US bishops, Vatican lead the charge for nuclear disarmament

Second of a two-part series. Read part one.

Nuclear weapons' unimaginable destructiveness seems to cloud adequate moral responses. From the vantage of the faith-based, these weapons have raised monumental moral issues -- the possession and stockpiling of them for reasons of deterrence the most vexing of them all.

Pondering the human condition in the nuclear age, issues of morality become intertwined with questions of human survivability. All this is on display as global leaders are meeting in New York for the ninth U.N.-based Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review.

The treaty was enacted in 1970 and, to date, 190 nations have signed on. By terms of the treaty, five signatory nuclear nations -- the U.S., Russia, France, England and China -- are required to move to disarm themselves of these weapons in exchange for agreements by non-nuclear signatory nations to give up ambitions to acquire such weapons.

Some estimates say that up to 40 nations now have the knowledge and capacity to build nuclear weapons, were they to set out on the path. Meanwhile, the fear that one or more of these weapons may fall into the hands of rogue terrorists continues to haunt humanity.

Catholic church leaders formally addressed the morality of nuclear weapons two decades after the dawn of the nuclear age. In a Second Vatican Council document, 1965's Gaudium et Spes ("Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World"), the bishops who gathered in Rome condemned the use of nuclear weapons.

"Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself," they stated. "It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation."

Most of those bishops still had living memories of Hiroshima and of Nagasaki (a center of Japanese Catholicism), over which the United States dropped atomic bombs, causing widespread destruction and killing 100,000 to 200,000 people.

With the U.S. being one of the two major superpowers stockpiling nuclear weapons and in the midst of a race with the Soviet Union to advance international delivery systems, U.S. bishops at first individually and later collectively began to speak out against the arms race.

One of the most notable was Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, whose archdiocese was home to the Trident Bangor Naval Base and nuclear-missile-carrying submarines.

Hunthausen grew to international prominence in June 1981, when he criticized the U.S. nuclear buildup and called the naval base, located just 20 miles from Seattle, the "Auschwitz of Puget Sound." Hunthausen called for conscientious war tax resistance, then proceeded to redirect 50 percent of his own taxes (the amount going to the military) to a peace fund.

Spurred on by Hunthausen and other bishops, including Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops took on the moral issue of nuclear weapons. For more than two years, a committee headed by Chicago Archbishop Joseph Bernardin heard testimony from ethicists, moral theologians and weapons experts.

In May 1983, after a 239 to 9 vote, the U.S. bishops issued a peace pastoral, "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response." It generated widespread attention, becoming a cover story in Newsweek and TIME and the topic of countless articles. The letter, more than 100 pages long, upheld traditional "just war theory" thinking, but with applications for the nuclear age.

The pastoral concluded that the targeting of civilian population centers, even as a retaliation measure, was morally wrong. It stated there could never be a moral justification for initiating a nuclear attack.

The question of the possession of nuclear weapons as a deterrent to war became a core issue within the pastoral. The word "deterrence" appeared dozens of times in the document. It was clear the bishops understood the moral fragility -- and paradox -- of offering any kind of moral refuge to weapons that could never be morally used.

"May a nation threaten what it may never do?" they asked. "May it possess what it may never use? Who is involved in the threat each superpower makes: government officials? or military personnel? or the citizenry in whose defense the threat is made?"

The document went on:

We see with increasing clarity the political folly of a system which threatens mutual suicide, the psychological damage this does to ordinary people, especially the young, the economic distortion of priorities -- billions readily spent for destructive instruments while pitched battles are waged daily in our legislatures over much smaller amounts for the homeless, the hungry, and the helpless here and abroad. But it is much less clear how we translate a "no" to nuclear war into the personal and public choices which can move us in a new direction, toward a national policy and an international system which more adequately reflect the values and vision of the kingdom of God.

It concluded that the bishops' assessment led them to "a strictly conditioned moral acceptance of nuclear deterrence." They quickly added that they could not consider it "adequate as a long-term basis for peace," but rather, quoting Pope John Paul II, "as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament."

The bishops wrote they could offer conditional moral support to a deterrence system only "a transitional strategy" and as part of a policy "with resolute determination to pursue arms control and disarmament."

From the moment of its 1983 publication, the pastoral set off a timer. Ethicists and others from then on found themselves asking what exactly constitutes a moral time framework for a "transitional strategy." And what measure is to be used to judge "resolute determination"?

The Vatican has also assessed the morality of nuclear weapons. With the passing years, Vatican officials have grown increasingly skeptical that the nuclear nations are moving deliberately toward nuclear disarmament.

  • In 1993, Archbishop Renato Martino, then the permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, said, "The most perilous of all Cold War assumptions carried into the new age is the belief that the strategy of nuclear deterrence is essential to a nation's security. ... Nuclear deterrence prevents genuine nuclear disarmament." Martino quoted the Holy See's words from the previous year: "The world must move to the abolition of nuclear weapons through a universal, non-discriminatory ban with intensive inspection by a universal authority."
  • In 1997, Martino, speaking at the U.N., said, "Nuclear weapons, aptly described as the 'ultimate evil,' are still possessed by the most powerful states, which refuse to let them go. ... They imperil all that humanity has ever stood for, and indeed humanity itself." He said nuclear-armed states that resist negotiations for a nuclear weapons convention "must be challenged, for in clinging to their outmoded rationales for nuclear deterrence, they are denying the most ardent aspirations of humanity."
  • In 2005, the Vatican voiced its concern that the non-proliferation treaty was collapsing. At the U.N. non-proliferation review conference, it stated: "When the Holy See expressed its limited acceptance of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War, it was with the clearly stated condition that deterrence was only a step on the way towards progressive nuclear disarmament. The Holy See has never countenanced nuclear deterrence as a permanent measure, nor does it today when it is evident that nuclear deterrence drives the development of ever newer nuclear arms, thus preventing genuine nuclear disarmament."
  • In July 2011, Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, then permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, in a major address in Kansas City, Mo., again questioned the morality of deterrence. "The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty prohibits acquisition of nuclear weapons by the vast majority of states. In conformity with the good faith principle, it cannot be lawful to continue indefinitely to possess weapons which are unlawful to use or threaten to use, or are already banned for most states, and are subject to an obligation of elimination."
  • In December 2014, the Vatican circulated a paper titled "Nuclear Disarmament: Time for Abolition" during the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. In a critical paragraph that appeared to signal a shift in Vatican thinking of deterrence, the statement said: "It is now time to question the distinction between possession and use which has long been a governing assumption of much ethical discourse on nuclear deterrence. ... The political and military officials of nuclear possessing states assume the responsibility to use these weapons if deterrence fails. But since what is intended is mass destruction -- with extensive and lasting collateral damage, inhumane suffering, and risk of escalation -- the system of nuclear weapons can no longer be deemed a policy that stands firmly on moral ground."
  • In April 2015, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the current permanent representative of the Holy See to the United Nations, quoted Pope Francis as saying that nuclear deterrence and the threat of mutually assured destruction "cannot be the basis for an ethics of fraternity and peaceful coexistence among people and states." Auza questioned the morality and logic of efforts to modernize nuclear deterrence systems, again quoting Francis: "Spending on nuclear weapons squanders the wealth of nations. To prioritize such spending is a mistake and a misallocation of resources, which would be far better invested in the areas of integral human development, education, health and the fight against extreme poverty." Auza asked whether investment in the production and modernization of nuclear weapons is "not in contradiction with the spirit of the NPT."

Auza was referring, in part, to announced U.S. plans to modernize its nuclear deterrence system at the cost of $1 trillion over the next three decades. These plans, critics hold, show that nuclear weapons have become an integral part of U.S. military policy, increasing the distance from the Vatican's and U.S. bishops' once-stated "conditional acceptance" based on steps toward progressive nuclear disarmament.

The underlying fear, critics maintain, involves a fact of logic: The longer nations rely on nuclear weapons, the higher the statistical probability of disaster.

Two questions: What will it take for nuclear nations to aggressively move toward nuclear disarmament? What will it take for Catholic leaders to outright condemn nuclear deterrence as a strategy for peace?

[Thomas C. Fox is NCR publisher. His email address is Follow him on Twitter:@NCRTomFox.]

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