements.”

We have seen, in recent weeks, a great deal of debate about the nature of the Vatican statements on nuclear weapons. We have heard many different interpretations of Pope John Paul’s message to the United Nations, although the wording of that message seems clear enough to us: “In current conditions, deterrence based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself, but as a step toward progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable.” We can concur, for that matter, with Cardinal Krol’s amendment, substituting “tolerable” for “acceptable.”

Whatever connotations different interpreters might place upon that statement, and similar statements by previous popes, we find Professor William O’Brien convincing in his explanation: “It should be clear, however, that given ample opportunity, neither the popes, including John Paul II, nor Vatican II have condemned the present deterrent and defense posture of the Free World, much less ordered the faithful to subvert or oppose them.” We wholeheartedly concur without reservation in the message of our Holy Father to the United Nations, and we earnestly pray that our bishops do not reach an opposite conclusion.

4. Arms Control and the Arms Race.

The history of arms-control negotiations is not a happy one. Successive talks and agreements have taken very little momentum out of the arms race, and it would be difficult to find anyone who feels safer today as a result of the agreements we have concluded with the Soviet Union in past years. Nevertheless, the draft letter gives very little credit to the United States for its efforts to introduce real restraints on nuclear weaponry.

Since the first atomic bomb was invented, there has been only one serious proposal for world disarmament: the Baruch Plan, which was introduced by the U.S. during a time when our nation enjoyed a nuclear monopoly. That plan, and every subsequent suggestion that included the vital element of effective verification, was rejected by the Soviet leadership. Still, the United States government has persisted in good-faith bargaining, and today President Reagan has offered a dramatic decrease in the nuclear armament of the unstable European theatre.

Even without a comprehensive agreement to curtail the arms-race, in recent years the United States has reduced substantially the number of nuclear weapons in its arsenal. As part of the 1979 NATO decision on intermediate nuclear forces, we even withdrew, unilaterally, 1,000 nuclear warheads from Europe. But these and other similar self-imposed restraints by the United States have not been matched by the USSR, which has consistently expanded its nuclear arsenal and its capability for nuclear and conventional aggression. The final Pastoral Letter should, we respectfully assert, give credit where it is due. Perhaps even more important, however, is the fact that in its present form the draft letter does not seem to differentiate between the intent of the nuclear weapons systems deployed by the United States and the Soviet Union. As it now stands, in fact, we are condemned equally — if not more — than the Soviets for possessing huge weapons. Surely there is room for a more objective assessment of this point. The essence of our policy is, and always has been, to deter war, especially nuclear war. Our principal alliance relationship, NATO, is dedicated to preserving the values, tradition, and heritage of Western civilization — including the freedom of religious choice. It would be preposterous to characterize NATO as anything but a defensive organization which seeks to prevent an aggressor from starting a war.

Unfortunately, the Soviet Union does not share our world view. Its record on human rights and religious toleration is engraved on the bloodstained streets of Eastern Europe and Afghanistan. Its military forces — including its burgeoning nuclear strike systems — are built around the concept of the offensive. The unprecedented size and scope of their aggressive capabilities should warn us against repeating the tragic mistakes of the 1930’s, when the West, in attempting to project a policy of peace at all costs, actually emboldened the fascist dictators to embark upon the aggressive steps which resulted in the Second World War. We recall that following Pearl Harbor draftees were drilling in Grant Park, Chicago, with broom handles instead of rifles. The margin for error we once had no longer exists.

We are far from unanimous concerning the funding for production of the MX missile. Even so, we recognize that it is designed to correct an imbalance between our present defense posture and the Soviet’s first strike ICBM capability. All of us hope that should production of this weapon go forward, it will provide an incentive to the Soviets to negotiate significant strategic reductions.

How can we create that possibility, without increasing the risks of general warfare? New advances in technology have raised exciting possibilities for defensive systems that might take away the advantage of a nuclear first strike. Anti-missile defenses of varying description have been proposed, including some that promise a comprehensive cover against a first strike. If they are successfully developed, such defenses could help to eliminate the moral quandary of nuclear deterrence. We cannot yet be certain that such defensive systems will succeed, but we can at least be open to that possibility. In particular, in considering the Pastoral Letter on War and Peace, the bishops should contemplate the possibility that nuclear devices might be constructed for solely defensive purposes. Surely such devices could not fall under the condemnation of nuclear weapons in the draft letter.

5. The Road Toward Peace

As legislators operating in an imperfect world, we cannot hope to eliminate all conflicts among nations. As Christians, we look forward to the reconciliation of all men in Jesus, but we recognize that such reconciliation will not come about as a result of our inadequate efforts. Therefore, we join our spiritual leaders in calling for prayer for peace. We cannot, and should not, attempt to solve all our problems without invoking the Lord’s help.

However, we can and should address the root causes of the tension that currently plagues the world. We can fight against violence without resorting to violence, by refusing to allow the degradation of human rights around the world. As representatives of the free world, we must emphasize the truth about human nature and human freedom — the “inalienable rights” on which our republic is founded. Alexander Solzhenitsyn has come to us as a spiritual witness to the corrupt ideology against which we must do battle. Lies cause violence, Solzhenitsyn tells us, and to avoid violence we must do homage to the truth. We are fighting a battle of ideas daily —a battle as important as any other that we might face.

As the N.C.C.B. continues its discussion on the Pastoral Letter, we urge all the bishops to keep this spiritual battle in mind. No true peace is possible unless human dignity is upheld. The crisis we face today does not involve two morally equal forces, but the contention of human freedom against totalitarianism. As Pope John Paul II wrote in Redemptor Hominis, “After all, peace comes down to respect for man’s inviolable rights.”

Forgive us if we speak too bluntly, but we do so because we take your Excellencies’ efforts with the utmost gravity and respect. But we would expect the view that no values are worth defending if a nuclear war might ensue to be espoused by materialists —those who are at best agnostic about the existence of the immortal soul and the nature of good and evil. When we read such pessimism from some of our bishops who are dedicated to the propagation of the faith, we cannot but wonder, “What faith?”

In all the burgeoning literature of apocalypse surrounding this issue we have never encountered such a startling statement as the second draft contains, when it says: “Today the destructive potential of the nuclear powers threatens the sovereignty of God over the world He has brought into being. We could destroy His work.” The notion that mere creatures could do anything to “threaten the sovereignty of God over the world” strikes us as the definition of Original Sin. We would hope that those who would disarm us in the name of peace might dwell more deeply on their responsibility for the moral character of the peace that would follow our surrender. Peace without justice is moral violence. The boat people of Vietnam aren’t fleeing a war, they are fleeing a peace without justice. We do not see capitulation to evil as an act of morality, nor do we believe that survival is the only value worth preserving. Of course we do not attribute a contrary view to you nor the Conference, but simply want to share with you the depth of our convictions.

We cannot accept the notion implicit in some interpretations of the morality of nuclear deterrence that our only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, was less than moral in defending our freedom during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when he said: “Our policy has been one of patience and restraint, as befits a peaceful and powerful nation, which leads a worldwide alliance

But now further action is required —and it is under way; and these actions may be only the beginning. We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth —but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.

We take pride in President Kennedy’s ringing conclusion: “The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are —but it is the one most consistent with our character and courage as a nation and our commitments around the world. The cost of freedom is always high —but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission. Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right —not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.”

Once again, we hope that the bishops will consider these thoughts from laymen who, like themselves, are caught up in the horrible dilemmas posed by nuclear weaponry. Our hopes and prayers are with you as you enter the final phase of your debate.


Charles F. Dougherty, PA

Henry J. Hyde, IL

Robert K. Dornan, CA

Daniel A. Lungren, CA

James L. Nelligan, PA

Clay Shaw, Jr., FL

William Carney, NY

Vin Weber, MN

Eldon Rudd, AZ  

Ray McGrath, NY

Joe Sheen, NM  

John N Erlenborn, IL

George Wortley, NY

Thomas F. Hartnett, SC

Guy Molinari, NY

Edward Derwinski, IL

Edward Madigan, IL

Tom Corcoran, IL

Manuel Lujan, Jr., NM

John Hiler, IN

Bill Lowery, CA  

Gene Chapple, CA

Billy Tauzin, LA  

John Breaux, LA

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