The Apostolic Mission of Catholic Bishops in the Political Order

In their 1968 pastoral letter “Human Life in Our Day,” the American bishops reiterated the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that it is a crime against God and man to use weapons that indiscriminately destroy whole cities or vast areas and their inhabitants. This statement was reaffirmed in January 1976 by Archbishop Peter Gerety of Newark, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations committee. Archbishop Gerety added the following:

While use is prohibited, the possession of these weapons for deterrence may possibly be legitimated as the lesser of two evils, (and) . . . even deterrence is questionable unless it is conceived as an interim expedient accompanied by extraordinary efforts to negotiate their limitation and reduction.

In light of these principles, Gerety criticized U.S. policy for being prepared to use nuclear weapons against cities. He tacitly sanctioned possession of a nuclear deterrent targeted against cities as long as the United States intended never to use the weapons. He said nothing about the continuous and persuasive deception that this strategy requires —- that in order for it to work, the Soviet Union must believe the U.S. is willing to use the deterrent.

In November 1976 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops added significantly to its teaching on nuclear weapons in a letter entitled “To Live in Christ Jesus: A Pastoral Reflection on the Moral Life.” The bishops asserted that not only the use of strategic nuclear weapons but also the declared intent to use them is wrong:

As possessors of a vast nuclear arsenal, we must also be aware that not only is it wrong to attack civilian populations, but it is also wrong to threaten to attack them as part of a “strategy of deterrence.”

The bishops did not say it is wrong to possess nuclear weapons but seemed to distinguish between the intent to use and possession. The question naturally arises whether the very possession of nuclear weapons constitutes a declared intent to use them.

In September 1979, the bishops further elaborated their thinking on nuclear weapons through testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee delivered by John Cardinal Krol, Archbishop of Philadelphia. They explicitly argued that they would be willing to tolerate the possession of nuclear weapons for deterrence as the lesser of two evils, as long as negotiations proceeded toward “the phasing out altogether of nuclear deterrence and the threat of mutually assured destruction.” If the hope for negotiations disappeared, “the moral attitude of the Catholic Church would almost certainly have to shift to one of uncompromising condemnation of both use and possession of such weapons.” In this statement the bishops reaffirmed their view that “the declared intent to use (strategic nuclear weapons) involved in our deterrence policy is wrong.”

At their annual meeting last November, the bishops discussed the second draft of a pastoral letter on war and peace, the final version of which should be issued in May 1983. The basic thrust of the letter, especially the section on deterrence, is more easily understood in the light of the bishops’ previous statements on nuclear weapons. I know of no episcopal statement on any political issue which takes such pains to elaborate Catholic social teaching. A committee of five bishops consulted widely before issuing the first and second drafts of the letter, and nearly three hundred bishops discussed the second draft for four days at the meeting in November. While the letter makes a number of good points, it still contains serious deficiencies. Terrence Cardinal Cooke, Archbishop of New York, prudently sounded a quiet alarm in his address to the bishops, saying that the comments he received from people in his Archdiocese “indicated the great potential which this draft has for seriously dividing our Church and nation.” Archbishop Pio Laghi, said the bishops should speak “with Clarity and the greatest possible unanimity” and that any teaching which “is either muted or fractionalized would not serve the best interests of either the Church or the world.”

The main reason why the proposed pastoral letter has a divisive potential is its failure to distinguish Catholic social teaching from partisan politics. The letter does not clearly separate the teaching of Catholic principles on war and peace (for example, just war theory and pacifism) from partisan policy proposals and judgments of fact (for example, endorsement of a bilateral freeze and assessments of the Soviet Union). This distinction ought to be made crystal clear so as to minimize the danger of causing division in the Church or hostility toward the bishops because of policy disagreements. As Joseph Cardinal Doffner, the Chairman of the West German Conference of Bishops, said:

On the question of what is the best way to achieve disarmament or which way peace can be most effectively guaranteed, there is justified room for various opinions. Within this range of opinion, the Church cannot take one as the only Christian option.
If the bishops fail to distinguish principles from policy, the result will be confusion and even embitterment in the laity. People will surely resent their spiritual leaders using religious authority to promote partisan political goals.

From all appearances, the episcopal leadership doesn’t realize that the proposed pastoral letter is a mixture of principles and policies. Consider the following remark by Joseph Bernadin, Archbishop of Chicago, in his presentation of the letter to his fellow bishops. “We have maintained throughout the letter the specific role of religious-moral teachers.” A close examination of the letter reveals that this assertion is inaccurate. While the bishops do speak as religious-moral teachers in parts of the letter, they also make technical judgments of fact and endorse partisan policy proposals. For example, they argue that deterrence is a “sinful situation” because it is immoral either to threaten or to intend to use strategic nuclear weapons against civilians. This moral condemnation rests on a judgment of fact about U.S. deterrence policy. Is this an accurate assessment? Some think not, arguing that U.S. weapons are targeted against military and industrial targets, including Soviet leadership and command centers, but not directly against civilian populations. If this indeed is the fact, then the moral judgment of the bishops on the threat to use weapons might be different.

Similarly, the bishops make judgments of fact about the Soviet Union. They argue that neither the Soviet Union nor its leaders are monsters, although they concede that Soviet behavior is sometimes monstrous; that groups of people “obsessively” believe Soviet policy to be “directed by irrational leaders striving insanely for world conquest at any costs.” The bishops make little of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviet inspired suppression in Poland or the totalitarian aspects of domestic politics in the Soviet Union itself, and the effects of such harsh domestic policies on foreign policy. In short, the bishops’ view of the Soviet Union is the same one that prevails in left of center political circles. This view may or may not be correct but surely it cannot be subsumed under the bishops’ religious-moral teaching.

The bishops also propose a number of policies which belong to the realm of partisan politics rather than that of religious-moral teaching. For example, they call for an immediate bilateral verifiable freeze on the testing, production and deployment of new strategic systems. They also argue against developing weapons with a “hard-target kill” capability, against seeking military superiority over the Soviet Union, and against having the kind of nuclear weapons which would give the U.S. a war-fighting capability.

I am not arguing that the bishops should stay out of politics. It is entirely appropriate that they become involved in the policy-making process, but not in the manner of an ordinary interest group. I would like to propose the following guidelines. When bishops engage in partisan politics, they must clearly indicate that their policy positions are not part of the official teaching on faith and morals. Second, before making specific legislative proposals, the bishops should be sure to have heard all relevant information about an issue. In other words, bishops should know well the rationale and elements of every significant contending position on the topic they are addressing. Third, they ought to show familiarity with all relevant arguments in their text or notes. Fourth, if, after hearing the various sides of an issue the bishops think they should recommend a specific policy, they should do so in a manner which distinguishes their proposals from those of secular interest groups. For example, they should avoid ideological arguments. As Pope John Paul II explained:

Pastors, having to devote themselves to unity, will strip themselves of all politico-party ideology. In this way, they will be free to evangelize the political scene following the example of Christ starting from a Gospel without party bias or ideologization (emphasis added).

Bishops must avoid allowing differences about partisan politics to cause disunity in the Church. Fifth, they must avoid giving the impression that their policy positions are the only possible solutions to particular problems. Lastly, proposals about specific policies should not be made at the expense of promoting justice through evangelization and education in Catholic social doctrine (a subdivision of evangelization), the means by which the bishops will have the greatest impact on the mores and laws of the nation. In the words of Pope John Paul II to the Latin American bishops at Puebla, Mexico, “We shall reach man, we shall reach justice through evangelization.”

A second serious deficiency of the letter is that the theology supporting observations on deterrence is not sufficiently clear, consistent or comprehensive. The bishops should explain how they reconcile toleration of deterrence with their assertion that it is wrong both to threaten and to intend to use nuclear weapons. They seem to be saying that deterrence, which depends on convincing your enemy that you will retaliate if attacked, is sinful in itself yet morally tolerable under certain circumstances. The bishops would be more consistent if they found deterrence morally intolerable because they judge major elements of U.S. policy on deterrence immoral.

To support their position on deterrence the bishops cite a statement found in Pope John Paul’s address in June 1982 to the U.N. Second Special Session on Disarmament.

In current conditions ‘deterrence’ based on balance, certainly not an end in itself but as a step on the way toward progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable.

Commenting on this statement, the bishops write: “The emphasis on these two elements helps form the basis for our judgment on deterrence in this pastoral letter.” John Paul’s statement does not, however, provide support for the bishops assertion that deterrence is wrong yet morally tolerable. The pope says deterrence is “morally” acceptable but rightly adds that no one should feel secure relying on deterrence as an end in itself. John Paul II does not say that deterrence is morally wrong. John Cardinal Krol respectfully criticized the pope’s characterization of deterrence as “morally acceptable.”

With due deference, I suggest that the word “tolerable” is more precise than the word “acceptable.” Toleration is a passive living with something that is less than satisfactory and doing so only for a greater good.

The bishops ought to make known in the letter that the pope’s position on deterrence is different from theirs, especially since they directly appeal to his authority to justify their own position on deterrence.

Thirdly, the bishops’ statement on pacifism is incomplete and extremely misleading. They say that the Second Vatican Council clearly endorsed the position that conscientious objection to all war is a valid Christian option. The key passages from the Council to which the bishops refer in their notes are these:

We cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in the vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are otherwise available to weaker parties too, provided this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others or of the community itself.
It seems right that laws make humane provisions for those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided however that they accept some other form of service to the human community.

The first passage qualifies the defense of individual rights by requiring that the prior rights of the political community be upheld. The second passage clearly indicates a preference for laws allowing general and selective conscientious objection but does not assert that morality requires such laws. Commenting on the section of Gaudium et Spes from which the second quotation was taken, French theologian Rene Coste pointed out that Catholic doctrine recognizes conscientious objection —providing it is not inspired by egoism, comfort, or anarchy — as “an exceptional vocation of a prophetic kind.” As for selective conscientious objection, Coste wrote: “Catholic tradition not only regards it as permissible, but expressly forbids participation in an unjust war.”

In their addresses to the bishops both Cardinal Krol and Philip Hannan, Archbishop of New Orleans, rightly argue that the pastoral letter does not uphold clearly enough Catholic teaching on a nation’s right to self- defense. There is nothing comparable to Pope John Paul’s forceful statement in his 1982 World Day of Peace message:

Christians, even as they strive to resist and prevent every form of warfare, have no hesitation in recalling that, in the name of an elementary requirement of justice, peoples have a right and even a duty to protect their existence and freedom by proportionate means against an unjust aggressor.

In addition, the bishops argue against the NATO strategy of relying on tactical nuclear weapons as a means of repelling an attack by the Soviet Union with conventional weapons. They make this argument, however, without calling for a conventional build-up in Europe. At present it is probably universally agreed that NATO conventional forces are no match for Soviet conventional forces. It is at least arguable whether the United States and NATO should publicly declare that they will not use nuclear weapons in Europe before having sufficient conventional weapons to resist a Soviet attack. A no-first-use declaration without adequate conventional weapons could well undermine the defense of Western Europe.

Lastly, it is noteworthy that the bishops do not refer to the following passage made by Pope John Paul II in a message to the U.N. General Assembly’s Special Session on Disarmament in June, 1982.

May I close with one last consideration. The production and the possession of armaments are a consequence of an ethical crisis that is disrupting society in all its political, social and economic dimensions. Peace, as I have already said several times, is the result of respect for ethical principles. True disarmament, that which will actually guarantee peace among peoples, will come about only with the resolution of this ethical crisis. To the extent that the efforts at arms reduction and then of total disarmament are not matched by parallel ethical renewal, they are doomed in advance to failure.

The attempt must be made to put our world aright and to eliminate the spiritual confusion born from a narrow-minded search for interest or privilege or by the defense of ideological claims: this is a task of first priority if we wish to measure any progress in the struggle for disarmament. Otherwise we are condemned to remain at face-saving activities.

What John Paul II understands by “ethical crisis” is at least partially revealed in a speech delivered in November 1981 to a group of scholars gathered in Rome to discuss “The Crisis of the West and Europe’s Spiritual Task.”

The roots and sources of the threatening situation in which mankind finds itself at the end of this second millenium of Christianity are profound and many-sided. They arise ultimately from a crisis of culture, from collapse or fading of common values and generally binding ethical and religious principles. But for their part, the great ideologies of modern times have in the meantime exhausted their roles as secular forms of substitutes for religions.

Pope John Paul II, on November 9, 1982, made a dramatic appeal to European nations to undertake a profound spiritual and moral renewal:

I, Bishop of Rome and Shepherd of the Universal Church, from Santiago, utter to you, Europe of the ages, a cry full of love: Find yourself again. Be yourself. Discover your origins, revive your roots. . . If Europe again opens its doors to Christ . . . then Europe’s future will not be dominated by uncertainty and fear.

Should not the American bishops speak in the mode of John Paul II to the American people? Does not the United States suffer from the same spiritual crisis as Europe. It is more important for the bishops in the United States to get to the root of contemporary spiritual crises than to support liberal or conservative positions on nuclear policy. At the very least, the bishops’ letter on war and peace ought to be arranged so that their religious-moral teaching stands out with unmistakable clarity and cogency. Pope John Paul’s 1982 World Day of Peace Message could well serve as a model.

The specter of a nuclear holocaust is so menacing and the spiritual crisis so grave that the United States and the world can ill afford Catholic bishops who squander their religious authority. Catholics and the wider political community desperately need religious leadership. Americans need a pastoral letter from the bishops that rises above ordinary partisan politics, clearly exposes the serious threat posed by the existence of nuclear weapons and inspires both citizens and leaders to do everything possible, in the short term, to preserve peace, and, in the long term, to overcome the ethical and spiritual crises which lie at the root of our political problems. “Otherwise we are condemned to remain at face-saving activities.”

  • J. Brian Benestad

    J. Brian Benestad is a member of the Theology and Religious Studies faculty at the University of Scranton.

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