The Nuclear Catechism

I found Charles Coulombe’s latest column for Crisis (“Can the Catechism Get It Wrong?”) of particular interest, coming as it did a few days after Pope Francis’s visit to Japan—the first such visit in 38 years—where his remarks about nuclear weapons apparently exceeded anything his predecessors had said on the subject. Before Francis, the Vatican’s position had been that a country’s development and possession of weapons of mass destruction were morally licit, so long as these weapons were intended solely for deterrent purposes, and as a step toward global disarmament. Speaking in Nagasaki at the site where the United States exploded an atomic bomb in 1945, the pope declared the deployment of nuclear weapons, and even their possession, immoral.

The logical implication of the pope’s statement is that the use of these devices, even in national self-defense, is always immoral. This is precisely the longstanding position of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader—for now, at least—of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, who has declared for decades that he would never launch Trident, even if an enemy of Great Britain’s had just fired warheads at his country. Corbyn has never retracted that promise. (The British people delivered his party a brutal rejection letter in the general election last week.)

Curious to know what the position of The Catechism of the Catholic Church might be regarding nuclear warfare, I got down my copy and checked. Here it is, in its essentials:

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“Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons—especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons—to commit such crimes. (2314)

And here (emphasis mine):

The production and sale of arms affect the common good of nations and of the international community. Hence public authorities have the right and duty to regulate them. The short-term pursuit of private or collective interests cannot legitimate undertakings that promote violence and conflict among nations and compromise the international juridical order. (2316)

So far, the matter of possession is not directly addressed. But the right to possess weapons one is not morally permitted to use in self-defense is, practically speaking, a contradiction in terms. I turned back a page to 2309 and read the following: “The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration” before taking a decision “subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy.” The passage further states that the traditional elements of the “just war” doctrine require the damage caused by the aggressor “on the nation or community of nations” to be “lasting, grave, and certain”; every other means of defense must be impossible or ineffective. A successful defense should have “serious prospects of success,” and the defensive use of arms “must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”

Considering these stipulations, I find it reasonable to ask whether Pope Francis’s recent injunction does not simply state the logical conclusion of these passages from the Catechism. It seems to me reasonable also to consider whether the Church has so far formulated any doctrine for a just war of national self-defense that is at once moral, practical, and indeed humanly possible in the age of nuclear warfare.

Modern technology guarantees that nuclear weapons may be launched at any instant and without warning, leaving no time for careful moral consideration such as the Church requires—or indeed for any consideration whatever. The stakes are all or nothing, total victory or total defeat—perhaps in minutes. What government could risk withholding a devastatingly conclusive military response in such a crisis? Once nuclear weapons have been unleashed, the course, prospects, and effects of any war are wholly unpredictable, even unimaginable. The conflict may result in victory for one or more countries, or in their utter destruction, or in global annihilation. The side of good may prevail, or the side of evil.

Anything at all may occur in the space of a few hours. National governments are responsible firstly for the safety of their own populations. Are they then morally obliged to weigh their own safety against that of other countries, especially when there is insufficient time to make fair and reliable calculations before catastrophe strikes?

Just warfare is essentially a moral notion derived from what used to be called Christendom, though the concept has recently been refurbished and extended by legal principles and structures developed from the secular religion of humanism. Must Christian countries deprive themselves of potentially decisive weapons while combatting non-Christian nations unimpaired by Christian scruples? To do so would be suicidal, and suicide is one of the gravest sins in the Catholic catalog of sins.

National suicide must, therefore, be sinful. Personal self-sacrifice can be a noble Christian act, but what of a government’s deliberate sacrifice of its own people—which is what the refusal to employ whatever arms are at its disposal would amount to?

The grim but certain fact is that nations, like individuals, act as much from instinct as from reason in a crisis that is as immediate as it is mortal. In such a situation the Catechism of the Catholic Church will not be consulted, nor will the intricate international law texts filed away in a big concrete slab at Turtle Bay. “Pushing the button” will be no more than a reflex action by the ultimate national authority, whose response to a long-dreaded, perhaps long-anticipated emergency will be, quite literally, beyond good and evil. This is the point to which modern scientific and industrial technique (Jacques Ellul’s phrase) has brought us all. So far, no one has formulated a system that begins to assess, let alone address, the moral exigencies of a world in which the progress of the human intellect and of human ingenuity have so fatally outstripped advances made in the development of humanity’s collective moral understanding, in the possibilities for human self-control, and in the desire to achieve such control.

Perhaps the Church is closer than I realize to devising such a system. (As Flannery O’Connor said, Christ did not abandon us to chaos.) I am saying only that judging from what the CCC says about nuclear warfare, She hasn’t done so yet. Whether or not the Catechism is wrong, it seems certain that it remains incomplete on some fiendishly complex moral issues.

Image: Pope Francis on his visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki (credit: Getty Images)

  • Chilton Williamson, Jr.

    Chilton Williamson, Jr. is a senior contributor at Crisis. He is the former editor of Chronicles magazine, and his column “Prejudices” appears in The Spectator USA. He is the author of After Tocqueville (ISI, 2012) and the novel Jerusalem, Jerusalem! (Chronicles Press, 2017). For over a decade he served as literary editor, then senior editor, at National Review. He blogs at

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