Commentary Magazine

Arms & the Church

A new and startling development has taken place in the thinking of the American Catholic hierarchy on questions of war and peace. In the name of Catholic morality, and on the alleged authority of Vatican Council II, influential bishops have publicly denounced the American strategy of nuclear deterrence and have in its stead recommended a policy whose ultimate logic will demand unilateral nuclear disarmament. Such bishops have not shrunk even from the view that military defeat and surrender to superior Soviet power are morally preferable to the possession of nuclear weapons for the sake of deterrence. In the words of one Jesuit enthusiast of this new trend of thought, the position of these bishops represents a “stark and radical realism.” He calls it “an olive branch all fresh and unexpected,” and foresees the day when government officials who happen to be Catholic will have to resign their positions if they are to follow the new Church doctrine on nuclear warfare.

How has this extraordinary development come about? Its theological root lies in three key passages in the documents of Vatican II, relatively overlooked at the time; in a collective pastoral letter of the American hierarchy, Human Life in Our Day, issued on November 15, 1968; and in its sequel, To Live in Christ Jesus, issued November 11, 1976. The most decisive document of all, however, is the Senate testimony in support of SALT II offered by John Cardinal Krol on September 6, 1979, and his sermon at the White House almost one week later. Finally, in early November 1981, Archbishop John Roach, president of the Catholic bishops, brought these issues to prominence in his annual address to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. A committee of bishops under the chairmanship of Archbishop Joseph Bernardin is currently preparing a major statement on disarmament for the autumn of 1982.

Of the sixteen key documents issued by Vatican II, one, “The Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes), includes a chapter on peace and war. The three passages important for the later discussion are the following:

1. Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation, (para. 80)

2. Scientific weapons, to be sure, are not amassed solely for use in war. The defensive strength of any nation is considered to be dependent upon its capacity for immediate retaliation against an adversary. Hence this accumulation of arms, which increases each year, also serves, in a way heretofore unknown, as a deterrent to possible enemy attack. Many regard this state of affairs as the most effective way by which peace of a sort can be maintained between nations at the present time.

Whatever be the case with this method of deterrence, men should be convinced that the arms race in which so many countries are engaged is not a safe way to preserve a steady peace. (para. 81)

3. Therefore, it must be said again: the arms race is an utterly treacherous trap for humanity, and one which injures the poor to an intolerable degree. It is much to be feared that if this race persists, it will eventually spawn all the lethal ruin whose path it is now making ready. (para. 82)

These three passages are, in a sense, traditional enough, and perhaps that is why initially they were not widely noted. Yet they are preceded by a curious phrase, whose ambiguity opened a Pandora’s box. Speaking of “the horror and perversity of war . . . [which have been] immensely magnified by the multiplication of scientific weapons,” paragraph 80 opens by announcing: “All these considerations compel us to undertake an evaluation of war with an entirely new attitude” (emphasis added).

Earlier, Pope John XXIII in Pacem in Terris (1963) had likewise employed an ambiguous sentence: “Thus, in this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice.”1

Some have used this passage, and also Pope John’s failure to mention the right of a people to defend itself, to argue that the Church has abandoned its teaching on just war in the case of atomic power. But it is not credible that after fifteen centuries, the Church would simply discard its teaching on just war without saying so explicitly and clearly. Indeed, the Vatican II documents, despite the ambiguity noted above, are in general clear on this point: “As long as the danger of war remains and there is no competent and sufficiently powerful authority at the international level, governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defense once every means of settlement has been exhausted” (para. 79).

Moreover, the search for the new, precisely qua new, is a departure from traditional Catholic realism. From that point of view, the “new” is a dangerous criterion. Nevertheless, by 1968 the U.S. Catholic bishops were calling upon “American Catholics to evaluate war with that ‘entirely new attitude’ for which the Council appealed.” To be sure, they recognized “the right of legitimate self-defense and, in a world society still unorganized, the necessity for recourse to armed defense and to collective security action.” They regarded members of the armed forces as “agents of security and freedom on behalf of their people.” But they also included a curious paragraph that was a portent of things to come:

Nothing more dramatically suggests the anti-life direction of technological warfare than the neutron bomb; one philosopher declares that the manner in which it would leave entire cities intact, but totally without life, makes it, perhaps, the symbol of our civilization.

The bishops duly noted that “The Council did not call for unilateral disarmament; Christian morality is not lacking in realism.” They did, however, support the Non-Proliferation Treaty then before the Senate, “despite, and even because of, the provocations in Eastern Europe and elsewhere,” their phrase’ for the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that summer. Furthermore, they opposed the anti-ballistic-missile system, and they made the following sweeping assertion:

We seriously question whether the present policy of maintaining nuclear superiority is meaningful for security. There is no advantage to be gained by nuclear superiority, however it is computed, when each side is admittedly capable of inflicting overwhelming damage on the other, even after being attacked first. Such effective parity has been operative for some years.

It is important to recall that this statement was issued in 1968, just after Robert McNamara had frozen the U.S. ICBM force at 1,054 and had begun sustained reductions in the B-52 bomber fleet and the interceptor fighter fleet, which eventually were to reduce the former from 1,364 in 1964 to 316 by 1980 and the latter from 1,800 to 312.

Eight years later, in To Live in Christ Jesus (1976), the bishops were already thinking “with an entirely new attitude.” They began by raising a question:

The Church has traditionally recognized that, under stringent conditions, engaging in war can be a form of legitimate defense. But modern warfare, both in its technology and in its execution, is so savage that one must ask whether war as it is actually waged today can be morally justified.

They went on to limit the right to self-defense:

The right of legitimate defense is not a moral justification for unleashing every form of destruction. For example, acts of war deliberately directed against innocent noncombatants are gravely wrong, and no one may participate in such an act.

They then advanced a prohibition against the threat—that is, the intention—of deterrence. This was to become the wedge of future developments:

With respect to nuclear weapons, at least those with massive destructive capability, the first imperative is to prevent their use. 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 stage was now set for Cardinal Krol’s dramatic testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 6, 1979, critical of the opponents of SALT II and strongly in favor of the agreement. The choice of Cardinal Krol, an ecclesiastical conservative and close associate of Pope John Paul II, was itself significant, and his testimony is widely regarded as a breakthrough. Father Francis X. Winters, the Jesuit professor at Georgetown whose words I quoted at the beginning of this article, says it “may come in time to be counted among the most prophetic and courageous words spoken by any religious leader in the 20th century.”2

Cardinal Krol made a number of important qualifications at the beginning of his testimony. Citing the principles of Vatican II, he properly observed the gap between them and the specific legislation on which he was testifying. Next he confessed that this gap “admits a divergence of views.” Finally, he was careful to say that his position was “not a unanimous position within the conference of bishops nor is it the unanimous position of all Catholics in the United States.” Still, it did represent “the official policy of the U.S. Catholic Conference, and in expressing it, we bishops seek to fulfill a role of responsible citizenship as well as religious leadership.”

The particular perspective shaping Cardinal Krol’s testimony, he said, “judges that some forms of war can be morally legitimate, but judges that nuclear war surpasses the boundaries of legitimate self-defense.” Then he came to the heart of his new doctrine, which rests on the Catholic teaching concerning intention. Catholics consider it immoral not only to perform an evil act but even to mean to perform it: deliberately and willfully to form such an intention, even in one’s heart. The evil of murder, for example, occurs not only in the deed but even in the premeditated resolve to do it. The Cardinal applied this principle to the strategy of deterrence:

The moral judgment of this statement is that not only the use of strategic nuclear weapons, but also the declared intent to use them involved in our deterrence policy is wrong. This explains the Catholic dissatisfaction with nuclear deterrence and the urgency of the Catholic demand that the nuclear arms race be reversed. It is of the utmost importance that negotiations proceed to meaningful and continuing reductions in nuclear stockpiles, and eventually, to the phasing out altogether of nuclear deterrence and the threat of mutual-assured destruction. [Emphasis added]

Only the “hope” of phasing out nuclear arms permits Catholics, “while negotiations proceed, to tolerate the possession of nuclear weapons for deterrence as the lesser of two evils.” Absent that hope, the Cardinal would condemn “both use and possession of such weapons.”

The Cardinal was not yet ready to demand unilateral nuclear disarmament. Since weapons don’t fire themselves, their mere possession, he conceded, is morally neutral. He did not allow, however, any intention to use them. This prohibition leads logically to having no deterrent at all, i.e., to unilateral nuclear disarmament. It also completely undercuts the moral basis of official U.S. deterrence policy.

That the Cardinal both did and did not face the ultimate logic of his premises was shown by the sermon he preached at the White House six days later, pondering the prospect of military defeat for a United States that had renounced the use and the threat of deterrence:

This does not mean we accept as inevitable the conquest of the world by a totalitarian system. . . . History goes on and political systems are subject to change. As long as life exists there is hope, hope that God’s grace will enable suffering and oppressed peoples to endure.

Father Winters, at any rate, was ready to draw out approvingly the implications of Cardinal Krol’s sermon:

Our security is not compatible, he argues, with the use of nuclear weapons. It is compatible, though arduously so, with military defeat. . . . Security depends on restraint, the unilateral renunciation of the intention to light the fuse that links the superpowers. Security may dictate surrender.

Individual bishops have gone further than Cardinal Krol in advocating steps to be taken in line with the “new attitude.” Archbishop Hunthausen of Seattle has urged Catholics in his diocese to withhold from the Internal Revenue Service the 50 percent of their taxes which, by his calculations, goes into the arms build-up. Bishop Matthiesen of Amarillo has urged Catholics working in a nuclear-arms plant in his diocese to quit their jobs. With a sudden rush, nearly 60 of the 350 U.S. bishops have joined Pax Christi, an international Catholic disarmament movement. A large number of bishops and priests have demanded that the U.S. Navy rename the nuclear submarine Corpus Christi, named for the city in Texas, thinking it “almost sacrilegious” so to use the name of Christ. As for Father Winters, he applauds the bishops for having

formulated a position that imposes on Catholic officials of our government the burden of choosing between their consciences, as illuminated by Church teaching, and their professional careers and commitments.

Among those “thrust into the dilemma of choosing between politics and religion . . . their constitutional responsibilities and their conscience,” Father Winters lists the President and executive-branch officials, the military chain of command, the present Secretary of State, the Speaker of the House, and “approximately 30 percent of the U.S. Army personnel” who are Catholic.



All sane persons have as their first priority no use of nuclear weapons. There is no real debate about that goal. Yet in their enthusiasm for evaluating war “with an entirely new attitude,” the reasoning of the bishops becomes less religious than political, and partisan in a secular way. By stating the issue the way they have, they are virtually certain to bring about a real schism in the Church—and between the Church and other portions of U.S. society.

When secular critics reach the same conclusions as the bishops, on similar secular grounds, one may argue with them fact for fact, concept for concept, and one may also take the issue to citizens at the polls. The bishops, in their strategy for “peace,” are subject to no such checks and balances. They can claim, as others scarcely can, to speak for the Church and to bar dissenters under pain of sin from the sacraments. This is a dangerous power, invoking sacred authority for a position to which others have strong and reasoned objections.

Even on theological grounds it is an error for the bishops to believe that they comprise the part of the Church most competent and most directly called by God to illuminate what human beings, living under nuclear threat, ought to do to maintain peace. There are many lay Catholics whose entire adult lives have been spent studying such perplexities. It is entirely possible that the most devout believer, sharing every one of the bishops’ theological principles, might, nonetheless, perceive facts differently and make sharply divergent analyses at any number of crucial turning points, and arrive at a diametrically opposed strategy for peace.

Take, for example, the question of “intention” and “threat to use” raised by Cardinal Krol. Suppose that a U.S. President were to follow the Cardinal’s prescription and announce publicly that, even though the U.S. maintained a nuclear deterrent, he had no intention of ever using it under any conditions. It is unlikely that Soviet leaders would believe such words. But they might be inclined, little by little, to test them. Would that not induce a war of nerves far more dangerous than anything yet experienced?

One must distinguish, as well, between objective and subjective intentions. In order to maintain a nuclear force, a carefully constructed plan must be coordinated, a type of “architectonic” which, for Aristotle, is a classic form of political intention. This intention would be present even if leaders in any one administration privately and subjectively decided never to use or to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. Then too, the degree of intention required for deterrence depends upon the actions of the adversary to be deterred. Absent a Soviet threat, U.S. deterrence could operate at a very low level indeed. Thus, the relative nuclear decline of the U.S. between 1968 and 1980, had it been imitated by the Soviets, would have diminished the role of nuclear arms in the present period. Yet it does not seem that a strategy of weakness deters the USSR.

That Cardinal Krol’s view of these matters is not the only possible Catholic response is clear from the fact that a contrary view was voiced only recently by Terence Cardinal Cooke of New York, who is responsible as Military Vicar for pastoral care of all Catholics in military service. In that capacity he sent a letter to chaplain on December 7, 1981, the fortieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

Cardinal Cooke began by recalling that “The Church has traditionally taught and continues to teach that a government has both the right and the duty to protect its people against unjust aggression. This means that it is legitimate to develop and maintain weapons systems to try to prevent war by ‘deterring’ another nation from attacking. Very simply put, police carry guns for the same reason.” He went on:

Although the Church urges nations to design better ways—ideally, nonviolent ways—of maintaining peace, it recognizes that as long as we have good reason to believe that another nation would be tempted to attack us if we could not retaliate, we have the right to deter attack by making it clear that we could retaliate. In very simple terms, this is the “strategy of deterrence” we hear so much about. It is not a desirable strategy. It can be terribly dangerous. Government leaders and peoples of all nations have a grave moral obligation to come up with alternatives. But as long as our nation is sincerely trying to work with other nations to find a better way, the Church considers the strategy of nuclear deterrence morally tolerable; not satisfactory, but tolerable. As a matter of fact, millions of people may be alive in the world today precisely because government leaders in various nations know that if they attacked other nations, at least on a large scale, they, themselves, could suffer tremendous losses of human life or even be destroyed. . . .

The Church does not require, nor have the Popes of the nuclear age or the Second Vatican Council recommended, unilateral disarmament.

Within forty-eight hours after his letter became public, Cardinal Cooke was scathingly attacked by some clergy and laity who claimed he was out of step with the Church. Even Archbishop Roach, interviewed by the press, averred that Cardinal Cooke had not made all the new distinctions current since 1976. Still, as the example of Cardinal Cooke indicates, the bishops’ understanding of Vatican II does not go unchallenged even within their own ranks. Bishop John J. O’Connor, Vicar General of the Military Vicarate, has written a book, In Defense of Life, showing that the Church has not abandoned its traditional just-war theory, its resistance to unilateral disarmament, or its toleration of deterrence as a necessary evil. And a Jesuit professor of government at Georgetown, James V. Schall, has gone through all the papal and conciliar teachings on war and peace and reported similar conclusions.



From a theological and moral point of view, the most questionable maneuver of the bishops is to write and speak as if they possess an Olympian view and inhabit a neutral zone. Although Archbishop Bernardin recognizes that “the enormous build-up of nuclear and conventional arms procured by the Soviet Union in recent years has done more than its share to heighten the peril of the present moment,” he concludes from this that the “duty of responsible moral action falls equally on both superpowers.”

In their “neutrality” as between the U.S. and the USSR, the bishops also distance themselves from the concept of American national security. Thus Cardinal Krol in his White House sermon:

. . . should we not, as Christians, reject the actual use of such weapons, whatever the consequences? At the point of such decisions I submit, our political and military authorities are responsible to a higher set of values; no longer are they defending “the national security,” they are defending human values, the survival and future welfare of the whole human race.

Cardinal Krol seems to imagine here that national security has nothing to do with “liberty and justice for all,” and that human values have an existence so separate from the security of the U.S. that even with the collapse of American power these values would not be threatened.

Let us suppose, for a moment, that the human race were to come under the tutelage of the USSR and, further, that rival factions in the socialist world threatened one another with nuclear arms. In that case, the “neutrality” of the bishops would not have succeeded even in banishing the specter of nuclear destruction, only in surrendering the fate of humanity into Soviet hands.



The bishops speak in the name of peace, and claim, with their “entirely new attitude,” to have developed a strategy for peace. Yet the peace of the world has never been purchased through surrender. Cardinal Krol cites “the history of certain countries occupied during World War II” to show that there are “other means of resistance” than nuclear arms—forgetting the annihilation of sixteen million persons under that “resistance.” Throughout the postwar era, it is the American deterrent that has kept the nuclear peace. Renouncing that deterrent would be as sure a way of bringing about war as one could devise. Such a consequence cannot be moral.

Already the imbalance in nuclear power that has developed in recent years through the unprecedented Soviet build-up of nuclear arms has created an atmosphere of peril. General Andrew J. Goodpaster has recently remarked that the Soviet SS-20’s now ringing Europe are the most effective weapon he has seen in his lifetime. Without ever being expended, without ever requiring a single loss to Soviet equipment or life, they have terrorized Europe, plunged NATO into crisis, and led Western churchmen and others to plead for further weakness.

The bishops seem to be willing, with Archbishop Bernardin, “to have our own principles, to be prepared to live by them and, in faith, to accept the consequences of doing so.” Or, in the sermon of Cardinal Krol, to accept submission, as Eastern Europe has done since World War II. This they demand in the name of “faith” and “citizenship.” Yet this cannot be the demand of Catholic faith or of the American experiment in liberty. Such a strategy will not guarantee escape from future nuclear disaster, but leave it solely at the discretion of totalitarian leaders. It will certainly imperil the liberty we have, through the grace of God, inherited. Perhaps the Church is ready to live under totalitarian conditions, but a free people sworn to defend free institutions cannot.

The point of deterrence is to deter. Weapons do not fire themselves; neither do they deter by themselves. Where the will is lacking, deterrence is absent. Blackmail is potent. To deter nuclear disaster and the spread of totalitarian power is not a pleasant business. It is not a form of cheap grace. It demands of us extremes of self-discipline and self-sacrifice. “National security” is not separable from the defense of free institutions, built at the cost of so much intellectual diligence, sweat, and blood. Freedoms of religion, thought, association, speech, and heart have their existence only within institutions and under governments of certain sorts. To treat these cavalierly as dispensable is an outrage to civilization itself.

Those who choose deterrence do not choose less than the highest human values; they choose the only state of development within which humans would freely choose to live. It is not “better to be dead than red”; it is better to be neither. As the history of our time amply demonstrates, some choosing the latter have not avoided the former. Avoidance of both sickening alternatives is the moral good which deterrence, and deterrence alone, effects.

The bishops hold the American system cheap, in that they would be willing to surrender it in order to have clean hands. They use the freedom purchased for them by the strategy of deterrence they decry to look down upon those who keep them free. Insofar as they claim to speak not solely for themselves but for all Catholics, their political views need to be questioned and their appeals to “faith” exposed for the wishfulness that they are. Insofar as they seek a role as citizens, their words carry no special moral or spiritual weight, but need to be tested against the plainly expressed will of the American people, who have chosen to preserve their institutions through deterring both nuclear war and totalitarian night. That is a moral, religious, and political good worth the sacrifice of one’s life and energies, if anything in history has ever been.


1 Other published translations read: “. . . it is hardly possible to imagine that in an atomic era war could be used as an instrument of justice.” Again: “. . . it is irrational to think that war is a proper way to obtain justice for violated rights.”

2 “The Bow or The Cloud,” America, July 25, 1981.

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