06 August 2014, The Tablet

Ban the bomb: Catholics need to reclaim their place at the forefront of the fight for nuclear disarmament

by Tobias Winright

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)

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User comments (3)

Comment by: AlanEhelan
Posted: 09/08/2014 19:17:28

Pat, Pax Christi does great work on behalf of all of us. In respect of Britain there are two Bishops' Comferences and you have been more successful with one rather than the other! The forthcoming referendum in Scotland must set a major challenge to Pax Christi and all Christians north of the border. And then what about those of us on the other side of the Water?

Comment by: Denis
Posted: 09/08/2014 18:13:38

Perhaps I am alone in thinking that when Nagasaki or Hiroshima are mentioned the inevitable outcome is sympathy for the Japanese and disregard for the genocidal horrors they inflicted on millions. Can we not condemn all killing and hope at some stage for a genuine show of remorse by the Japanese for the terrible wrongs they committed?

Comment by: Pat Gaffney
Posted: 06/08/2014 17:47:24

Some of us, and I speak for Pax Christi in Britain, have not taken our eye of the nuclear ball! We have continued to campaign with our own Bishops' Conference and with our Government. Our Bishops made it clear in 2006 that by decommissioning its nuclear weapons, the UK had a unique opportunty to offer the international community an approach to security and legitimate self-defence without the unconsionable threat of nuclear destruction. Since then Pax Christi has consistently promoted the excellent work and words of Archbishops Chullikatt and Mamberti at the UN who have both made it clear that a permanent nuclear deterrence policy cannot be sustained. As is often the case, the good teaching of the church fails to reach the many and so putting words into action is hard. We have a great opportunity now here in the UK to turn away from a nuclear security policy by getting rid of Trident... freeing up thinking and resources into other live-giving models of security. We need educators, the press, civil society, trades unions,churches behind this to create the political will for change.

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