Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age: Introduction


In Jenuary, 1982, at the first meeting of the American Catholic Committee (now the American Catholic Conference), a small group of laity, clergy and religious concerned about Catholic morality in a nuclear age decided that, all things considered, it would be better to construct a positive document than merely to criticize other points of view. To their credit, the first draft of the pastoral letter of the U.S. bishops had already requested such dialogue, public discussion, and open debate. To meet this request, the following document was drafted, redrafted and eventually submitted to more than 200 persons for critique and comment. The third draft, including countless corrections and suggestions, follows. Time and organizational capacities prevented the full gathering of signatures that seems desirable. With publication, many others will be able to study it and—if it meets their general approval (each would no doubt alter parts of it) — add their names. Copies of the second and third drafts have been distributed to Cardinal Bernardin for the drafting committee of the U.S. bishops and to the Vatican. Both those who wish to add their names and those who wish to argue for diverse views are encouraged to write to the Editors at Notre Dame.


1. Although in recent times, as in earlier times, there has been a tendency to use the expression “the Church” to mean chiefly its ordained leaders, the clergy, the Church in fact consists of the entire people of God, including those laymen and laywomen who participate in “the saving mission of the Church.” As the Second Vatican Council puts it:

“Every layman should openly reveal to [his pastors] his needs and desires with that freedom and confidence which befits a son of God and a brother in Christ. An individual layman, by reason of the knowledge, competence, or outstanding ability which he may enjoy, is permitted and sometimes even obliged to express his opinion on things which concern the good of the Church. When occasions arise, let this be done through the agencies set up by the Church for this purpose. Let it always be done in truth, in courage, and in prudence, with reverence and charity toward those who by reason of their sacred office represent the person of Christ.” (Lumen Gentium, #37.)

2. In recent years, many laymen, laywomen and clergy have awaited the early drafts of a pastoral letter from the U. S. bishops on morality in nuclear matters. Both the first and second drafts which have appeared have awakened many questions. Rather than merely react to flawed portions of the two early drafts —with which many bishops are not yet satisfied — it seemed wiser to attempt a constructive statement of our own reasoned moral views. The task is immensely difficult. No more than our bishops do we expect complete unanimity. Emulating their example, we are moved by our responsibilities to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to our vocations as Christians in the world. We hope that this constructive act will be useful to our bishops, and we make it public in accord with their express desire that the complex issues involved be treated to extensive and reasoned debate.

3. For nearly the whole of our adult lifetimes, since the first use of atomic power, and since the passing of its secrets into the hands of the U.S.S.R., we have all of us lived under the shadow of new and terrible weapons. Descriptions of the horrible devastation which might be wrought upon the entire world through these weapons have been set before the public not only in scientific testimony but also in popular novels and movies. For more than thirty years, a primary moral imperative placed upon governments and peoples has been to assure that these weapons shall never be unjustly used.

4. The technology upon which these weapons are based is sufficiently simple that its secrets have now become dispersed throughout the world. Knowledge is good in itself; so is human liberty; we can scarcely wish that these secrets had never been learned. Moreover, it is virtually impossible that, once discovered, they can wholly be repressed or permanently banished from this earth. The moral imperative that they never be unjustly used, therefore, will retain its full force for the foreseeable future.

5. Yet it must immediately be observed that such weapons have two quite different uses. The most obvious use is through their explosion in warfare. The more subtle use is through intimidation, since powers which possess them exercise over others who do not a threat beside which conventional armed defenses pale. While the use of nuclear weapons in the first sense is most to be guarded against, use in the second sense also constitutes a grave danger to justice, liberty, and peace. The moral imperative mentioned above applies to both uses.

6. More than once in our lifetime, superior nuclear force has obliged weaker nations either to surrender (Japan) or to abandon projects in which they were engaged (USSR in Cuba) or otherwise to moderate their intentions and actions. The possession of nuclear weapons seems also to have moderated actions which might in other times have led to confrontation by force of conventional arms. In this sense, while nuclear weapons constitute a grave threat to justice, liberty, and peace, their possession has also had pacific effects.

7. From biblical times, the human race has often been warned that God might will or permit its destruction. When Cain slew Abel, he prefigured the possibility of a threat to all the progeny of Adam and Eve, including himself, for by the same passion he might have slain not only his brother but also his parents and finally himself. In the story of Noah, the Bible instructs us in an image of the destruction of the whole world by flood, and warns us of God’s threat to destroy all the world by fire. Sodom, Gomorrah, and other cities were utterly destroyed in vivid biblical warning, as was the Temple of Jerusalem. To live under threat of flood, fire, glacier, plague, pestilence, war and destruction is not novel for an imagination attuned to biblical history. The destruction of Carthage, the leveling of the glories of Greece and Rome, and the coming night of barbarism inspired St. Augustine to oppose secular millenarianism and a false sense of catastrophe, as he penned The City of God. The ruin of civilization is not a theme new to our time, nor is the theme of the destruction of all things living. Since Jewish and Christian conscience has long been steeled by contemplation of the fragility of this world and the overpowering sovereignty of God, our generation should not separate itself too dramatically from all others. The prophecies in the Book of Revelation exceed even the horrors of the twentieth century.

8. In fulfilling the moral imperative to prevent unjust uses of nuclear weapons, therefore, Christian citizens must exercise clear and sustained thought. Any flight of reason into panic must be quietly resisted, and every flight into illusion curbed. Both for good and for ill, the “mobilization of the masses” has frequently characterized life in this century. Neither slogans nor cold fear is a suitable substitute for prudent judgment. Questions of this magnitude cannot be left to experts, governmental or ecclesiastical, but must be prayerfully and lucidly reflected upon by all citizens. Only a broadly supported, carefully reasoned public policy, sustained over decades, meets the imperative laid upon all of us. Strong majorities must grasp and nourish such a policy.

9. For this reason, we Catholic citizens welcome the effort of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States, and the bishops of various Conferences in Europe and elsewhere, to draft pastoral letters on nuclear arms. The bishops have a right and duty to express the truth of the Gospels entrusted to them and to restate the Catholic tradition for our time. On these matters, they, and only they, in their vocation as teachers, have full authority with respect to the Gospels and the Catholic Faith.

10. According to the teaching of Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, there are three spheres of Gospel teaching in human life. The first concerns the life of the spirit, human life in the light of eternity. The second concerns those areas of the social order on which the Gospels and Catholic teaching directly impinge and in which they are necessarily enmeshed — such areas as are addressed in the social encyclicals of the Popes, for example. The third concerns the area of worldly interpretation of social reality and fact, tactical and strategic judgment oriented to results in the concrete world of history, choice among various permissible means, practical detail and, in general, questions of prudential judgment.

11. While in all three spheres, every member of the Church may have important witness to contribute, there is an ordinary differentiation of functions and authority. In the first of these spheres, the teaching of the bishops is clear and supreme when in conformity with that of the Holy Father and the whole college of bishops. In the second, the teaching of the bishops and popes is necessary and fruitful, although more engaged with matters fraught with ambiguity and danger of error. In the third, the focus of Catholic teaching normally passes from the hands of the bishops and popes to the concrete moral reasoning of individual Catholics responsible for fulfilling their vocations in the world. This is because in the world of contingency and action, Church leaders cannot summarize all concrete possibilities, but must enunciate religious ideals and moral principles and demand that lay persons apply them to concrete situations prudently and prayerfully. In this third sphere, the God of the Last Judgment will not be satisfied by a claim that a Christian followed the general authority of his bishop or of anyone else; each will be judged by what he or she did in the light of his or her own concrete moral reasoning in particular cases. From such personal responsibility, there will be no escape in the encompassing light of Judgment.

12. It is in this third sphere that we associate ourselves in the task of Christian moral reasoning, reflecting on the realities of nuclear weapons in our time. We are conscious of the presence of God. It is His judgment we fear. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10). Being faithful to the teachings of the Gospel and of the Catholic tradition, including the recent teachings of the Second Vatican Council, the Popes, and the Bishops, we propose to deal as clearly and as conscientiously as we can with the prudential matters of the third sphere. We speak for no others but ourselves. The matters with which we wrestle are, in the nature of the case, full of ambiguity, complex in their chains of reasoning, dependent upon difficult judgments of fact at every step. Other Christians of good will are certain to make quite different judgments at any ten or twelve places in the argument. So it always is in complex judgments of fact. We are certain only that we have tried to be faithful to biblical realism: both to the Gospels and the Catholic tradition, and to a realistic assessment of matters of fact and rational principle. We welcome argument, since it is by argument that we have arrived where we are, and by argument that we hope to learn. Among ourselves, we also have differences. Nonetheless, we have found it possible to offer what follows as a public and moral policy which we as Catholics support.

  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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