French Bishops Face Up to Nuclear Peril

REPRINT FROM WALL STREET JOURNAL, NOV. 25, 1983

A plenary session of the Catholic bishops of France recently issued a document on the issue of nuclear arms and defense, titled “Win the Peace.” The vote in support of the document was 93-2. Excerpts follow:

Because the survival of humanity is at stake, there is no cause that can justify the outbreak of a nuclear war. The same applies to other forms of suicidal warfare which are less often discussed, even though they too are being prepared for: chemical and biological warfare. Moreover, by centering too much attention on nuclear war we run the risk of minimizing “conventional” modern warfare. And everyone knows that in a direct military confrontation between the two nuclear powers conventional armaments could serve as detonators for nuclear weapons.

Nobody wants war . . . Yet some countries are bent on reaping the benefits of warfare without paying the price of war: By brandishing its threat, they make permanent use of blackmail. While former democracies are kept by force within the Soviet bloc, the Western democracies are subject to constant pressure to neutralize them and to bring them, if possible, into the sphere of influence of Marxist-Leninist ideology. The latter, convinced that it holds the secret to the total liberation of mankind and of nations, thinks itself mandated to impose upon all what it believes to be the greatest good.

There is no question here of cultivating a Manichaean view of the world — all the evil on one side, all the good on the other. The West is also ailing. Materialism — whether theoretical, as in communist societies, or practical, as in the West — is a deadly disease of humanity. And Marxist-Leninist states do not hold a monopoly on imperialism. Sometimes they gain a following even within the systems that oppose them most strenuously. But it would be unfair to simply state and accept the conflict of ideologies while closing one’s eyes to the domineering and aggressive character of Marxism-Leninism , which holds that everything, even a nation’s hopes for peace, must be used as a tool for world conquest.

Given these conditions, does an absolute condemnation of all warfare not put peace-loving nations at the mercy of those animated by an ideology of domination? In their efforts to avoid war, peaceful nations could fall prey to other forms of violence and injustice: colonization, alienation, deprivation of freedom and identity. Pushed to its ultimate consequences, peace at any price leads a nation to all sorts of capitulations. Unilateral disarmament could even encourage aggressive behavior on the part of neighbors by presenting them with the temptation of any easy prey.

Christ’s nonviolence, the forgiveness he preaches, is the salt which alone can save the Earth from the corruption that is violence. Nonviolence stands as a call to each man and even to the human communities. The church has always recognized the right of political power to counter force by the use of force . . . Nonviolence is a risk a person can take. Can states, whose function it is to preserve the peace, take that risk? In our world of violence and injustice, it is the duty of politicians to safeguard the peace of the community for which they are responsible. That community is made of peace, but it is also made of justice, of solidarity, of liberty. To protect it, politicians must have the means of deterring, as far as possible, a potential aggressor.

We know all too well the injustice and disorder that arise when a state of law gives way to the law of the stronger . . . In international relations, unfortunately, there is no authority powerful and effective enough to impose that state of law. Therefore individual countries cannot be denied the right of legitimate defense against external threats as well as internal perils.

We shall not involve ourselves here in the technical debates among experts on the credibility of our defense. In those highly technical questions, which give rise to considerations of ethics, one must beware of two types of excess: 1) the suspension of ethical judgment, as if something as heavy with human significance could be left to simple technical logic; 2) pre-emptive judgments of a deductive kind that make light of technical considerations.

The central question thus becomes the following: Given the context of the current geopolitical situation, does a country that is threatened in its existence, its liberty or its identity have a moral right to meet the threat with an effective counter threat, even if that counter threat is nuclear?

Until now, while stressing the possible consequences of such a parry and the terrible risks it entails, the Catholic Church has not felt the necessity to condemn it. Such logic, of course, is the logic of distress, and its weakness is obvious. Of course, it is to avoid having to wage war that one wants to show oneself capable of waging it. One does serve the cause of peace in deterring an aggressor by inspiring in him, through fear, a minimum of wisdom. The threat of violence does not constitute violence. That is the basis of dissuasion, and it is something we often forget when we at-tribute the same moral status to the threat as to the use of violence.

Nevertheless the dangers of the logic of dissuasion are obvious. To leave the potential aggressor no doubt as to the credibility of one’s defense, one must show oneself to be firm in one’s resolve to resort to action if dissuasion fails. Moreover the moral legitimacy of resorting to action is more than unclear — especially in France, where our deterrence is that of the weak facing the powerful, a “poor man’s deterrence” which relies on a wholesale threat; for lack of means, it is compelled to threaten cities; and that is a strategy the council condemns, clearly and finally . . .

Yet the threat does not constitute use. Does the immorality of use entail the immorality of the threat? Not necessarily. For according to the council, “We cannot set aside the complexities of the situation as it stands.” Given the state of violence and sin in which the world exists, it is the duty of politicians and military officials to defuse the blackmail to which the nation could be subjected.

It is clear that to be morally acceptable, nuclear deterrence must presuppose:

• that it applies only to self-defense;

• the avoidance of overarmament: Deterrence is effective as soon as it represents a threat sufficient to discourage aggression;

• all the necessary precautions against “mistakes,” against the eventuality of interference by terrorists, by a madman, etc.;

• that the nation which assumes the risks inherent in nuclear deterrence will pursue a constructive policy that serves the cause of peace.

The church does not encourage unconditional pacifism. The church has never advocated unilateral disarmament, for it is aware that unilateral disarmament could serve to kindle the violence of an aggressive military, political and ideological complex. But the church recognizes the evangelical message present in calls to nonviolence: They are prophetic reminders of the destructiveness of violence. While recognizing the current need for armed defense, the church calls for that need to be overcome.

Efforts toward disarmament are not the responsibility of a few officials and experts. Every citizen pays the price of nuclear armaments — first with taxes, then as a potential victim.

A nation cannot live with its eyes glued to the radar screens that survey its territory. Nor can it stare forever at the charts of its economists. All those things are important; but they are only means. Beyond the means of life stands the question of reason for living. For people, and also for nations and for mankind itself. That is a . . . matter of spirituality.

  • Wall Street Journal

    The Wall Street Journal is an American English-language international daily newspaper with a special emphasis on business and economic news. It is published in New York City by Dow Jones & Company, a division of News Corporation, along with the Asian and European editions of the Journal.

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