Jesuit Critical of Coleman’s Peace Theology

This article appeared in the December 1982 issue of National Jesuit News.

It is with a heavy heart and a trepid hand that I write to your newspaper. My heart is heavy because I find no joy in denouncing the vices of those I love. My hand is shaking because I know how perilous it is to deny what is the determined editorial policy of a publication, and that of its editors. You may, of course, relieve me of this anxiety by the simple expedient of refusing to publish my text, but that would be a plain contradiction of the justice which you preach in every issue. You would not be giving the other side an opportunity to be heard. Since I do believe in your basic sense of fair play, let me add that I hope you will publish my text (it is not too long) in its entirety, including this preamble.

Alas, dear brothers, the pacifist position in regard to nuclear war is immoral, understanding that position as it is presented in the form of the article in National Jesuit News of Pr. John A. Coleman, S.J. or in the similar modes that it has appeared in your columns. The reason is very simple, as true reason always is, even if, for that very cause, it is intensely profound. The nuclear pacifist confounds physical with moral evil. He concentrates on the horrors of nuclear war, which are very real, but ignores the still greater horrors of moral dishonor, which are even more real.

It is true, naturally, that a physical evil can pass over into a moral evil, even as a physical good. Say peace, for example, can become sinful. Every action of man in the physical order, whether that be the infliction of pain or the sharing of pleasure, demands a moral justification, If, indeed, the action is to be moral in the first place. The simple-minded castigation of physical evil, in this case, nuclear war, as, for that bare reason, immoral, is merely the confusion mentioned between the two orders of good and evil.

It is basic morality that one must always prefer death to dishonor, if, indeed, the decision reduces itself to that grim alternative. Nuclear pacifism prefers dishonor to death, and in this lies its immorality.

Now, in all fairness, it is true that the pacifist does attempt to raise physical evil to the level of moral guilt, but this is done in passing, and not clearly as such. He does, for example, maintain that the very horrors of nuclear war increase the physical evil beyond all possible moral tolerance, but this is merely stated, never proved. Multiplication, as such, does not change a species. That type of logic would drive the exorbitant to conclude to an immoral deity from his meditation on the sensible pain of hell presented in the first week of the Exercises of St. Ignatius.

It may be, and in fact commonly is, quite possible to mediate principles such that moral integrity can be preserved without reduction to awesome dilemmas. It is often more honorable to negotiate than to fight. The truth is, however, that this is not always the case, and the human mind must always consult its moral principles and not be distracted by unpleasant physical consequences.

Killing is not always murder, and the distinction must be made in terms of reason and not in function of imagination. To paraphrase Portia’s speech to Shylock: one can indeed have his pound of nuclear disarmament, provided this does not entail the loss of one drop of national dishonor.

Some also try to argue that the destruction of innocent human lives precludes the moral integrity of nuclear war. This is traditionally handled by the principle of double effect, but the argument continues that nuclear destruction is so vast that it transcends any proportion between the good intended and the evil permitted. Again, this is stated, not proved. But let us investigate.

First, it must be granted that innocent human life does not enjoy absolute protection. Its loss may be indirectly permitted as a consequence and not as an object of an agent’s virtuous intention. One can consult the manuals for proof of this thesis, and it is also the way in which one justifies God’s permission of such physical evils as earthquakes. Be it noted, therefore, that the unintended death of innocent human beings can be, and often is, per se, a moral act.

In short, there is no absolute prohibition against taking innocent human life provided that this is the unintended consequence of a morally virtuous activity. God does not work miracles to prevent the death of innocent human infants.

Then there comes this business of proportion. And here again, one must be careful. The proportion intended is that of moral principle, not that of physical quantity. The ratio meant is not mathematical, but rational; it is a comparison between moral values and not a simple counting of victims.

The preservation of innocent human life is, indeed, a moral good, but then so are a host of other things, such as freedom, honor, the right to public worship, and so forth. Now, the proper moral intention is to preserve all of these values, and one must have very good reason for indirectly permitting any one of them to be temporarily slighted. This is where pacifism manifests its further immorality.

In order to preserve on particular moral value, innocent human life, it directly intends the sacrifice of a host of other moral values. Counsels of surrender of one’s freedom to an unjust aggressor for the sake of material “peace” provide an example of such sin. Thus, pacifism does not even meet the first criterion of the principle of double effect, namely that an evil end must not be directly intended.

Then, secondly, there is no discussion of a proportion between the evil resulting, the loss of all these spiritual values, and the one unique good preserved. I sometimes wonder if pacifists use the word moral in any rational sense at all.

One might also note in passing, that the number of these innocents is, in the conditions of modern warfare, not nearly as great as is sometimes implied. Certainly, one cannot simply use the material distinction between those who are, or are not, wearing a uniform. A totalitarian state strives to enlist all its members in its aggressive designs, and the worker in the plant, the farmer in the field, even the families who raise their fighting men’s morale, all contribute their share to the war effort.

One must also consider the loss of innocent human life from the point of view of the victims of unjust aggression. Pacifism is their enemy since it strives to render them morally and physically helpless.

In conclusion, there is, of course, much more to be said, but I have promised to be short. One can note that this article is based solely on reason, and thus does not employ theological method. That is because as a professional philosopher, I find this mode of discourse particularly congenial. But one must also remember that an appeal to reason is, itself, an appeal to Catholic doctrine.

It is both common and official Church teaching (Cf. DB 1797, from Vatican 1, for example) that there cannot be a double truth, something that is true in reason and false in revelation. The Author of nature is also the Author of grace and He cannot contradict Himself. Reason does not, of course, attain those truths which are properly supernatural, but it does attain Truth. It also knows God. Thus it can serve also as a negative norm to theology.

If a doctrine which purports to be divine stands in contradiction to reason, then one can be certain that doctrine is false and not from God at all. Nuclear pacifism, as presented in your pages by such authors as Fr. Coleman, S.J., is precisely irrational and therefore immoral and therefore sin.


  • Laurence L. Cassidy

    Laurence L. Cassidy, S.J. was a philosophy professor at St. Peter's College, Jersey City.

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