Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age: Part I


13. The Catholic tradition on war and peace is long and complex: it reaches from the Old Testament and from the beginning of the New, from the slaughter of the innocents at the birth of Christ to the baptism of the Roman centurion, from the practice of the early Church to recent statements by Pope John Paul II. Its development cannot be sketched in a straight line. It seldom gives a simple answer to complex questions. It speaks through many voices. It has produced multiple forms of religious witness.

14. We rely upon The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World and on The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity of Vatican II as the most authoritative recent statements on the question on nuclear weapons and on the role of the laity. We note that The Pastoral Constitution carefully differentiated in its own teaching between those elements “of permanent value” and others of “only a transitory one.” It said that future “interpreters must bear in mind … the changeable circumstances which the subject matter, by its very nature, involves.” In this spirit, we are mindful of the indispensable, central role of accurate discrimination and sound prudential judgment.

15. We note also that Vatican II did not speak of nuclear weapons as such, but of “scientific weapons.” We understand this more general concept to be essential, since developments in rocketry, computers, and explosives since 1945 have given even “conventional” weapons awesome destructive power at great distances and with amazing accuracy. Because of their power, many of the novel “conventional” weapons seem to fall under the same moral strictures as do nuclear weapons, in terms of proportionality and discrimination in targeting. Indeed, the larger “conventional” weapons now exceed in their destructive power the smaller nuclear weapons. If one cannot distinguish between such weapons on the scale of sheer physical power, nonetheless, the divide between conventional and nuclear explosives is a critical boundary.

16. The Pastoral Constitution bids us to read the “signs of the times.” We note three vital factors, in particular. The first is recorded in the Pastoral Constitution itself:

“Insofar as men are sinful, the threat of war hangs over them, and hang over them it will until the return of Christ …. In spite of the fact that recent wars have wrought physical and moral havoc on our world, conflicts still produce their devastating effect day by day somewhere in the world.”

The second comes from that Constitution’s definition of peace:

“This peace cannot be obtained on earth unless personal values are safeguarded and men freely and trustingly share with one another the riches of their inner spirits and their talents.”

This is not the peace of totalitarianism. It is the peace of liberty and justice. The third vital factor is that considerations of the need to avoid nuclear war “… compel us to undertake an evaluation of war with an entirely new attitude.” It is a moral imperative to deter not only nuclear war but all war. Yet the very act of nuclear deterrence has its own novel characteristics, involving new ways of thinking about intention, threat, use, means and ends, and lesser evils. “An entirely new attitude” is required on some of these matters.

17. At the center of the Catholic teaching on war and peace is, first, the sovereignty of God and, second, the dignity of the human person. The perennial sinfulness of humans makes the threat of war perennial; the longing of humans to be true to the image of God within them makes perennial the longing for peace. Directly to take innocent human life is a prerogative only of the sovereign God, the Author of life. To defend the dignity of human life is both the motive force of peace and the just cause of war. When an unjust aggressor injures human dignity, to stand aside is a form of complicity and collusion. To resist an unjust aggressor with proportionate means is demanded by justice. Thus, human dignity is the cause both of just peace and of just war. As there are wars which are unjust, so also there is peace which is unjust.

18. It is sometimes held that there are on these questions plural traditions in the Catholic church, one addressed to Catholics and another addressed to the pluralistic public, one evangelical and the other based on natural law, one committed to pacifism and the other committed to the tradition of just war reasoning. But there is not one teaching for initiates, another for the uninitiated; not one teaching for the perfect, another for the imperfect. In the matter of celibacy and marriage there may be two vocations in the church, yet one vision of a common faith. So in matters of war and peace there is more than one vocation, yet one common teaching about justice in war and in peace. One common set of precepts, many different counsels; one life of charity, many different vocations: this is our vision.

A. Peace and the Kingdom

19. Although God has always promised his people peace and rest, the paradoxical nature of these promises is ever present in the Bible. “Not as the world gives do I give peace,” Jesus says. (John 14:27). Again: “I have come to bring not peace but the sword.” (Matthew 10:34). And, admonishing Peter in Gethsemane, Jesus says: “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matthew 26:52-54).

20. In the Old Testament, God is often portrayed as one who leads his people into battle, whose power helps them to prevail, who avenges wrongs done to them by their enemies. Paradoxically, Gideon says “God is peace,” and the blessing of the Lord on Israel includes this, that “the Lord lift up his countenance and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:23-27). Ezekiel speaks for Yahweh: “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them ….” (Ezekiel 37:26). Yet as sin persists, so does war. False prophets “heal the wound of the people lightly.” (Jeremiah 6:14; Ezekiel 13:16). Peace would have come, had humans not persisted in sin: “O! That you had hearkened to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea.” (Isaiah 48:18). Only in the time of full righteousness and no more sin, the people “shall bend their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4).

21. Although Jesus came as the Prince of Peace, inaugurating a kingdom of peace, He was a man of sorrows, bloodily slain on the cross. He called His disciples to share in self-sacrifice. His vision of this world was no vision of the easy triumph of justice and light. On the contrary, the vision of Jesus is a divisive force in history, dividing even families, a two-edged sword which “pierces to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12). It will divide believer from infidel. It will trouble individuals, like the rich young man (Matthew 19:16-26), and in time divide the nations. In this world Jesus does not promise peace. When Jesus speaks of peace, it is not as the absence of war between nations, or as an end to terror and lies, but, rather, as a form of knowing and being in union with God (John 17:3), a “peace which the world cannot give.” (John 14:27). It is worth noting that no one in the New Testament thinks of telling the Roman centurions to give up their military careers — neither Jesus (Matthew 8:5-13), nor John the Baptist (Luke 3:14), nor St. Paul (Acts 22:25).

22. In being condemned to a cruel death (Galatians 3:13), Jesus did not defend himself against unjust treatment and assaults upon his human dignity. He followed here not his will, but His Father’s, offering a redemptive sacrifice for all. His gentleness under torment, his non-violence, and his forgiveness of his killers have led some to choose in imitation of Him nonviolence as a way of life, both in their persons and in public policy. We recognize this choice, but believe it to be a misreading both of the Scripture and of virtually the entire Catholic tradition. We sharply distinguish between pacifism as a personal commitment, implicating only a person who is not a public figure responsible for the lives of others, and pacifism as a public policy, compromising many who are not pacifists and endangering the very possibility of pacifism itself. It is not justice if the human race as a whole or in part is heaped with indignities, spat upon, publicly humiliated, and destroyed, as Jesus was. It is not moral to permit the human race so to endure the injustice of the passion and death of Christ. Many classic arguments against pacifism as a Christian vocation have been offered in Christian history. Closest to our own time, the arguments of Reinhold Niebuhr and C. S. Lewis may be cited. While following closely the paradoxical language of the Scriptures and the Catholic tradition, and choosing against pacifism for ourselves, we honor the liberty of others to choose differently, and in particular the calling of the clergy not to take up arms.

B. Kingdom and History

23. With Pope John Paul II we hold:

“Christian optimism based on the glorious cross of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is no excuse for self- deception. For Christians, peace on earth is always a challenge because of the presence of sin in man’s heart. Although Christians put all their best energies into preventing war or stopping it, they do not deceive themselves about their ability to cause peace to triumph, nor about the effect of their efforts to this end. They therefore concern themselves with all human initiatives in favor of peace and very often take part in them. But they regard them with realism and humility. One could almost say that they relativize them in two senses: They relate them both to the self-deception of humanity and to God’s saving plan.”

24. History is open; therefore, one must always say that “Peace is possible.” On the other hand, we heed Pope John Paul II, who observes “that in this world a totally and permanently peaceful human society is unfortunately a utopia, and that ideologies that hold up that prospect as easily attainable are based on hopes that cannot be realized, whatever the reason behind them.”

25. History is full of ambiguities, contingencies, and complex patterns of fact. No two people perceive world affairs in identical fashion. Interpretations even of the simplest events radically diverge. In this respect, we cherish the wisdom of the Pastoral Constitution:

“Very often their Christian vision will suggest a certain solution in some given situation. Yet it happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that some of the faithful, with no less sincerity, will see the problem quite differently. Now if one or the other of the proposed solutions is too easily associated with the message of the Gospel, they ought to remember that in those cases no one is permitted to identify the authority of the church exclusively with his own opinion. Let them, then, try to guide each other by sincere dialogue in a spirit of mutual charity and with anxious interest above all in the common good.”

C. The Moral Choices for the Kingdom

26. From some early Christians through Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr., some Christians —joining others like Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Norman Thomas — have held that any use of military force is immoral. Yet we observe that military and police power has been necessary from time immemorial to preserve civilized societies — and pacifists themselves — against unjust aggression and brutal violation of rights. As a set of practical methods, non-violent techniques have preeminence for non-pacifists as well as pacifists. They are, after all, the stuff of diplomacy and statecraft, within which adversaries observe civil discourse and amenities of many sorts. Although a full discussion of these issues would take us too far afield, we observe that there are important distinctions to be made between force and violence, between non-violence and pacifism, and between the power and the authority of the state. For example, non-pacifists prefer non-violence to violence, respect for legitimate authority to naked state power, and legitimate uses of force to violent acts. Deterrence itself is a form of non-violence, a legitimate use of force, based upon legitimate authority.

27. While some Christian communities, such as the Mennonites, the Quakers and the Church of the Brethren, make the refusal of military service an obligation for their members, the Catholic church has not done so – indeed, has afforded many arguments, biblical and theological, moral, and political, against pacifism. In this world of sin and threat of war, for every pacifist who refuses to take up arms, some other citizen, who would also prefer to live in peace, must take his place. Nonetheless, in the full liberty of an open church, nonviolent witness through a conscientious refusal of military service has been honored in the Catholic tradition. Recognizing this liberty of conscience, we nonetheless argue against the pacifist option, as did C. S. Lewis:

“Only liberal societies tolerate Pacifists. In the liberal society, the number of Pacifists will either be large enough to cripple the state as a belligerent, or not. If not, you have done nothing. If it is large enough, then you have handed over the state which does tolerate Pacifists to its totalitarian neighbor who does not. Pacifism of this kind is taking the straight road to a world in which there will be no Pacifists.”

Thus widespread pacifism in churches and universities during the 1930s helped convince Hitler and the Japanese that the West lacked the resolve to defend itself, and encouraged them to launch World War II.

28. The pacifist refuses to restrain with proportionate force an aggressor who is injuring the innocent. By contrast, St. Augustine understood the command of love to demand a just defense of the innocent. This is because St. Augustine understood that the world of history is in part evil, and that action to restrain evil is an essential component of justice. While some Christians stress the fact that the “New Kingdom” has already come with Jesus, others, like Augustine, stress the continuing power of sin and the complex texture of social ambiguity. War, for example, may arise from human sinfulness, but it may also afford a tragic remedy for sin in political society. (It was in this spirit that we observed above that the possession of nuclear weapons has had both threatening and moderating effects during the past twenty-five years.) Moreover, if love demands the defense of others (such that a failure to defend them can be a sin), both love and justice also command self-defense. Peace is sometimes unjust; war is sometimes morally imperative. In clarifying such paradoxes, the traditional just war teaching has stood the tests of time. Many who claim to reject it do, nonetheless, invoke its criteria; as, for example, in judging nuclear weapons immoral (for lack of proportionality and lack of discrimination), in defending wars of liberation like those against Somoza and the Shah, and in opposing the U.S. presence in South Vietnam.

29. The essence of just war theory lies in the conviction that wars are wrong and to be avoided, except under quite stringent conditions. These are seven in number: (1) Only a competent authority may declare a war for the common good and in the interests of the public order. (2) It must be inspired by a just cause: such as to defend against aggression, to protect innocent life and human rights from real and certain injury and to resist tyranny. (3) A right intention must guide the purpose, means, conduct, and aims of war in the light of the “just cause.” Violence may be chosen only (4) as a last resort, when all peaceful methods of negotiation have failed, and (5) with probability of success – so that irrational resort to force is not mandated in the name of justice. The nature of the war itself must manifest (6) proportionality: the damage to be inflicted and the cost incurred must not constitute a greater evil than the evil to be avoided. (7) Just means which are both discriminate and proportional must be employed. This means that: (a) discrimination between combatants and civilians, while not easy to observe under modern conditions, must be maintained in every act of war; (b) the proportionality of each act of war derives from its indirect, collateral, and long term effects. It will be noted that common sense criticism of wars and the conduct of wars usually fall under one of these headings.

30. There are some gaps in just war theory today, since new conditions have raised new questions. Among these may be mentioned the following: (a) Does any band of idealists or cynics that takes up arms in the name of a “just cause” constitute a competent authority to launch a just war? (b) Under what circumstances, if any, are acts of terrorism (that is, violent acts directed at persons, property, or public order), for whatever motives, whether revolutionary or absurdist or other, justified? (c) Considering the current literature of instruction in the conduct of guerrilla warfare, the training of terrorists, and the techniques of espionage and subversion, what light can be shed by “just war theory” on existing practices in wide-spread underground wars? (d) According to just war theory, is a “cold war” of espionage and counter-espionage to be preferred to a “hot war” of conventional conflict, as a means of self- defense; and, if so, according to what standards of behavior? (e) Under the “paradoxes of deterrence” (to be discussed below), does the traditional teaching on “intention” have to be refined and stated more precisely? (f) If it may be concluded that a particular totalitarian regime is evil in a special way — as was the case with National Socialism under Adolf Hitler, at least from the time of the death camps in 1941 — do other nations accrue moral responsibilities, in the name of justice, for what happens within those regimes? What responsibility have citizens of one nation to be keepers of the human rights of those of another? These are only a few of the unanswered questions of our day.


  • 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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