Morality and Nuclear Weapons

The Tutelage of the American Catholic bishops continues. Its Present focus, we all know, is the morality of U.S. nuclear policy. That issue, we also know, seemed rather recently to be all but settled. Still, the final words have yet to be spoken, and those who would guide the bishops must consider the possibility that even the truly converted will stray. An attempt to prevent such straying is found in the December, 1982 issue of the Jesuit quarterly Theological Studies. Entitled “Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear War: The Shape of the Catholic Debate,” its author is David Hollenbach, S.J., associate professor of moral theology at the Weston School of Theology. Aimed primarily, we may assume, at the various episcopal seats, its carefully fashioned indictments of U.S. nuclear policy as dangerous and provocative, and thus immoral, may well guarantee unity in the flock and assure the anticipated condemnation of that policy. But such a result will follow only if the work is read compliantly, or in a smugly prophetic spirit, joined to the conviction that the claimed perception of grave evil in one’s own land is the mark of that righteousness whose source is the Paraclete. If Fr. Hollenbach’s arguments are gone over somewhat critically and measured against the claims made for them, quite a different effect might be produced.

One of the article’s themes is the strained co-presence in Catholic thought of the demand for total pacifism and the doctrine that the waging of war may be just. However, primary consideration is given to the relationship between traditional norms of a just war on the one hand, and nuclear war, the American goal of deterrence, and U.S. weapons policy on the other. The norms governing the initiating of a just war (ad bellum) are: legitimate authority undertakes it, as a last resort, against injustice, openly declares it, sees the chances of success as reasonable, perceives a proportion between the evils of war and the evils of capitulation, and wages it solely for justice and peace. The standards applicable to the actual conduct of war (in bello) are that noncombatants not be directly attacked and that there be an acceptable balance between values promoted and values destroyed, between evils avoided and evils suffered.

The application of one norm to one possible form of nuclear war is both simple and of indisputable force: city- busting, the intended devastation of large population centers, is forbidden. But when it comes to what he terms the “intricacies” and “complexities” of actual or planned U.S. nuclear policy, Fr. Hollenbach’s presentation and resolution of the moral problems involved are far from satisfactory. They are, rather, quite specious. Those who would command in this area, the bishops, deserve, and should demand, more of those who would instruct.

Here, for example, are his first account and analysis of projected additions to U.S., strategic nuclear forces: “technological developments have created the possibility of deploying new first-strike weapons, such as MX and Trident II, and weapons which are difficult to detect both before and after they are launched, such as the cruise missile. Possession and deployment of such new weapons by both superpowers will raise the level of uncertainty and danger in the balance of terror by a significant degree.”

Needless to say, he would find the increased danger morally unacceptable. Note, now, that the new weapons cited are America’s alone, which can only suggest that the culpability in question is America’s alone. How strange it is that he fails, here and elsewhere, to bring out what is surely known to him, if not to all whose thoughts he would form, namely the Soviet Union’s actual, as opposed to possible, possession and extensive deployment of somewhat less than wholly new but nonetheless extremely threatening first strike/counter-force weapons. Or are we to see the connection that he draws between the increased danger and the deployment of “new” such weapons by “both”, superpowers as an oblique acknowledgement that the USSR now has them? In any case, had this acknowledgement been explicit, he might not have failed to take up an evident puzzle: why would the possession by both adversaries of counter-force weapons be a greater threat to peace than their possession by one alone? Surely the reverse is true. As for the cruise missile, why should it, by virtue of its slowness suitable only as a riposte, add to the danger of war?

At work here as well is a faulty interpretation of the precise norms which he presents as permitting tolerance of our nuclear arsenal — that “evil” — for the sake of deterrence. He so expresses them: (1) the Soviet threat continues to exist, making unilateral disarmament even more dangerous than continued possession; (2) this risk is being decreased through effective arms reduction rather than increased through a continuation of the arms race.” The error involved in the isolated application of the second standard, and thus the flaw in any condemnation of us for planning to match Soviet capabilities, is clear. If we cannot get agreement on our proposals for, among other things, a deep cut-back in the destabilizing first-strike missiles had by the Soviet Union, the U.S. possession of which Fr. Hollenbach condemns, such a means of lessening the danger of war will not be available to us. Only the first norm will therefore apply, forcing the inference that additions to Soviet forces must be matched by additions to our own. Failure to counter the Soviet drive toward ever greater superiority would erode our ability to prevent nuclear war — which is to say that not to continue the arms race would be immoral. Fr. Hollenbach does not draw this rather necessary conclusion perhaps because, like so many others, he fails to consider our proposals on first-strike weapons and Soviet rejection of them, a neglect itself compelled by the failure to acknowledge the existence of those Soviet weapons.

The defects in logic here are more than equaled by his inability to grasp the import of the refinements that he adds to the above norms, and in one case, at a critical juncture, even to recall it. The new formulations are these: “First, any new policy proposal must make nuclear war less likely than the policies in effect rather than more likely. Second, any new policy proposal must increase the possibility of arms reduction rather than decrease this possibility.” He first applies these more specific restrictions to our projected deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe, which, he grants, would be “in response to the Soviet deployment of significant numbers of intermediate- range missiles (SS-20s) and Backfire bombers, both capable of delivering nuclear weapons on Western European targets.” He concedes that our planned deployment might “appear” to be legitimate, for the one reason that it has been presented as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the USSR over missiles in Europe. But he then adds: “NATO Pershing II missiles will have the capacity to strike Moscow within five or six minutes of launch. Their deployment may have the consequence of leading the Soviet Union to adopt a “launch on warning’ policy in order to strengthen their deterrent against what is grimly referred to as ‘nuclear decapitation.’ Such a policy would remove the awesome decision about the use of Soviet nuclear forces from human hands and place it in Soviet computers. The likelihood of accidental nuclear war in such a situation would be increased by a significant degree. One must conclude that the deployment of these new Euro-strategic weapons will make general nuclear war more likely, even though they are proposed in the name of deterrence.” And so, “the new Euro-strategic weapons fail the test for a morally legitimate deterrent according to the norms here proposed.”

In fact, evidence and norms fail to support the conclusions drawn. He cannot go beyond the assertion that Pershing II missiles might make accidental nuclear war more likely, something quite distinct from making more likely nuclear war taken simply. The stronger conclusion would rest upon ignoring the elements of deterrence and pressure for arms reduction that deployment of Pershing II would bring about. If they so fear missiles so near, the Soviets will be rather more hesitant to use their own, and rather more inclined to remove the threat by removing what prompted it. All have seen, of course, that their feeling of vulnerability is not so extreme that they refuse to haggle over the terms of ending it, which suggests that without Pershing II the appropriate arms reduction would simply not take place.

The justified conclusion concerning the moral status of Pershing ll’s deployment might have been drawn had Fr. Hollenbach noted the corollaries of the norms from which he claimed to argue. Yes, we must not implement new policies that will make war more likely and arms reduction less likely than do old policies. But the principles operative here also demand that we not retain old policies that, owing to changed circumstances, make war more likely and arms reduction less likely than would new policies.

The same principles would obviously validate our deployment of MX and Trident II. Despite this, when he again turns to these weapons he again draws an errant conclusion. He admits that the missiles “are proposed as deterrents to Soviet use of nuclear weapons against the by the vagueness of his own words, with Soviet first-strike/counter-force missiles spoken of merely as “nuclear weapons” possibly used against our “forces,” in contrast to the exactness with which he characterizes our equivalents, he moves to another baffling assertion: “First-strike weapons, however, invite preemptive attack and therefore transform deterrence into provocation.” Once more, his failure to speak candidly of Soviet weapons permits him to avoid facing up to an evident problem. Given the Soviet Union’s large-scale deployment of first-strike missiles, how could our response in kind to that stated provocation be itself provocation? True, in view of its role in the correlation of forces, our deployment of these missiles would no doubt be feared by the USSR; no doubt as well it would then like to take them out. On the other hand, any unbearable fear can be dealt with by action rooted in its heightened awareness of the value of arms reduction — something that Fr. Hollenbach, despite his canonical stress upon that value, his insistence that it is a validating feature of any policy, here fails utterly to mention. And the desire to take out our missiles will be moderated by the fear that the attempt to do so could lead to disaster, since our weapons, launched on warning, might instead take out the missiles that the Soviets must hold in reserve.

No one can have failed to notice how Fr. Hollenbach deals with this general sequence: first, a Soviet action productive of a dangerous imbalance in the nuclear forces of the two adversaries; second, our planned re-establishment of the balance; third, a possible or threatened military response by the USSR to the implementation of our plan. The first stage is either ignored or quickly passed over; the third is tacitly accepted, apparently seen as lacking moral import. Only the second is presented as a threat to peace, only it is viewed as immoral; and its relation to deterrence and arms reduction is left unmentioned or barely touched upon. With that, the author adopts a standard tactic among pacifists: castigate, not the aggressor, but those who would defend themselves. In the case before us, we are accused of planning to flout the asserted moral obligation not to continue the arms race. And here we come to the key implication of his doctrine: the moral imperative that we permit an unrestrained Soviet build-up. This means that the moral approbation given our policy of deterrence is only apparent; it is so highly conditioned that it vanishes into the realm of the logically possible. And that leaves as the actual alternatives found in his scheme, either capitulation to the USSR or the vast devastation that nuclear war — a losing one to boot — would bring. It is not difficult to surmise which he would advocate.

Recall the suggestion that he is willing to grant the possibility of a just war, the basis of which is “the supposition that the imperative not to harm or kill other human beings can in some cases tragically conflict with other equally important obligations, such as the defense of innocent lives, the preservation of basic freedoms and human rights, or the United States and its forces, however, perhaps bemused liberation of persons from degrading poverty and political repression.” The last clause prompts the thought that one effect of Liberation Theology has been to weaken the strain of pure pacifism in Christian thought, a strain that might otherwise have flourished and been put to decisive use by its claimed adherents in the debate over nuclear weapons. But that is of course distinct from the question at hand, which is, can the conditions stipulated be applied in justification of nuclear war? Given the context, we must assume that against the horrors of such a war he would place the evils that Soviet dominion would bring: the world-wide destruction of freedom, the most rigorous political repression, the pervasive violation of other human rights and values, wide-spread and degrading poverty, and the certain loss of many innocent lives, something not made any more acceptable by the fact that the elimination practiced would be selective. It can only be in terms of such evils that we might develop an appropriate understanding of the determining just-war norm, that which calls for a proportion between the evils of war and those that submission would entail. We are not today concerned with a shift in the allegiances of a liege, the rise or fall of a royal line, or minor changes in lord-serf relations, but with far more radical matters, touching the core of human existence, and thus that in which, as it is known to us in this world, creation itself (to use a notion thought pertinent to the issue) finds fulfillment.

How does Fr. Hollenbach address the actual issue before us? By an attempt to finesse it. The canon of proportionality, we are told, requires that “the values of life, freedom, and justice which are achieved must be greater than the death, suffering, and social upheaval that the war will produce.” The key word here is of course “achieved,” the equivalent of which, “attained,” is found in his formulation of the problem facing the world. “The question which cries out for an answer is this: Can nuclear war ever be a reasonable means to the attainment of justice?” He would not have it so; nuclear war cannot be used in the “pursuit” of human values. “The likelihood of escalation to general nuclear war which attends any use of nuclear weapons in Europe makes such use an irrational means to the pursuit of even such legitimate values as freedom and justice.” Hence his conclusion: while the Church’s “ministry of justice and peace” must involve tolerance of both pacifism and the just-war position, “no use of nuclear weapons is justified in the circumstances of the present political and military order.”

It is strange to be told that in a just war we must achieve, attain, and pursue justice and freedom. Certainly in the present case we are, instead, interested in defending them, in avoiding their loss. Put even more precisely and relevantly, we would fight in order to escape living without these values, living under slavery and injustice. Now if there is a disproportion between resisting at the cost of innumerable lives those who would enslave us and submitting to enslavement for the sake of survival, upon which should our condemnation fall? It is all but certain that the Afghans will achieve nothing but the grave. We may hope, though, that none will judge their struggle immoral.

Let us deal with matters stressing the theme of justice, that most powerful conception. When Fr. Hollenbach speaks of it in connection with both the norm of proportionality and war’s outcome, we are entitled to interpret him as meaning that justice which is our due as human beings, as agents of our own existence — the continued possession of our liberty, our culture, with its complex of behavior-forms and relationships, personal and social, natural and transcendent, and our land. Very well. Is he the advocate of justice who calls upon us to resist, at whatever cost, its destruction? Or is it he who presents it as our obligation to accept its destruction in the name of survival?

It is doubtful that Fr. Hollenbach, or, for that matter, any of the bishops, would openly call for the passive acceptance of slavery and injustice, or claim to know that morality dictates that acceptance. They could reply that it would be equally impossible openly to advocate the waging of nuclear war in defense of freedom and justice, or to claim to know that such is our duty. This may well be true. But, then, they were obliged to do neither. Both bishops and theologians could have remained on the sidelines, limiting themselves to pronouncements on human values and the agonies that must follow conflicts among them. That way we would have been spared the feigned theological rigor, resting on a consistently one-sided selectivity, a flawed understanding of norms, faulty inferences, and the neglect of central factors in the very midst of arguments, used to indict those who seek, in an unwilling confrontation with an imperial slave state, to defend that freedom and justice which, in safer times and climes, bishops and theologians are so often wont to celebrate.

We would also have been spared the peroration of Fr. Hollenbach’s article. In it he compares the Christian consensus on the morality of nuclear war, to the formation of which he offers his work as a contribution, to “corporate prudential judgments” made by the Christian community in the past on the “intrinsic linkage between Christian faith and such secular institutions as limited government, the constitutional protection of the right to religious freedom, and the guarantee of a living wage.” Will anyone miss the incompatibility between the rights here listed and the humanly certain effects of the acceptance by the nation of the position on nuclear war that he would have the Christian community form? A Christian who sees an intrinsic bond between these rights and his faith should be inclined to call for their unyielding defense. He might also be inclined to call the bishops’ attention to the logic of things.


In 1983, John Beach was a member of the Department of Philosophy at Marquette.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.