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This week marks the 69th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6 and 9). Crises around the world serve as a reminder of the continued existence and threat of nuclear weapons, and a recent colloquium examined how the Catholic Church could once again be at the fore of disarmament campaigns.
Lately, in addition to the occasional test of a missile by North Korea or concerns about a dirty bomb by a terrorist group, there was intense sword-rattling by the U.S. in 2012 when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alleged that Iran was within six or seven months of possessing 90 per cent of the enriched uranium needed to make a nuclear bomb. Cold War dynamics between Washington and Moscow are resurfacing in connection with the war in Ukraine and the U.S. recently accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), by testing a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile capable of flying 300 to 3,400 miles.
On April 24-25 former Secretary of State Shultz and former Defense Secretary Perry, who warned in 2007 in op-eds for the Wall Street Journal that the world was “on the precipice of a new and dangerous nuclear era”, hosted a number of Catholic bishops, theologians, students, and policy experts at a Colloquium on Revitalizing Catholic Engagement on Nuclear Disarmament at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Sponsored also by the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, the goal was to “help catalyze a continuing engagement on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament issues within the Catholic community”. As Secretary Shultz put it when he welcomed us, the debate on nuclear deterrence, nonproliferation, and disarmament needs again “the power of the ought” that the Catholic Church once provided on this issue.
In 1965 Vatican II's Gaudium et spes called for an evaluation of war “with an entirely new attitude” given that the use of “scientific weapons” would result in “massive and indiscriminate destruction far exceeding the bounds of legitimate defense”. With the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still fresh in their minds, the Council’s bishops issued an “unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation” of total war and any acts of war “aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or extensive areas, along with their population, [as] a crime against God and man himself”. In 1983, the United States Catholic bishops’ The Challenge of Peace echoed this teaching and called for nuclear disarmament; but the pastoral letter allowed for an interim ethic that permitted nuclear deterrence to avoid war and as long as it would lead to nuclear disarmament. Those decades were shadowed by “mutually assured destruction” when Catholic bishops, theologians, and activists devoted significant attention to this issue.
But since the end of the Cold War, Catholics, like many others, have focused less on nuclear weapons and the danger they pose to the world. Instead, humanitarian interventions, terrorism, drones, and other war and peace related issues have occupied them. It is time to reconsider the Church’s conditional acceptance of deterrence and to prioritise moral evaluation of nuclear weapons today. There are new ethical challenges to be tackled on this anniversary of the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, including low-yield non-strategic nuclear weapons, arms control and disarmament, proliferation, no first-strike policy, sole purpose declarations, and new forms of deterrence and defense. Catholic scholars, policy specialists, bishops, and others contributed to the nuclear debate in the past. Today’s signs of the times call for it again.
Tobias Winright holds the Maeder Chair of Health Care Ethics at the Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics and is Associate Professor of Theological Ethics at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. He co-authored After the Smoke Clears: The Just War Tradition and Post War Justice (Orbis 2010)