Open Letter to Archbishop Bernardin

Dear Archbishop Bernardin:

I appreciate being sent a copy of the second draft of the pastoral letter on war and peace, which the bishops will be debating at their meeting next week. Having read through the new document carefully, I wanted to share some thoughts with you and the other members of the NCCB Ad Hoc Committee on War and Peace, in the hope that my reflections might be of some use to you in your deliberations next week.

In several ways, this second draft strikes me as an improvement over the first draft. All of us owe the Ad Hoc Committee, Father Hehir, and Dr. Russett a debt of gratitude for the hard work that was evidently put in between the first and second drafts, assimilating criticism and adding needed new sections.

Still, I find myself disappointed with the second draft, and at times in rather severe disagreement with it. (I should add that I am also very concerned with the way in which the release of the second draft was handled, and the impressions that were created in the media by a selective reading of the text. In what follows, I will try to precind from that concern and deal with the document per se, although at the end of my letter I want to come back and address the media problem, or better the problem of the “reception” of the letter.) I will offer instead a series of criticisms clustered around six questions.



1. What is the entry-point for the discussion for the bishops’ concern?

The Second Draft, like the first, seems to me to concede far too much to the passions and fears of the present moment, and to a definition of our present danger (nuclear weapons alone, or at least so primarily as to render all other concerns — and specifically the general problem of war — minimal in comparison) that is taken from today’s headlines rather than from the experience and tradition of the Church. The section entitled “The New Moment” is particularly problematic here, for it seems to accept the secular/survivalist entry-point for the discussion that is the hallmark of authors like Jonathan Schell and publicists like Helen Caldicott of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Whatever else may be the merits or defects of their analyses and prescriptions, these people are clearly operating on different ground than that on which the NCCB should be comfortable. Their posing of “survival” as the highest moral value is a teaching that runs directly contrary to our Church’s experience for two thousand years. Their insistence that a nuclear war would cast into question the meaningfulness of the created order (as if we were the measure of the absolute meaningfulness of creation) is another neo-pagan theme that should cause the NCCB great concern: and yet the theme is picked up in the second draft itself, which makes the remarkable claim that “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.” Indeed, we could. But how does that “threaten the sovereignty of God,” which is presumably not a function of our will or our works? We might write off such a phrase as literary excess, and strike it from the document (which it certainly ought to be), but I don’t think it accidental, in the present political climate, that the phrase found its way into the draft in the first place. Finally, we need to be very careful in implying that the death of the species would be, in absolute moral terms, any more hideous than the death of one innocent child. As writers like Dostoevsky and Camus have emphasized, the death of one innocent casts the meaningfulness of the universe into question (is this not the mystery that we celebrate in the Easter Triduum?); if we lose sight of this, we run the risk of losing that distinctive Catholic insistence on the absolute moral worth of each individual human life that has been the hallmark of our social ethic from its inception.

This “New Moment” section not only raises these fundamental moral issues; it also has a kind of breathless quality to it that is unworthy of the NCCB. Ours is a Church that has been acutely aware of the moral problem of war and peace for over a millennium and a half. Serious and thoughtful Catholic scholars have considered the particular problems posed by nuclear war since 1945. To assert as the document seems to imply, that we are somehow dependent for an understanding of the perilousness of our situation on the new survivalists is, if true, a profoundly depressing public confession. Since I don’t believe it’s true, but rather reflects an attempt to make the document “relevant” to today’s debate (without raising any questions about the quality of that debate, alas; it is simply assumed to be good that doctors are conducting public seminars that feature graphic films of roasted human flesh, and carrying the subliminal message that national security policy is “insane”), I would urge that the next draft of the document enter the discussion on the basis of the Catholic tradition’s long and painstaking analysis of the moral dilemma of war and peace rather than on ground set by those who do not share our normative moral framework, nor our long familiarity with the problem in all its dimensions.


2. What is the specific role of the NCCB, in terms of its address to both the Church and to the wider society?

The bishops have a primary responsibility to articulate the normative moral framework out of which competent laymen (and others) with the required technical expertise (which is not the bishops’ by reason of their ordination, but only by reason of their study and experience, like everyone else) can make morally-informed policy judgments. This is not to argue that the bishops should not suggest where, in their considered judgment, the implications of their normative framework lie; but it is to assert that those judgments have, sui generis, less weight than the bishops’ setting of the general principles that should guide decision-making, for it is here that the bishops are operating within their own specific sphere of competence.

That being said, I regret that the core of the document remains its prudential prescriptions in the political order, rather than its statement of moral norms at the more general level I am describing — a level at which these norms would address not only negative questions (what weapons are forbidden?) but positive themes as well (what are the possible, and morally acceptable alternatives to our present dilemma of security through deterrence?).

I am also concerned by what strikes me at points as a kind of sectarian tone in the document. This is reflective of certain currents of thought in the NCCB, as well as within moral theology scholarship. What seems to me essential is to assert the Church’s distinctiveness as a community of disciples without losing that incarnational vision of creation that is the Catholic tradition’s most precious theological patrimony. We are not sectarians; we can respect sectarians, honor their witness, be grateful that they remind us that there is a politics of eternity even as we work, thoughtfully we pray, at the politics of this world. But to assert an essentially Mennonite vision of the Church as a sect set over-against “the commonly accepted axioms of the world” (86:17-18) is, I think, a bad mistake for Catholic bishops. To begin with, what is “the world?” The term is simply too grand, too universal. Assuming it is not meant in the symbolic Biblical sense, more precision is needed here. A “world” that so eagerly receives Pope John Paul II can’t be so far gone in hedonism as the document seems to imply.

This Catholic sectarianism is the principal problem that now bedevils the Catholic Left, I think. I run into it constantly, and find, most of the time, not the confident Biblically-based distinctiveness of real Mennonites, but a kind of soured negativism, owing more to New Left and counterculture currents of thought than to any Biblical impulse (although the Scripture is used as a warrant for this sectarian view, to be sure). If the bishops wish to condemn this or that particular aspect of consumerism, well and good; do so. But such specific condemnations are quite different from a sectarian mentality which, given the current political climate, will lead either to withdrawal from public responsibility altogether, or to violence.


3. What is the peace that we seek?

The first section of the new document seems to me to be the most strengthened portion. The discussion of the eschatological dimension of peace of the Kingdom and the peace of this world needs to be more carefully expressed. I am also grateful for the new section on pacifism. Still, I think improvements are needed. While the document, in this section, describes the interior peace of personal spirituality and the peace of the Kingdom, or the Shalom vision, it does not, as I read it, give sufficient weight to the peace that is in fact achievable in this world: the peace of governed communities in which law and political process replace violence and its threat as the dominant means for resolving conflict. Surely this third definition of peace has moral merit in its own right, and thus it ought to be recognized as such. The section on pacifism also suffers from an assumed identity of “pacifism” and “nonviolence,” and a setting of “non violence” over-against “force.” Pacifism and nonviolence are not the same thing; nonviolence is a technique for wielding power that relies on other-than-violent means to achieve its end. Non-pacifists may opt for nonviolent techniques as most appropriate (or most effective) in their circumstances; Lech Walesa, for example, is not (to my knowledge) a pacifist, but he is surely an exemplar of nonviolence. The document also, in this section and others, continues to equate “force” and “violence,” a serious semantic mistake that, as I pointed out in my critique of the first draft, leads into all sorts of avoidable political problems. The pacifist does not eschew force; the pacifist rejects violence as a means of exerting force, or exercising political power.

The new document also needs to acknowledge the witness character of pacifism, while at the same time acknowledging the limitations of a pacifist witness in answering pressing questions about the exercise of public authority in a world which is not entirely pacifist.

In short, what the document needs, is a typological sorting-out of the three meanings of “peace,” an affirmation of each, and a discussion of which meanings are applicable (and how) in the world as it is today.


4. How is peace best achieved?

Here we are at deterrence. Let me make several points briefly. First, it seems to me that the document is far too grudging in its acknowledgement of the contributions of deterrence to peace “of a sort” (but how much better than no peace!) between the superpowers since 1945. To argue that one cannot “prove” that deterrence is the reason why there has not been a general war between the superpowers is true, insofar as the strict rules of logic go; but it would also be true, in this sense that one cannot “prove” the basic idea of evolution. It is a cheap argument, since the overwhelming weight of the historical evidence suggests that it is in fact the case that deterrence has worked in creating “peace of a sort.” The real problem that needs to be addressed is not the historical record of deterrence, but whether that record can be maintained under the technological pressures that now drive the arms race toward first-strike-capable systems on both sides thus creating a situation of “mutual vulnerability” that changes the dynamics of deterrence in a fundamental way. Were the bishops to focus on this aspect of the problem of deterrence, rather than on not-very-persuasive disclaimers about the effectiveness of deterrence in the past, they would be on much safer ground: better, much more appropriate ground.

The discussion of “intention” in deterrence is also weak. “Intention” is not a mechanistic concept in deterrence, as Paul Ramsey and others have pointed out for years. One cannot draw a crude and simple line between weapons-capabilities and the “intention” of U.S. strategic planners. The fundamental intention of deterrence is to deter, that is, to prevent these weapons from being used. If we are willing to admit paradox as a category of understanding in other areas of the document, then why not acknowledge this paradoxical nature of deterrence here?

Any discussion on “intention” in deterrence also has to deal with the question of the consequences of an abandonment of the deterrence system before alternative conflict-resolution means are available. The Catholic understanding of “intention” in moral theology has different nuances, I would think, when we are discussing “intention” related to the use of contraceptives than when we are discussing “intention” in deterrence. To assert baldly that the Catholic tradition “places a high value on the role of ‘intention’ in moral action” is both true, and insufficient for an understanding of intention in deterrence.

I would also be very careful about putting too much weight on the Krol testimony on Salt II. I understand that that testimony was an attempt to deal with the paradox of deterrence in a traditional just-war framework, as well as an attempt to put the church firmly behind serious efforts at arms control and arms reduction, but the line of argument in the testimony seems to me rather thin. When would we know that our “hope” that deterrence would lead to arms reduction is a false hope? How would we measure such a situation? Is it conceivable that we would ever be completely without such hope? The USCC SALT II testimony thus strikes me as a weak reed on which to peg the NCCB’s moral distaste with deterrence.

Finally, it seems to me that this section is confused as to whether there are in fact one or two positive moral values in deterrence: whether deterrence’s war-prevention function is morally valuable, as well as deterrence’s role in setting the ground for arms reduction. Both seem to me to be important, but the document does not acknowledge this straight out.

I want to be clear about my own position here: I am not satisfied with deterrence, morally or politically. I accept deterrence, and the fragile equilibrium it provides, as the basis from which serious arms reductions can proceed. I also understand that, in the course of such reductions, we must take care not to so de-stabilize the balance of power that we lose what fragile equilibrium we have. I am also very concerned about the current drift of strategic capabilities on both sides, and believe that work to interdict the further development of first-strike-capable systems in both arsenals should have priority in START. A deterrence system in which neither side had, after a period of phased and balanced reductions, no first-strike-capable systems seems to be clearly preferable (politically and morally) to our present situation. It is not preferable in any absolute sense, but would only be the starting point for more deep cuts on both sides.


5. What are the alternatives to our present dilemma?

The discussion (really, recommendation) of the nuclear freeze on p. 59 simply ignores the many serious questions that have been raised about that particular proposal, especially from advocates of arms control and arms reduction. The question of theater-imbalances in Europe; of asymmetries in current U.S./Soviet forces, particularly in terms of first-strike-capable systems; and the question of the verifiability of any freeze on “production” — these are never addressed. The freeze proposal has been a stunning success as a rallying point for public discontent with our present peace-and-security dilemma; it should not be made into a kind of sanctified arms control measure on that basis, when there are serious technical problems with it.

I would also seriously question whether the dominant current in those parts of the Church where a flat-out rejection of deterrence is called for is bilateralist; in fact, I think it is clearly demonstrable that the dominant current is unilateralist, and connects with the sectarian vision of Church mentioned earlier. I would also urge us to be much more careful about our use of the word “prophetic”; this may be the single most abused term in the Catholic vocabulary today, and often means nothing more than “a statement guaranteed to aggravate public authority.” Let others label us as “prophets;” we should be very reluctant to claim this holy title for ourselves.

I think that this section, and the world order section following, needs to make much more explicit the linkage among our broad foreign policy goals. Disarmament is one goal; but disarmament is not possible without a concurrent strengthening of international legal and political structures that are capable of doing the job that war and its threat now do. These legal and political structures, if they are not to be new tools of oppression, must be based on a minimum sense of world political community, a community gathered around basic standards of human rights. Finally, those parts of the world for whom change, not stability is the primary requisite must have their needs addressed as well: effective economic and desirable political development in the Third World is the fourth part of this complex puzzle. I would be much more impressed with the document if these linkages were explicitly stated.

The pastoral letter, having acknowledged these linked goals, must also acknowledge that such goals are now viewed with profound skepticism by many wise and experienced people. That skepticism does not have to do so much with the goals themselves, but with the problem of getting agreement from adversarial societies on bringing those goals into being. Were the simple definition of appropriate goals sufficient in and of itself, we would not be in our current dilemma. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work that way. What is so pressingly needed is a strategy for agreement on reaching those goals that, while being able to force change in the present policy of adversary nations, does not so erode the ground for agreement between us that the long-term goals simply slip farther into the mist of a naively optimistic future. In short, the document needs to address the further linkage between the goals we seek — a disarmed world, under law, where free societies can grow and prosper — and a strategy of American initiatives capable of progress toward those goals.

Finally, in discussing the contributions of the Popes to the quest for world order, the document needs to acknowledge that it is not nuclear weapons, but the very institution of war, that is the central problem today. A world without nuclear weapons, in which biological and chemical toxins, and laser and particle-beam weapons abounded is not a world safer than the world we now inhabit. Moreover, since the arms race itself is a whole, we need to be thinking our way through to disarmament approaches that speak to the full range of weapons issues, conventional and nuclear, so that our work at reducing one threat does not simply fuel the competition in other, equally dangerous, areas.


6. What blocks the way to peace?

The discussion of Soviet responsibility for our present dilemma, while welcome, is inadequate in my view. The issue is not “exacerbating ideological opposition”; the opposition is quite exacerbated enough without any further efforts on the NCCB’s part. The real question is how we can act to affect change in the present direction of Soviet power, and how our acts can open up alternative security possibilities for Soviet society. The document also gives much too much weight to now- discredited “revisionist” histories of the Cold War, while seeming to establish a kind of moral equivalence between the United States and the Soviet Union because both possess nuclear weapons. Churchill and Hitler both had four-engine bombers and high-explosive bombs (and used them); were they moral equivalents in any final sense because of that? I doubt that the bishops would want to make such an argument; but it seems implied in the current text.

The lingering curse of McCarthyism in American public life is that it is virtually impossible to take a soberly hard view of Soviet power and purpose without being accused of Red-baiting or “obsession.” The bishops could point a way beyond this polarization were this section re-written in a way that did not apologize for its hard reading of the present course of Soviet policy, but insisted at the same time that the appropriate question for America is not whether that policy is threatening, but how we can act to change it. Were that done, the bishops’ call to avoid “hardness of heart” would carry much more impact.

I am also grateful for the brief discussion of the U.N., and the importance of international legal and political structures as potential alternatives in resolving conflict. But here again, I think the bishops must be perceived as realists before they can make the “idealist” case. The U.N. is, at present, a moral disaster of major proportions, as the recent debates over Israel’s credentials have sadly demonstrated. The only way to change that situation is to face it squarely, and to call hypocrisy for what it is. I think our diplomatic experience (most recently in UNESCO) has been that when spades are called spades, the rhetoric can be overcome and serious, productive work begun. The call for the U.S. to exert a more positive role in the U.N. is welcome; it will not be taken seriously unless “positive” is clearly intended to include some hard truth-telling.

Finally, “preventing nuclear war” cannot be a goal in a vacuum; it will only be achieved in the midst of progress on other linked goals. A statement to this effect would be most helpful in the current climate, with its single-minded focus on one type of weapons-system and its virtual silence on the question of alternative means of conflict-resolution.


A Few Final Notes

The message to priests and religious misses the crucial point, which is not that priests and religious be involved with this issue but what quality of thought and ministry they bring to it.

The message to educators must make clear the difference between peace education that teaches students to make responsible choices within a normative Catholic moral framework, and propaganda for a particular politics. We are at a point where many parents now realize the need for a “global perspective” in curricula; that groundswell will be severely jeopardized if the propaganda forces win out. The message should also give priority to education into the multiple currents of thought in the Catholic tradition on war and peace. To assert that we do not have a “theology of peace” (itself somewhat questionable historically) does not mean that we don’t have anything. In fact, we are the bearers of a rich and complex body of thought on these problems, and the transmission of that tradition should be a principal responsibility of educators.

The message to Catholics as citizens puts too much weight, in my view, on the fact that the U.S. was the first nation to develop nuclear weapons. Hitler was trying his damndest to do the same, and it surely made a difference who won that particular race. To recognize this is not to endorse Hiroshima and Nagasaki; but it is to set the historical record straight, which is important if we intend our fellow-Catholics to be thoughtful participants in the present debate. The “moral equivalence” theme between the United States and the Soviet Union also emerges, balefully, here. Why can’t the bishops say to Americans, “We are the inheritors of a kind of miracle in world history: a plural community that has sustained legal and political alternatives to war for over a century. We have a special experience, and a special responsibility. Work for peace is an expression of the best in the American tradition, not an expression of weakness or wooliheadedness.” Dr. Martin Luther King’s principle, “Whom you would change, you must first love,” seems to me as appropriate today in gathering American Catholics behind work for peace, as it did in the civil rights crusade of fifteen years ago.

I promised a brief reflection, and I have gone on far too long. Please take such a detailed commentary as a reflection of how important I think the work of the NCCB on this issue is. I fully understand, and sympathize with, the pressures the Committee has worked under. I would be reluctant to criticize if I did not work under a similar set of pressures myself: from those who think me “naive” in my assertion that peace is politically possible in the terms suggested by Pacem in Terris, among others.

George S. Weigel, Jr.
Scholar-in Residence
World Without War Council.

George Weigel


George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books, 2019).

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