Failed Prophecies: How Does the Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on Nuclear Weapons Read Now?

On May 3, 1983, the Catholic bishops of this country issued their pastoral letter on war and peace, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.” What does that document look like today?

I ask that question in light of the common perception that the swift and unexpected collapse of the Soviet empire has permanently altered the international political landscape. This change allows—indeed it demands—that we view familiar landmarks from a new perspective, landmarks as diverse as the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact, a divided Germany, the nature of totalitarianism, nuclear deterrence, arms control and, yes, “The Challenge of Peace.”

Less the leap from the Soviet Union to the bishops’ letter seem unduly precipitous, even vertiginous, we should remind ourselves that “The Challenge of Peace” was and remains a major statement of the bishops of this country, that it incorporates the views of many still influential people, that it changed the views of many others, that it is still an important teaching instrument within the Catholic community, that it inspired other religious communities to emulate it, that it drew the considered attention of the Vatican, that it was seriously studied by framers of U.S. military and political policy. It is still on our agenda.

The bishops’ letter was initiated in 1981, not yet ten years ago, and the final draft was approved in 1983. While a number of changes, some significant, were made during the drafting process, the underlying intention of the letter remained untouched. It was to undertake an evaluation of war in the nuclear age with an entirely new attitude. The bishops’ consideration of war and peace in the modern world fell into four sections: (a) religious perspectives and principles; (b) problems and principles; (c) proposals and policies; (d) the pastoral challenge and response.

Without rehearsing yet again the strengths and weaknesses of the letter one can note several ways in which it was innovative. First, it gave new, unprecedented attention and weight to pacifism by asserting that pacifism and just war methods of evaluating warfare were distinct but interdependent. Second, it offered highly detailed and specific recommendations and restrictions on military policy, strategy, tactics, and weaponry, something no group of bishops had previously done on matters of war and peace. Third, it reversed the traditional order of questions that must be considered in determining whether a particular war might be necessary and justified. The bishops began, that is, not with the ends of warfare but with the means, specifically nuclear weapons. It is no accident, as good Marxists possibly still say, that the first two sections of the letter begin with explicit reference to nuclear warfare and that section two, the most debated portion of the letter, states: “At the center of the new evaluation of the arms race is a recognition of two elements: the destructive potential of nuclear weapons and the stringent choices which the nuclear age poses for both politics and morals.” Primacy of concern was given to arms, not to the threat they were intended to counter.

Only after their extended, close examination of the means of warfare do the bishops briefly consider the international situation and then, almost as briefly, the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. The focus of the letter, it is fair to say, is on nuclear weaponry. It is the bishops’ intention to “say no to the idea of nuclear war.” To that end they support a declared policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons; a reduction in expenditures for nuclear weapons; and a halt to the testing, production, and deployment of new weapons systems. They assert that because of “the almost certain consequences of existing policies and strategies of war” non-violent popular defense should be seriously considered as “an alternative course of action.”

In 1988 the bishops issued “A Report on the Challenge of Peace and Policy Development.” Since their moral acceptance of deterrence had been strictly conditioned, they had to attend to relevant changing conditions. Among the issues they discussed in their updated report was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which is an attempt to shift the weight of our nuclear weapons system from offensive to defensive strategies and weapons. From the 1988 report I extract only the bishops’ conclusion: “It is our prudential judgment that proposals to press deployment of SDI do not measure up to the moral criteria outlined in this report.”

Politics Is Primary

How, from our new perspective, does all this hold up? Now that the West has achieved total victory in the ideological cold war and the threat of conventional or nuclear war between East and West has so rapidly receded, what can we learn from the letter? We should note, first, that the threat has receded while the nuclear deterrent, to which the bishops gave strictly conditioned moral acceptance, is still in place. The military force of the Soviet Union, even now, is intact. Because of the change in our relationship with the Soviets we can now begin a serious reduction in arms, both nuclear and conventional. But it was not by a reduction in arms that we were brought to this point. This is simply to state in another form what a president of the United States asserted some years back when he spoke of the Soviet Union: We do not distrust each other because we have arms; we have arms because we distrust each other. Now that the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev has dramatically reduced the basis for our distrust, we can reduce our level of armaments. Politics is primary. It was primary when the bishops gave primacy to nuclear weapons. It remains primary.

Some credit for the change in the political climate must go to the steadiness of the West in resisting that threat over many decades. The distinguished analyst of military matters Sir Michael Howard recently stated that even as it was pursuing policies hostile to the West well into this decade,

the Soviet Union was falling further and further behind its adversaries in the only fields that mattered to its own people: productivity and standard of living. The cost of maintaining military confrontation became less supportable year by year…. It must have become evident to an increasing number of Soviet decision-makers that confrontation with the West was as unnecessary as it was counter-productive. So they wisely decided that their task (to paraphrase Marx) was not so much to change the world as to join it.

The Soviet Union would not have felt that burden if the West had failed steadfastly to confront the Soviet Union, if the West had failed to maintain a sturdy deterrent, if it had not modernized its weapons systems, if it had adopted a “nuclear freeze.” Cardinal Casaroli, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, was asked to what he attributed the sudden changes in Eastern Europe; he replied, Reagan’s military build-up. Similarly, the Norwegian Minister of Defense Johan Jorgen Hoist recently said that nuclear deterrence can be “no more than a temporary expedient in the continuing search for peace.” But he also said that “nuclear deterrence has coincided with an unprecedentedly long period of peace in Europe, in spite of intense political rivalry. It would be foolish to deny that this peace was due, at least in part, to the fact of nuclear deterrence.” (For those who will continue to deny the minister’s conclusion, he has provided the accurate classification: foolish.)

On the basis of their consequences, the politico-military policies of the West vis-a-vis the Soviet Union have been beneficial. They have helped maintain that long period of peace in Europe and have contributed to the cold war victory that now allows large reductions in military forces and has already led to the possibility of democratization in Eastern Europe. If asked whether we would now be in this desirable position if the American bishops had been the architect of those policies, we could confidently answer that, on the basis of their pastoral letter, the answer is no. The structure and major portions of that letter deserve to be recast or cast aside.

This harsh judgment is not a matter of 20-20 hindsight. A number of critics of the letter expressed grave reservations about it as the different drafts were circulated and after it was finally approved. For example, in Tranquillitas Ordinis (1987) George Weigel gives an extended analysis of the bishops’ letter and concludes that “the result in ‘The Challenge of Peace’ was an important conceptual confusion whose outcome amounted to the virtual abandonment of the [Catholic] heritage as [John Courtney] Murray would have understood it.” Previous to that, I contributed an essay entitled “Pacifism and Just War: Either or Neither” to Catholics and Nuclear War, a volume edited by Father Philip J. Murnion. In that essay I criticized as misguided the attempt by the bishops to produce a document that would simultaneously do justice to both pacifism and just war teaching even as it offered many highly specific politico/military proposals. I also asserted that “we must assess the values we are defending and the threats to which they are exposed before we can make prudential judgments about how to counter the threat—and whether and to what degree we can justifiably resort to the arms at our disposal. We must know the nature of our real or putative enemy before we can even negotiate on a realistic basis.” The bishops, I judged, had failed to do this.

Remarkable Prescience

Even earlier, in fact before the bishops approved their final draft, Michael Novak, after extensive consultation with hundreds of experts in various areas, wrote Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age, which was then signed by over a hundred prominent Catholic lay people who supported it and published first in Crisis in March 1983. This document, which I have just reread along with the bishops’ letter, seems more remarkable to me than when it first appeared. (Possibly I should declare a lack of self-interest in praising this document since I contributed very little to it and did not sign it.) I would strongly recommend that anyone who has not previously read this document do so now. It, too, looks different from our new perspective. Much that looked like reasonable, informed speculation when it was published now looks remarkably prescient.

Moral Clarity defines the “new moment” in concrete terms of modern weapons, the “peace movement,” military expenditures, and the nuclear deterrent system. This follows necessarily from the statement that “moral thinking about nuclear war must be concrete as well as abstract,” and the additional observation that “deterrence is sometimes judged against ideals, not against recent history.” Before moving to the intricacies of military and moral aspects of deterrence, Moral Clarity, in contradistinction to the bishops’ letter, places deterrence in the proper political context: “Virtually all arguments about the prevention of nuclear war hinge on judgments concerning the nature of the Soviet Union and its nuclear forces.” Those judgments, in the conditions then existing, lead to the imperative of nuclear deterrence. Acknowledging that no choice available to U.S. leaders was wholly satisfactory, Moral Clarity then asserts that “We uphold the fundamental intention of deterrence that no nuclear weapons ever be used. We uphold the secondary intention of being ready to use the deterrent within the narrowest feasible limits, as indispensable to making deterrence work. We reject the policy of national bluff which permits possession but does not permit its essential secondary intention.”

After having stated, with bone-dry honesty, this hard position, this lay document presses the moral dilemma. “The fundamental moral principal at stake is to make the moral choice which occasions the fewer evil consequences.” This principle is first defended against the charge of “consequentialism” and then brought to bear on the concrete, particular judgments that political leaders must responsibly make.

As it draws to its close, Moral Clarity states, in a passage that deserves longer quotation:

Since the Soviets have several forms of superiority at present—not necessarily in every respect, but in some important ones—it is obviously difficult for Soviet leaders to surrender advantages they have amassed through great sacrifices on the part of their peoples. On the other hand, Soviet leaders have reason to fear the greater inventiveness of free societies. If American and NATO resolve were now to falter, Soviet leaders would have reason to continue their present successful strategy. If, on the contrary, they must face the fact that the U.S. is determined to maintain deterrence through new inventions, they may conclude that they must alter their course. The linchpin of preventing war is Soviet will.

I submit that this is, in fact, what we have witnessed. The Soviet Union recognized that resolve in, for example, the NATO emplacement of Pershing IIs and cruise missiles in Germany to counter their SS20s, even against the protest of the “peace movement” in the West. They saw our inventiveness in many forms, including the projected Strategic Defense Initiative. And they weighed the cost of their massive military expenditures against the needs of their society and the increasing economic gap between their society and those of the West. They then willed to alter their course.

There is much more that could be said about the two general approaches here discussed, that of “The Challenge of Peace” and that of the critics exemplified by Moral Clarity—and it will obviously be difficult for those who supported the bishops’ document to surrender the positions they have defended over the years—but temporarily at least, many of us will be satisfied to note that “by their fruits you will know them.”


  • James Finn

    James Finn is author of Protest: Pacifism and Politics, a study of the Vietnam peace movement, and, when Crisis was originally published in 1982, he was editor of Freedom at Issue, the bimonthly journal of Freedom House.

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