USCC Watch: Doing the Wrong Thing for the Right Reason

Never mind what T. S. Eliot says. What about people who do the wrong thing for the right reason?

In March, the U.S. bishops pulled out all the stops in an effort to stop the MX missile. Every member of the U.S. Congress received a letter from the USCC—signed by Bishop Malone in his capacity as president of the bishops’ conference—urging for a vote against MX deployment. Individual bishops, notably including Cardinals Bernardin and O’Connor, issued their own statements opposing development of the weapon. Following the logic of their pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace,” the bishops argued that the MX missile cannot pass the tests imposed by the Catholic just-war tradition.

As it happens, I agree with the bishops’ argument. I do not think the MX missile can be justified in a just-war context. If I were a Congressman, I would have voted against it. But I do not think the USCC should have joined the formal opposition.

The argument against the MX is familiar enough. I have no spectacular new insights; neither do the bishops. The bishops have concluded that, on balance, the MX might make nuclear war more likely—or at least that it does not make nuclear war substantially less likely. Hesitantly, I agree with them.

Please notice, however, that I agree hesitantly. The issue is far from clear. To reach a final conclusion on the moral value of the MX, one must first solve a whole series of subordinate questions, nearly all of them highly debatable. Particularly within the confines of just-war analysis, the arguments both for and against the MX involve extremely subtle and delicate judgments.

Actually, it would be possible to construct a serious moral argument against the MX on the grounds that all nuclear weapons are inherently immoral. That argument would at least be fairly straightforward; it would not involve any terribly difficult technical judgments. But anyone who reads this column regularly must know that I do not accept that line of reasoning. And anyone who has read “The Challenge of Peace” knows that the bishops have not accepted that reasoning either.

No, “The Challenge of Peace” opts for just-war analysis, and so do I. Consider, then, the number of logical steps that lie between the broad principles of the just-war tradition and their application to this particular question: the MX missile. Let me list just a few of the many crucial questions that must be answered before the final judgment is made.

(1) Will the MX remedy an imbalance in strategic nuclear forces? Some experts say that the U.S.S.R. has a substantial advantage in strategic nuclear weaponry; others claim that the two superpowers have established a rough parity. But assuming that the U.S. is indeed falling behind in the arms race, can the MX help? Are these powerful, accurate new missiles substantially better than the Minuteman missiles they are meant to replace in our arsenal? Is the improvement sufficient to justify the cost?

(2) Can the MX be used as a first-strike weapon? The MX is accurate enough to destroy Soviet missiles in their silos, before they could be launched against the United States. Would Soviet planners therefore worry about a potential American first strike? Might they undertake a pre-emptive attack of their own to destroy the MX missiles?

(3) Does the MX discriminate between soldiers and noncombatants? Like any strategic nuclear warhead, the MX payload can unleash frightening destructive power. Under ordinary circumstances, even a “precise” strike against enemy missile silos would entail massive civilian casualties. Is it reasonable to speak of these civilian deaths as “collateral” effects? Or does the MX suggest a strategy of intentionally targeting innocent civilians?

(4) Can the U.S. use the MX as a “bargaining chip” in arms-control negotiations? If we agree to cease production of these missiles, in exchange for a Soviet pledge to dismantle one of their own equivalent deadly systems, the net result might be a slightly safer world. Is that result likely? Will the addition of a new weapon to the U.S. forces make real arms-control progress more or less likely?

None of these four questions admits a simple answer; every one can be debated at length. And these are just a few of the more salient arguments about the MX; a whole host of ancillary questions could also be cited.

As I stated above, I have—hesitantly—concluded that the MX should not be deployed. I might well be wrong. I certainly know many people, more knowledgeable than I am, who reach the opposite conclusion. And while I base my own judgment on the criteria of the just-war tradition, others use the same criteria with a very different result. The question is simply too complex to allow an easy solution. Since national defense is such a crucial issue, we cannot duck the question, either. But we must frame our answers with some humility. No one can be certain that his approach will deter war; anyone might be wrong.

Then why do I say that the bishops should not take a formal position on this question? For two reasons.

First, the Church is a unity—one body. Bishops, as ministers to that one body, should ordinarily work to strengthen the bonds that unite all Christians. True, when a crucial moral principle is involved, the Church’s leaders must sometimes be forceful. But in this case the moral principles are not in dispute – only their application to a specific, technical, complicated instance. Many good Catholics, surveying the available evidence, decide to support the MX; others cannot. By siding with one group, the bishops needlessly emphasize divisions within the Church. The bishops are pastors to all the People of God, including those who, in good conscience, support the MX. On this highly contested issue, the bishops have drawn a line between themselves and some loyal members of their flocks.

Second, bishops are teachers, as well as leaders. If the Catholic faithful ever stop listening to the bishops, the faith is in jeopardy. In political life, the war of ideas routinely claims casualties; some ideas are discredited, and the politicians who espouse those ideas lose the people’s respect. What will happen when the bishops pick the losing side of a crucial political battle? Even now, some Catholic Americans must be tempted to wonder why, when they disagree with the bishops on the question of nuclear strategy, they should listen to those same bishops on the question of, say, contraception, or the indissolubility of marriage, or the Real Presence.

Personally, I have concluded that the MX is unjustifiable. But suppose I am somehow proven wrong; what then? Well, I have been wrong before, and I will be wrong again. My error would not make big news. But suppose the American Catholic bishops, having taken a formal corporate position on the same subject, are proven equally wrong. That would be news, and not good news for the Church.


Philip F. Lawler, a former editor of Crisis Magazine, is the author most recently, of Contagious Faith: Why the Church Must Spread Hope, Not Fear, in a Pandemic.

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