Just Say “No”: The Catholic Case for Surrender

Arguments over nuclear weapons and strategy often use the conceit of a “scenario” — an imaginary congeries of circumstances — to test out hypotheses, weigh alternative policies, and draw prescriptive conclusions. Consider this scenario: A book addresses the morality of deterrence. The book’s authors are Catholic scholars specializing in constitutional law, philosophical ethics, and theological ethics. Each of the authors is a principled anti-communist; each regards the Western democratic project as morally superior to Soviet totalitarianism. Each recognizes that deterrence has “worked,” i.e. that it has been instrumental in preventing a war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The authors are committed to a form of moral reasoning which they term “common morality,” which is to say “natural law” morality. In that great tradition, as they understand it, it is absolutely forbidden to kill innocents. This is what abortion does. This is what murderers do. And this is, they think, what deterrence does. In their view, the logic of deterrence inevitably involves the threat to kill innocents, through “city-busting” or “final-retaliation” nuclear attack. Even if the buttons are never pushed, they argue, the deterrence system is immoral, because it necessarily involves a conditional intention to do murder.

Because the deterrence system is immoral, they speedily conclude, it should be rejected outright. They recognize that this will have unfortunate results. At best, it will result in the Finlandization of the West. At worst, it might lead to direct Soviet control of the democracies. These are not moral goods, the authors concede. Many people will probably be killed or enslaved. But a calculus of consequences makes no difference in the “common morality.” In a morality abstracted from consequences, deterrence is immoral, and deterrence should be rejected. Those involved in the deterrence system are, until then, objectively involved in a moral atrocity or, as the catechism once had it, in mortal sin.

Such a book, one might imagine, would lead to a lively debate, given that the authors’ understanding of who was “wrong” about the ethics of deterrence would be breathtakingly comprehensive, running the spectrum from Pope John Paul II through the French, German, and American bishops (and their advisers) to “minimal” deterrers in the policy community such as Robert McNamara. The popular debate would be equally bracing, unilateral disarmament and anticommunism being more typically found on opposite sides of the polemical barricades. Anticommunists, and especially those who shared the authors’ commitment to natural law moral reasoning, would be, variously, puzzled, aggravated, and/or distressed. Nuclear unilateralists, including many who would reject the authors’ moral methodology as applied to virtually any other issue (e.g. abortion), would be ecstatic: here, at long last, was a “conservative” defense of unilateralism, perhaps one that could convince the Vatican to condemn deterrence. Such a book, were it written, would be “in play” for years to come.

 

Thus the scenario. But there is one caveat: this isn’t a scenario. The book has been written. John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, and Germain Grisez have written it. Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism (Oxford/Clarendon Press, 429 pp., $59) is very much “in play.” To what ends, and by what means?

Beyond the Bernardin Barrier

According to Jim Castelli (The Bishops and the Bomb, 1983), then-Archbishop Joseph Bernardin opened the deliberations of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on War and Peace in 1982 by stating that the committee’s one ground rule was that “it would not, under any circumstances, support unilateral nuclear disarmament.” Long before the Finnis/Boyle/Grisez book, one wondered why. If the bishops were conducting a principled moral analysis, then surely no possible prudential outcomes could be pre-emptively excluded. If, on the other hand, the bishops’ primary audience was the policy community, where unilateralism is considered a species of mental illness, the prohibition makes pragmatic, if not theological and ecclesiological, sense.

That the Catholic debate over nuclear weapons and strategy in the 1980s has been excessively beholden to political calculations in the narrowest sense of the term is also suggested by the voting that took place on the final draft of “The Challenge of Peace” in May 1983. Unilateralist and pacifist bishops such as Thomas Gumbleton, Raymond Hunthausen, and Leroy Matthiesen voted in favor of a document that flatly contradicted some of their most cherished moral claims (e.g. that pacifism should form the basis of foreign and defense policy). Classic just-war bishops such as Philip Hannan and Austin Vaughan voted their moral and political convictions with a non placet on the final draft as amended by the meeting. Now one can argue, and in a Catholic context one ought to argue, that the Holy Spirit can work through horsetrading as well as through mystical enlightenment. The horsetrading that preceded final passage of “The Challenge of Peace” was not, in and of itself, offensive. In many respects it contributed to a wiser final document. But the fact remains that there was an intellectual untidiness about “The Challenge of Peace” from the beginning. Moreover, one ought not expect too much by way of relief pitching, even from the Holy Spirit. “The Challenge of Peace” was a compromise statement, and the tensions in its moral analysis and prudential prescriptions reflect that fact. That it confused the nuclear debate as well as clarified it was entirely predictable.

The debate has been further complicated by the events of the past five years. President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative has shaken the foundations of the strategic debate as they had not been shaken since the 1950s. The Intermediate Nuclear Force treaty negotiated by the Administration and the Soviet Union called into question the assumption (shared by “The Challenge of Peace”) that nuclear force modernizations could rarely, if ever, be a factor in reducing or eliminating nuclear weapons. The INF treaty has also re-opened debate over the possible linkage between strategic nuclear force reductions and conventional armaments. It has re-opened the tangled business of nuclear force modernization and its relationship to strategic stability, to “deep cuts” in strategic weaponry, and to the emerging capabilities of strategic defense. Religious leaders who wish to influence the nuclear debate thus find themselves in an increasingly complex conceptual, technological, and political tangle.

Meanwhile, the actions of several church bodies since “The Challenge of Peace” have demonstrated that the question of a wise and publicly-accepted moral framework for arguing these issues is anything but settled. The bishops of the United Methodist Church tried to “go beyond” the Catholic bishops by declaring deterrence idolatrous. Still, they claimed that this did not require immediate unilateral disarmament for, one assumes, the same pragmatic reasons that may have been part of Archbishop Bernardin’s calculation in 1982. The Presbyterian Church issued a study guide on peacemaking which asked whether, on the model of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, American Presbyterians were not now “called to resistance.” In the midst of this roiling debate over policy prescription, Pope John Paul II has declined, for many months now, to release a Pontifical Academy of Sciences study that virtually condemns strategic defense in general, and the Administration’s SDI program in particular.

Perhaps the greatest compliment to be paid the Finnis/Boyle/Grisez volume is that it now re-orients the discussion back to questions of first principles in moral reasoning. This is entirely welcome. Moreover, unlike the Methodist letter “In Defense of Creation” and the Presbyterian study guide, Finnis et al. have resolutely rejected the psychologization of politics and strategy. Our authors are under no illusions about communism; they do not believe that U.S./Soviet conflict is caused by misunderstanding, bad communications, and the rest of the Rogerian catalogue. Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism is rooted in an understanding that politics is the business of men, not angels; that like all human enterprises it includes matters of ought as well as matters of is; and that the debate over those oughts is accessible to all men and women of good will, regardless of confessional conviction (or the lack thereof). Clearly this volume is a step beyond emotivism in moral debate, and a contribution to that reconstruction of public moral argument urged in recent years by Alasdair Maclntyre and others. For all of this we may be grateful.

But do Finnis et al. point a true way beyond the moral, political, and pastoral confusions of the present debate? Here, one is less inclined to be celebratory. Their sense of the historical contingencies engaged is insufficient. But, even more importantly, their book has a maddening sense of “Well, that settles that!” about it. The entire thrust of the book is to end the moral debate over nuclear weapons and strategy, once and for all. Not only does such an outcome seem unlikely (a point the authors concede). Their extraordinary sense of certitude also bids fair to take Finnis et al. out of the argument, which would be a serious loss to both the moral debate and the policy arena which that debate works to influence.

The Historical Situation

Finnis and his colleagues argue that deterrence policy is caught on the horns of a dilemma. Nuclear deterrence has indeed been a factor in preventing nuclear war; absent deterrence, the authors argue, Soviet hegemony in one form or another will be a fact of life. But this brutal result must be accepted. For the logic of the deterrent involves the intention to murder innocents. Our authors resolve the dilemma by eliminating deterrence and taking the consequences. Their bottom line has two parts: Just say no. And surrender.

They find wanting all proposals for moderating deterrence. Arms control may be desirable, but because it, too, is based on the final threat of annihilative retaliation it points no true way out. Albert Wohlstetter’s and William V. O’Brien’s proposals for an evolution toward low-yield, high-accuracy nuclear weapons that meet the just-war criteria of proportionality and discrimination are illusory, since any deterrent based on them would still rely on massive numbers of civilian deaths. Strategic defenses, even if technologically feasible, are so far in the future as to be no real factor in today’s moral analysis. The West will never pay the price for a conventional deterrent that would checkmate the Warsaw Pact. And thus the choice remains: an immoral deterrent which may prevent war, or surrender to Soviet power.

There are several crucial factors missing from this historical picture. In the first, and perhaps most important, instance, the authors never confront the probability that unilateral nuclear disarmament by the West (or even by the United States) would lead, not simply to Soviet hegemony, but to nuclear war. For the deterrent has not simply prevented war between the United States and the Soviet Union, or between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. It has helped prevent nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China. Given Soviet anxieties about the PRC, unilateral U.S. nuclear disarmament could well create conditions for a pre-emptive nuclear attack on Chinese military (and, quite probably, civilian) targets by the Soviet Union. The principle “barrier” against such an attack, to adopt Father Bryan Hehir’s terminology, would be gone. Thus our authors cannot argue that whatever its other unfortunate consequences, unilateral nuclear disarmament would at least end the threat of nuclear war. It would do no such thing. It would, in fact, make nuclear war more, rather than less, likely.

I raised this point with Bishop Thomas Gumbleton during my 1982 testimony before the Bernardin Committee. The bishop asked why I, as someone who had spent (at that point) five years as a full-time professional in the peace business, rejected unilateralism. “Suppose,” I asked the bishop, “I could convince you that a likely outcome of your unilateralist prescription would be a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and China. Would that change your prescription?” There was no answer from Bishop Gumbleton, and there is no answer from Finnis, Boyle, and Grisez.

On the contrary, the authors offer the following summary: “The reality here is twofold: the menace of Soviet power if it were undeterred by a deterrent system such as actually exists; and the threat to kill the innocent, with its underlying intent, and its guilt” (p. 161). But is that the reality?

More than our own skins and consciences are at stake in deterrence. More than the freedom of the West, more than the grim prospect of a world under Leninist hegemony, is involved. Yes, of course, the Soviets wouldn’t invade a Western Europe whose economy it would wish to exploit, a point Finnis et al. recognize. But that is not the end of the matter, given the profound threat that the Soviet regime believes exists on its southern border. And so unilateralism almost certainly means war, and most probably nuclear war. Nuclear death would result for millions of Chinese and, most probably, millions of Soviets. This probability is simply absent from the historical analysis of Finnis et al. The situation they paint is incomplete. Things are in fact worse than they think, insofar as the likely results of unilateralism go.

Similar questions should be raised about our authors’ failure to confront the relationship between deterrence and nuclear proliferation. A nuclear weapon has not been fired in anger since August 9, 1945. Given the harsh realities of the Indo-Pakistani conflict, the fact of a nuclear-capable India, and Pakistan’s efforts to match that capability; given the turmoil of the Middle East; given the situation of South Africa; given the non-adherence of Brazil and Argentina to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — given all of this, our authors’ inattention to the virtually inevitable proliferation that would follow the unilateral nuclear disarmament of the West has about it a very worrisome historical insouciance.

The authors’ account of the calculations by which the Soviet leadership is checked by the Western deterrent is also unsatisfactory. “What the West desires the Soviets to fear includes many deaths of innocents,” argue Finnis et al.; since the Soviets do fear this, they are thereby deterred (p. 92). But is this quite right? The leadership of the Soviet Union has, over the past seventy years, exhibited not the slightest disinclination to sacrifice innocents when this would advance the interests of the Soviet nomenklatura elite. From Lenin’s Cheka through Stalin’s purges, anti-kulak collectivization schemes, and the Ukrainian terror famine, and on to the current regime’s political abuse of psychiatry, Leninist leaders have proven time and again that their bottom line is the maintenance of their own privilege and power. (Whether this is still argued, among the nomenklatura, in terms of a Marxist worldview and the historical role it assigns to the communist party is irrelevant.) The fate of former Moscow party chief Boris Yeltsin reminds us that the rules of the game as understood by the nomenklatura remain draconian, if not as immediately murderous as they once were. This suggests that deterrent forces aimed at Soviet citizens are rather less likely to deter than a deterrent which puts at risk those Soviet military and political assets by which the nomenklatura maintains its control. Recognizing this does not, of course, settle the moral argument, since issues of what deterrence theorists so pristinely refer to as “collateral damage” would remain. But it does suggest that the city-busting basis of deterrence for which Finnis et al. argue may not be, in reality, what deters.

“Common Morality” and Deterrence

The maddening quality of this book comes into clearer focus if one recognizes that its authors might well concede the flaws in their historical account, and then say, in effect, “So what?” Perhaps the Soviet leadership calculates “unacceptable damage” in terms other than our own. Perhaps the result of Western or American unilateral nuclear disarmament would be some form of nuclear war — not Armageddon, but something very bad indeed. Perhaps the result would be a massively irradiated China, and a Soviet Union several of whose principle cities were reduced to radioactive rubble. According to Finnis et al., to give these probabilities any weight in the moral analysis is to engage in “consequentialism.” And concern for consequences is not to be countenanced.

Thus Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism should be understood as part of that larger attack on consequentialist forms of moral reasoning in which our authors have been engaged, on many fronts, for years. In doing so, they have made important contributions to both philosophical and theological ethics. Moreover, one instinctively understands the appeal of the authors’ radical critique of consequentialism. On December 7, 1987, for example, page one of the Washington Post offered an extraordinary example of consequentialism run riot; the headline in question read, “A Need Examined, a Prayer Fulfilled: Unmarried Priest Bears Child by Artificial Insemination.” That consequentialism of this deracinated sort ha’s been a major factor in the squalor of a culture dominated by moral emotivism is, to me, beyond dispute. Thus the question engaged by Finnis et al. in Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism turns on the issue of whether there is any room for calculations of consequences in the “common morality,” or in any form of natural law reasoning.

In a Catholic context, one could argue that, since Pope John Paul II has accepted deterrence as an interim arrangement that can be morally accepted insofar as it creates the stable conditions for the pursuit of mutual disarmament, the issue is settled for Catholics. To buttress this argument, one could re-examine the minutes of the Vatican consultation on nuclear strategy of January 1983, which fell between the second and third drafts of “The Challenge of Peace” and was an important influence on the final outcome of the American, German, and French bishops’ deliberations. The consultation minutes indicate that Cardinal Casaroli, among others, offered an argument that involved a calculus of consequences (i.e. loss of freedom under Soviet hegemony) in defending a conditional moral acceptance of deterrence. The Vatican plainly accepted deterrence as a stabilizing mechanism creating conditions for the pursuit of both peace and freedom.

But such an appeal to ecclesiastical authority is not ultimately satisfactory. The authority could, after all, change its mind. The fact that John Finnis is a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission suggests that such a change of mind is not entirely beyond the realm of possibility: if not now, then in the future. Thus the claim by Finnis et al. that considerations of consequence have no place in a natural law ethic (or ethic of “common morality”) as applied to the moral problem of nuclear deterrence must be engaged at a deeper level.

The question of consequences raises the question of the historicity of natural law reasoning. The charge against what the uncharitable once called “decadent scholasticism” was that it was a-historical in a way that denied the incarnational basis of the Catholic worldview. According to the regnant caricature, natural law principles floated in a sort of eternal ether, from which they were applied, without much exegetical stuff-and-nonsense, to the contingencies of the human condition. Whether, in some instances, the caricature spoke a measure of truth is not an issue to be settled here. But one could argue, even in the days before Episcopalian priests had babies by artificial insemination and justified this on consequentialist grounds, that natural law morality offered a more textured mode of moral reasoning than the caricature allowed.

Just-war theory is a prime example. As its many contemporary critics on the political and theological left are eager to point out, the just-war tradition did not, and does not, offer apodictic answers to the dilemmas of statecraft. Just-war theory has always been understood, and should be understood today, as a calculus rather than an algebra. To mix the metaphor, the statesman reasoning according to the canons of just-war theory is more like a conductor interpreting a symphonic score than an engineer factoring a quadratic equation. This was not, in the classic understanding, a weakness of the just-war tradition, but a strength. Human affairs since the Fall are incorrigibly messy, and a moral system which pretends otherwise is certain to make a wreckage both of policy and of morality.

Such was the argument of John Courtney Murray. Murray explored the complex relationship between natural law moral reasoning and human historicity in We Hold These Truths:

St. Thomas, of course, had quite clearly in mind that “man” is not an abstract essence but an historical existent, who does not act in a vacuum of time and space, at the same time that he must always act as a man, and not as an animal or an angel. . . . History does not alter the basic structure of human nature, nor affect the substance of the elementary human experiences, nor open before man wholly new destinies. Therefore history cannot alter the natural law, insofar as the natural law is constituted by the ethical a priori, by the primary principles of the moral reason, and by their immediate derivatives. History has not, for example, abolished the Ten Commandments.

But history, as any history book shows, does change what I have called the human reality. It evokes situations that never happened before. It calls into being relationships that had not existed. . . In a word, it has been abundantly proved in history that the nature of man is an historical nature. “The nature of man is susceptible of change,” St. Thomas repeatedly states. History continually changes the community of mankind and alters the mode of communication between man and man, as these take form through “external acts,” as St. Thomas says. In this sense, the nature of man changes in history, for better or for worse; at the same time that the fundamental structure of human nature, and the essential destinies of the human person, remained untouched and intact.

As all this happens, continually new problems are being put to the wisdom of the wise; at the same time, the same old problems are being put to every man, wise or not. The basic issue remains unchanged: what is man or society to do, here and now, in order that personal or social action may fulfill the human inclination to act according to reason. (Emphasis added.)

“Man’s inclination to act according to reason” is the heart of the issue. Many readers of Finnis et al. will sense that there is something intuitively unreasonable about a moral argument whose conclusions include a concession that terrible things are likely to occur if the counsel of the ethicist in question is adopted. Has human reason been driven into such a cul de sac that it can only direct us to profoundly and even morally undesirable ends? This will seem especially odd when the moral judgment leading to those undesirable ends has to do, not with an action per se (i.e. firing a nuclear weapon into a population center), but with a deterrence system whose primary purpose is to prevent such an outcome.

Thus, our authors seem perilously close to that a-historical abstractness with which its enemies are wont to attack natural law morality. But is the form of natural law morality we are considering in Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism all there is in this rich tradition? According to Thomistic understandings, natural law morality emerges from reflection on real human situations. It does not, like Kantian principles, reside somewhere beyond immediate human experience. And in Thomistic natural law morality, consequences surely are in play. Most moral actions are intended to bring about a desirable set of circumstances and thus to have consequences. Finnis et al. seem to argue that a concern for moral reasoning within a dialectic of intentions and consequences inevitably leads to a utilitarian calculus. That is not the understanding, however, of a host of other Thomistically-grounded ethicists.

Quaestiones Disputatae

In the ongoing debate that the Finnis/Boyle/Grisez volume is sure to launch (the authors’ sense of having settled the issue notwithstanding), the following points will be worth exploring:

(1) Finnis et al. do not give us a finally satisfactory account of the intentionality involved in the deterrence system. One intends many things by deterrence, but for any reasonable person the central intention of the deterrence system is to prevent nuclear war. No doubt there are many other levels of intentionality involved in as complex a phenomenon as deterrence. For deterrence is a system concretized in many acts, from research and development, to voting on appropriations, to building weapons, to training missile crews. If this system is judged as a whole, the reduction of what is “intended” to the alleged threat to do murder does not constitute a complete moral account of a complex phenomenon in which many intentions are involved. Is there, in other words, a “hierarchy of intentions” involved in the deterrence system which would raise questions about the straightforward rejectionist posture of our authors?

Michael Novak’s cut at this problem, in Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age (1983), should be recalled:

It is clear that the complexities of nuclear deterrence change the meaning of “intention” and “threat” as these words are usually used in moral discourse. Those who intend to prevent the use of nuclear weapons by maintaining a system of deterrence in readiness for use do intend to use such weapons, but only in order not to use them, and do threaten to use them, but only in order to deter their use. That this is not mere rationalization is shown by the fact that several generations of nuclear weapons systems have become obsolete and been retired, without ever having been used. These are considered successful and moral systems. In the same way, deterrence is judged to be successful insofar as nuclear war does not occur.

Finnis et al. contest Novak’s understanding of intention (see pp. 202-203), but there is considerable room for further discussion here, not only on the special grammar of “intent to deter,” but particularly on the question of the complex of intentions involved in maintaining this deterrent of a type never seen before in history.

(2) The distinction between action and inaction that Finnis et al. seemingly make also bears examination. Our authors consider the maintenance of a deterrent as an action for which we are responsible. They consider unilateral disarmament a cessation-of-action, the consequences of which do not fall within the boundaries of our moral responsibility. (The bad things that would follow would be done by the Soviets, not by the West). But is there not some moral responsibility involved in creating (by cessation-of-action) conditions for the possibility of evil outcomes? We rightly judge Chamberlain and other appeasers of the 1930s to be responsible, in part, for the horrors of World War II. Their inaction created conditions for the possibility of Hitler’s evil actions. Would Western governments not incur a moral burden similar to Chamberlain’s if they adopted our authors’ unilateralism? This seems to be especially certain if unilateral disarmament made rapid nuclear proliferation and indeed nuclear war more, rather than less, likely. The human universe of moral deliberation and action is an historical universe. There are no hermetically-sealed categories labeled, respectively, “morality” and “history.” The distinction between action and inaction made by our authors leads them toward a kind of bifurcated human universe.

(3) Is the relationship between personal conscience and public responsibility suggested by our authors’ anti-consequentialist reasoning sustainable? A pure conscience is a private good. But a single-minded focus on the demands of personal conscience can lead to public moral incoherence. Suppose, for example, that the exercise of personal conscience in pursuit of a private good ends up destroying the society which protects that private good and gives scope for its public exercise. Are we, in effect, back to the church of the catacombs here, with the elect shunning public responsibilities for the sake of preserving the demands of personal conscience? This runs against the grain of modern Catholic social thought, with its teaching that the believer ought to be a leaven transforming the affairs of the world. Thus the approach suggested by Finnis et al. risks rendering Christian participation in politics impossible.

Moreover, is theirs a radical, and decidely un-Catholic, individualism? Our authors make a sharp disjunction. They acknowledge the public good of freedom (i.e. “the West’s moral responsibility to preserve its independence against Soviet power….” [p. 75; emphasis added]). Yet they also reject deterrence on the grounds that deterrence violates individual conscience. Does this disjunction not, in a dramatic way, take the Christian out of history, indeed out of society? The authors might well reply that even obligatory ends cannot be pursued through immoral means. But this merely returns the argument to the question of intentionality in deterrence. The moral dilemma of deterrence is not immediately resolved by an appeal to the demands of personal conscience.

(4) Father John Langan, S.J., has raised a question about the authors’ notion of “exceptionless norms” in an essay for the London Tablet:

One can follow the line of the French bishops and separate the moral evaluation of the deterrent threat and of the actions that are threatened. This goes against the wrongful intentions principle that “one may not intend what one may not do,” a principle that Finnis, Boyle, and Grisez regard as an essential part of the common morality. One can do this by arguing that this principle itself is not exceptionless. Thus one can argue that in the new situation created by the development of weapons of mass destruction in a politically divided world there are good reasons why this derivative norm of common morality barring threats to innocent life should be understood in a way that allows for exceptions. This would not be equivalent to endorsing the actual taking of innocent lives. Rather the justifying point of the threat is precisely to protect both innocent lives and a broad range of political and moral values the defense of which is authorized by just war theory.

Langan’s formulation rings true to Murray’s claim that history changes the “human reality,” evoking both “situations that never happened before” and “relationships that had not existed.” The axiological approach of Finnis et al. does not.

(5) The bleakness of the strategic options posed by Finnis and his colleagues are quite probably misstated. The authors give insufficient attention to the tangled but perhaps promising impact of strategic defense capabilities on possible strategic futures. “Astrodome” fantasies aside, the evolution of defensive systems holds open the prospect of a “common security” approach to the threat of nuclear annihilation. In this new approach, both the United States and the Soviet Union would cooperatively manage a transition to a strategic regime dominated by defensive, rather than offensive, capabilities. (On this point, cf. my essay, “Breaking the Doctrinal Gridlock: Common Security and the Strategic Defense Initiative,” This World, Winter 1987.) Only those committed to the orthodoxies of classic arms control dogma will fail to see that the advent of defensive capabilities affords us the opportunity to reconceptualize the entire strategic debate. In this new environment, the protagonists could re-open the questions of linkage between nuclear and conventional force reductions, and the evolution of defensive capabilities.

Our authors are under an obligation to spell out in greater detail the relationship between their unilateralist prescription and the Catholic moral imperative to seek peace with freedom and justice.

Curiously, on this point, Finnis et al. seem to accept the arms controllers’ unproven claim that there can be no connections among arms control/arms reduction, the pursuit of strategic stability, and a managed evolution of defensive capabilities. But the history of nuclear weapons negotiations during the 1980s suggests that this dogmatic rejection of linkage has been overcome by technological and political facts. Adopting the unilateralism of Finnis, Boyle, and Grisez would render all these promising developments moot. That is not, in and of itself, a definitive counter-argument to their proposition. But it does illustrate what is lost when a prescription of “Just say No” is adopted without a calculation of consequences.

(6) Finally, there is the relationship between Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism and the contemporary Catholic debate over the pursuit of peace. As I argued in Tranquillitas Ordinis (Oxford, 1987), the classic Catholic heritage taught that peace was a matter of rightly-ordered, dynamic political community. The just-war tradition thus contained within itself a ius ad pacem that created the moral horizon against which the ius ad bellum and the ius in bello had to be addressed. This tradition has special force in a modern world marked by the twin threats of nuclear or totalitarian holocaust. Yet its expressly political conception of peace has gotten lost in the contemporary Catholic debate. On the one hand, nuclear weapons tend to be treated as an independent variable in world affairs (as in “The Challenge of Peace,” which was far more a “weapons pastoral” than a “peace pastoral”). On the other hand, grossly psychologized understandings of conflict and peace dominate much of the Catholic activist community. Having abandoned the classic moral and political horizon of tranquillitas ordinis, the Catholic debate has tended to drift into weapons policy micromanagement (the relationship of which to “peace” is never made entirely clear), or into psychobabble. In both instances, what is needed is a repoliticization of the peace debate.

Finnis, Boyle, and Grisez’s volume is not of much assistance in this regard. Their mode of moral analysis is deliberately a-political in its radical rejection of any consequential calculus. Whatever the impact of Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism on the scholarly community, it will almost certainly reinforce the depoliticization of the activist Catholic debate. The authors, of course, cannot be held entirely responsible for what others make out of their work. But they must know that their arguments will be vulgarized as they are reduced to placards. (The 1987 NCCB meeting in Washington featured an elderly woman standing in front of the Capitol Hilton carrying a sign which read “It’s a sin to intend to kill an innocent.”) Thus our authors are also under an obligation to spell out in far greater detail the relationship between their unilateralist prescription and the Catholic moral imperative to seek peace with freedom and justice. That imperative has, since Augustine, involved calculations about the proportionate and discriminate use of armed force, or the threat thereof, as well as about the consequences of not doing so. The nuclear weapons issue is one (admittedly pressing) question within that larger complex. This complex is not addressed directly by Finnis, Boyle, and Grisez, and so we may hope that they will turn their talents to these larger horizonal questions in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future.

A world dominated by the threat of nuclear war is not the world any reasonable person would choose. There is undoubtedly a moral obligation to think our way “beyond” deterrence, and to do so in a fashion that enhances the prospects for both peace and freedom. Some would argue that such a path lies “through” an evolution and transformation of the deterrence system, a position which our authors forthrightly reject. Nuclear weapons have indeed put unprecedented strains on “common morality” in general and Catholic social ethics in particular.

John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, and Germain Grisez have made an important attempt to drive the new nuclear debate back to first principles. They have not “solved” the moral problem of nuclear weapons and strategy, and there is much to be contested in terms of their book’s moral methodology and strategic understanding. But if this stimulating, impressive, aggravating, and disturbing volume serves to remind us that a sharpening of public moral argument is the primary responsibility of Catholic scholars and religious leaders, and if it advances the re-awakening of natural law modes of reasoning in the creation of a public moral discourse worthy of the name, it may well contribute to deepened understandings on all fronts, and not least among those who do not fully accept the authors’ analysis and prescription. Which would be a large accomplishment indeed.

George Weigel

By

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

Crisis Magazine Comments Policy

This is a Catholic forum. As such:

  1. All comments must directly address the article. “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” (Matthew 12:36)
  2. No profanity, ad hominems, hot tempers, or racial or religious invectives. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
  3. We will not tolerate heresy, calumny, or attacks upon our Holy Mother Church or Holy Father. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
  4. Keep it brief. No lengthy rants or block quotes. “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
  5. If you see a comment that doesn’t meet our standards, please flag it so a moderator may remove it. “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)
  6. All comments may be removed at the moderators’ discretion. “But of that day and hour no one knows…” (Matthew 24:36)
  7. Crisis isn’t responsible for the content of the comments box. Comments do not represent the views of Crisis magazine, its editors, authors, or publishers. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God… So each of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10, 12)
MENU