Vatican questions nuclear deterrence

THIS CATHOLIC’S VIEW By Thomas J. Reese, S.J. Not only is the use of nuclear weapons immoral, the conditions that … Continued


By Thomas J. Reese, S.J.

Not only is the use of nuclear weapons immoral, the conditions that allowed the Catholic Church to tolerate nuclear deterrence no longer apply, the Vatican representative to the United Nations said in little noticed speeches in Washington and New York City.

Archbishop Celestino Migliore spoke at forums sponsored by the Woodstock Theological Center, which is based at Georgetown University. The forums took place on March 16 at Georgetown University and on April 13 at St. Ignatius Church in New York City.

At the forums, the nuncio laid out the moral case against nuclear weapons. In the past the use of nuclear weapons was condemned by the church, he said, but nuclear deterrence was granted conditional acceptance during the Cold War.

It was always difficult for the church to accept deterrence. Both conservative and liberal moralists asked: How can it be moral to threaten to do something that is immoral?

Acceptance of deterrence was conditioned on 1) the sole use of nuclear weapons for deterrence against nuclear attack, which means renouncing their first use, especially against nonnuclear threats; 2) limiting the number and kinds of weapons to those sufficient for deterrence; 3) moving toward progressive nuclear disarmament.

To the extent that a nation’s nuclear policy strays from these conditions, it would be judged morally problematic. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been some reduction in the number of nuclear weapons, but rather than foreswearing first use, nuclear powers have upgraded their weapons to make them more usable.

“Nuclear weapons are no longer just for deterrence but have become entrenched in the military doctrines of the major powers,” Archbishop Migliore said. “A war-fighting strategy using nuclear weapons has been put in place.”

While acknowledging that the recent US Nuclear Posture Review “seems to move toward less emphasis on nuclear weapons,” Archbishop Migliore said, “Nevertheless it describes the role of nuclear armament to deter a nuclear attack as fundamental albeit not the sole one.”

Archbishop Migliore told the Woodstock forum audiences, “The conditions that prevailed during the Cold War, which gave a basis for the Church’s limited toleration of nuclear deterrence, no longer apply in a consistent and effective manner.”

“Clearly the conditions for the moral acceptability of deterrence are not being met,” concludes Gerard Powers of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute, a leading Catholic thinker on these issues, in the May 17 issue of America. He argues that nuclear disarmament “is not a utopian dream but rather a realistic policy objective that can be achieved.”

The Catholic Church has been speaking out on nuclear issues over the past couple of months, but its message has been drowned out by media coverage of the sexual abuse crisis.

On April 7, the Vatican newspaper praised the U.S.-Russian disarmament treaty (START II) as a “significant and courageous step toward international security.” L’Osservatore Romano agreed with President Obama that the major nuclear threat now comes from terrorists not from any country.

At his weekly general audience on May 5, Pope Benedict XVI called on world leaders to work to stop the spread of nuclear weapons with the goal of complete nuclear disarmament. “I encourage the initiatives aimed at progressive disarmament and the creation of zones free from nuclear arms in the prospect of their complete elimination from the planet,” he said. The Vatican would especially like to see the Middle East become a nuclear free zone.

Likewise, the U.S. bishops welcomed the signing of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and urged bipartisan support for it in the U.S. Senate. “Based on a moral imperative to rid the world of nuclear weapons,” said Cardinal Francis George, “the Conference of Bishops will be a steadfast supporter of strong and bipartisan action on the new START Treaty as an important and essential step toward a nuclear-weapons-free future.”

In his April 8 letter to President Obama, Cardinal George also supported passage of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor nonproliferation.

“What the church rejects is the widely held view that nuclear weapons bring security but nuclear disarmament would bring insecurity,” say Powers. Granted how technology has failed us on Wall Street and in the Gulf of Mexico, basing our security on nuclear weapons is very scary.

If your only source of news on the Catholic Church is the secular media, you might think that sexual abuse by priests, abortion and gay marriage are the only topics of interest for the church. These are certainly legitimate topics for the media, but we should not ignore the Vatican and the U.S. bishops when they speak out on important issues of justice and peace.

Thomas J. Reese, S.J., is a Senior Fellow, Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University.

By Thomas J. Reese | 
May 12, 2010; 1:04 PM ET

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  • schnauzer21

    ” How can it be moral to threaten to do something that is immoral?”Ever read the bible? Wasn’t it god (or maybe Jesus, don’t quite remember) who told followers that if they came across people who chose not to believe in one specific religion (the supposedly moral way) that they should be threatened with death and killed if they still didn’t repent? This coming from the church of the Inquisition and the recent child abuse scandal. They have absolutely no leg to stand on when it comes to morality.

  • jimwalters1

    YEAL9:Your examples illustrate just how useless nukes are in deterring terrorist attacks. Some of the targets you listed were nuclear nations, but the attacks came anyway. Why? Because deterrence implies a readiness to use nukes in retaliation. Even Israel, who has nukes and is not noticeably hesitant about kicking terrorist butt, knows better than to use nukes in retaliation for conventional terrorism.First is the problem of who you would nuke. Who would you nuke in retaliation for Fort Hood? Unless there is a clearcut state sponsor, you have no target. Even if you have an obvious target you run into the problem of proportionality. “You set off a carbomb and killed 100 of our people, so we will set off a nuke and kill 100,000 of your people.” That is so disproportionate that it could only be termed a war crime. At best, nukes can deter nuclear states from providing nukes to terrorists. Past that they are worthless.

  • usapdx

    And how whould you adviced President Truman?

  • diplomacy101

    Why doesn’t the Clergy stick to “its Church” Business (god) and leave the “State” Business to the Politicians (secular)?

  • fork-tongue

    Mr.. The RCC should consider PEDOPHILE-DETERRENCE first and make this a priority before the Vatican gets destroyed if neglected.It’s too soon for the RCC to embark on a non Church Diplomatic/Political/STATE Issue. Abortion and unwanted Baby’s we understand. Condoms, Malaria, Poor, helping the local Community I understand.As someone here wisely stated, “Leave the Politics to the Politicians and the Religions to the Religionists. Question: Is it true that the RCC secretly invests heavily in “Public Company’s” that generate electricity via Nuclear Technologies. Or is this only a rumor?

  • garoth

    The statement reveals a basic fallacy in the church’s theology. The church feels it must make its theology “reasonable” to a world that believes retaliation and murder of innocents to be “reasonable.” The church has bought into the ideology of the world, rather than espousing the viewpoint of Jesus. The theology of the church need not be “reasonable,” in fact, if it is “reasonable” to a sinful world, there is something terribly wrong with it. The job of the church is to proclaim how things are in the kingdom, and what living in that kingdom requires of us. In this case, war is evil – always. It stands against God’s purposes. Those who plan wars are doing the devil’s work – for the one they are planning to kill is their brother and sister, and a child precious to God. Evil means cannot produce righteous ends – to plan to kill a brother, is to plan to kill Christ, for he is always in the “least.” AA says that “insanity is to continue to do the same thing, and expect different results.” We keep planning and going off to war, expecting it to bring peace. We hate our brother, and expect our hatred to bring about righteousness. We never learn. The job of the church is not to try to make this worldview livable, but to challenge it wholey and show how false and insane it is, and to offer an alternative world view – Jesus’ world view – along with an invitation for others to join him.

  • garoth

    yeal9 – tell me, how does a nuclear deterrance affect any of these things you have mentioned. Are you going to hit the Times Square bomber with a nuclear warhead? The Cold War strategy was properly called, “MAD.” It meant “Mutually Assured Destruction,” but it was indeed insane – to think that, if one nuclear nation attacked another, that the other should release its arsenal, destroying most, if not all, life on the planet. This is the conclusion of the “upward spiral of violence” ML King talked about, with one act of violence begetting ever greater acts of violence in the name of revenge and deterrence. The end is always death – not life. The only way out, as King pointed out, is the cross – that someone take the burden of violence upon themselves, in order to give life to others. That is why King was willing to let the hoses, or the dogs, or the police, have at him – let the violence be played out on him – so that, in his case, both black and white might be redeemed.This is what the church needs to proclaim. Anything else is “another gospel” that is not centered on the kingdom or the cross. It does not matter that the world will not listen, or that it does not find this way reasonable to its way of thinking. This is the way of Jesus – the way he taught; it needs to be the way that we proclaim. It is the way to life – the only way out of our usually deadly way of dealing with conflict and difference. Nuclear deterrance is not deterrance. It is more of the same death-dealing way in which the world feels it is “necessary” to operate. It is truly MAD, but that doesn’t matter. Outside of the Gospel, the world will continue to be stuck in this cycle of violence, wars will continue, and, sooner or later, someone WILL push the button.