30 March 2021

Episcopal leadership

It is, I feel, distinctly courageous of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, at their recent meeting, to question the "Trident" nuclear deterrent. They deserve praise (as do those English bishops who, back in 2015, appended their signatures to a petition with a similar purpose. Honoris causa, I think these English prelates should be named: The bishops of Nottingham, Salford, Northampton, Brentwood emeritus, Leeds, Portsmouth, and Bishop Kenney auxiliary of Birmingham.)

I have long felt that some development is due in the matter of the Church's Magisterium on the two moral questions (linked but not identical) of the (1) Use; (2) Possession; of Nuclear Weapons. I fear that its development may have suffered from the ethos of the Cold War and the close collaboration between Pius XII and Cardinal Spellman. That America and the Vatican should be seen to be in a holy alliance against the powers of Evil was the order of the day, and any suggestion that America ought not to possess a Nuclear Deterrent might not have been in the Spirit of that alliance. But I may very well be wrong. I so often am. Notwithstanding this factor, some very remarkable individuals realised that a positive answer to neither of these two moral questions could be reconciled with Catholic teaching about the Just War. I have in mind the mighty figure of Cardinal Ottaviani, the Lion of the Council, mocked and harried by the Modernists, Defender of the Faith against the Liberals of Northern Europe, wise critic of the Novus Ordo. Elizabeth Anscombe of this University, distinguished Catholic philosopher, a penetrating intelligence who tried to prevent the award of an honorary degree to Harry Truman on the correct grounds that he was a War Criminal. And the speeches of Enoch Powell against the policy of Deterrence were such masterpieces of elegant rhetoric and incisive logic that I used to set them for rendering into Latin by my more able Latin Prose Composition students.

Under S John Paul II, the Church, happily, moved closer and closer to a position in which war itself was seen as an increasingly difficult option to justify in the conditions of the modern world. The Holy Pontiff's tendency to distance himself from military adventures in the Middle East became increasingly insistent, and increasingly a problem to his sad neocon admirers such as George Weigel. But he seemed unwilling to adopt a definitive position on the Possession of Nuclear Weapons. Yet the Church's Just War teaching, with its principle that, for a war to be just, it must (among other conditions) be prudently foreseen that it would do more good than harm, seems quite irreconcilable with what is known about the effects of nuclear explosions on dozens of future generations; and there is very little doubt that Western leaders did intend to use a nuclear option to counter any irruption of Russian tanks and infantry across the plains of North Germany.

And ... praise where praise is due ... so I was distinctly glad to read the the words of PF (9 December 2014). "The humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons are predictable and planetary. While the focus is often placed on nuclear weapons' potential for mass-killing, more attention must be given to the 'unnecessary suffering' brought on by their use. Military codes and international law, among others [is this a delicate way of including the teaching of the Church?] have long banned peoples from inflicting unnecessary suffering. If such suffering is banned in the waging of conventional war, it should all the more be banned in nuclear conflict ... Nuclear Deterrence and the threat of mutually assured destruction cannot be the basis for an ethic of fraternity and peaceful coexistence ..."

I would hope that this may be a theme to which the Roman Pontiff will return, and, so to speak, firm up. I think the time of all prelates, from top to bottom, would be much better spent on this and similar moral questions, including global questions of wealth and poverty, than on attempting to adapt Christian sexual moral principles to the libertine cultures of Northern Europe and North America. As if the Church and her bishops have nothing more worthy to devote their energies to than the delicate feelings of wealthy adulterers.

More than three decades ago, Germaine Grisez, John Finnis of this University, and Joseph Boyle wrote their (in my opinion) definitive treatment of the ethics of nuclear deterrence (Nuclear Deterrence, Morality, and Realism, 1988). In the days of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, it was easy to write off those who marched against the Bomb as long-haired subversives and crypto-Russkies. And there were all those rather iffy women at Greenham Common (but, in God's great mercies, iffy women are sometimes right). So the important thing to remember about this trio is that they are the ethical thinkers who, in our time, most consistently, coherently, and vigorously have defended the traditional Catholic teaching on sexual matters, 'Life' matters, and every aspect of traditional teaching which has been attacked by the modern secular establishment. These writers not only subscribe to the whole gamut of Catholic teaching, but delve deep into philosophy, law, and every kind of moral discourse, to sustain it in the fora of modern discussion. They are not just yet another trio of wet modern lefty liberals masquerading as Catholics. They are firmly on the side of traditional Christian morality in all its aspects and irrespective of whether or not it is found attractive by 'modern' thought.

They concluded that the concept of Nuclear Deterrence is indissolubly linked with a real intention, in certain contingencies, actually to use nuclear weapons. And they demonstrated, in my view conclusively, that such a contingent intention stands condemned by the traditional doctrine of the Catholic tradition on the Just War.

I do not suggest that these three writers, or Cardinal Ottaviani, are infallible; or that the magisterium of the Church has formally uttered such a judgement. I wish it had. But I do not understand on what grounds their arguments may be refuted (and I do not propose to entertain Comments from readers who wish to contradict them without having actually read the book).


Anonymous said...

I think all the counter arguments being invoked are failing to address the plain moral truth that "nuclear deterrence" most certainly relies on a clear will and intention to carry through with the threat to use weapons of global destruction in certain circumstances. Any politician who said that they would never and could never sanction their use, because to do so would be immoral would immediately nullify any reason for possessing and maintaining them. Yet that is the only position that is consistent with Catholic morality.

There is no possible principle of proportionality that can be measured against the effects of such weapons. Using evil to fight evil, even as a threat, is not permitted. Would we think it moral to threaten to torture an enemy's children to death as a deterrent because they would be as sickened by the thought of it as we are? Obviously not. The very threat involves the implied will to carry out a gross evil, even though it might be argued that we made the threat in the hope that we would never have to implement it. So too "mutually assured destruction" of all humanity and of the planet is simply not a Christian way of thinking, nor a Christ inspired strategy for world peace.

There are indeed evil and violent minds in the world who have access to terrible weapons (which the Western nations first developed and used). This creates an apocalyptic scenario in world history, but the proliferation and the hastening of an apocalypse was an inevitable consequence of the so called "great nations" making and keeping nuclear weapons in the first place. "A vain hope for safety is the horse" or indeed "the bomb.

I agree with Father that there is a danger of orthodox Catholics identifying themselves uncritically with "conservative" political opinions rather than being true to authentic Catholic morality, which is critical of both "left" and "right" on some issues because it is built on principles which are alien to merely political or nationalistic thinking.

Compton Pauncefoot said...

Dear Father,
One of the many wonderful things about the Faith is that it has not avoided the difficult questions.
It concentrates my mind when I look at the bombs dropped at the end of WW2. I am sure you are right, Father. Yet I am still troubled, particularly as an Australian, at the thought of the Allied lives which would have been lost in any invasion of Japan.

Stephen said...

How does one handle the bully, if the bully won't abide by the Just War precepts and whose behavior is not deterred by the possibility of his own destruction?

Ann said...

So we should have just wrung our hands and allowed the Nazis or the Japanese to develop and use the bomb first? This is a serious question that non-serious people never address. Have you noticed?

Terry Mushroom said...

Keep going on this, Father. Keep going!

There is much meat to chew and digest in this piece. Let’s hope and pray for the courage and perseverance to follow through where it’s leading. More please.

Ben Whitworth said...

Ann, though I will be the first to confess that I am as non-serious as they come, I would think that the question of whether one might licitly do wrong in order to prevent another wrong is one that has been addressed pretty often by serious people.

John Nolan said...

Deterrence does not depend on the intention of the potential user of nuclear weapons. It depends on the perception of a possible adversary.

Should a British Prime Minister announce that he would under no circumstances use nuclear weapons, deterrence would still apply since a potential adversary could reasonably infer that a) he might be lying and b) there is no reason to spend large sums of money on nuclear weapons if their use is explicitly ruled out.

In the 1980s when the Cold War was at its height I graduated with a Master's degree in War Studies from King's College London. I was also a captain in the Territorial Army and had the balloon gone up I would have been in the front line with a life expectancy of around six minutes.

I did not accept then, and do not now, that nuclear deterrence is immoral, despite what the English bishops and even the then pope (JP II) said. Simili modo, I would not have trusted experts on nuclear strategy to pronounce on matters theological.

John F. Kennedy said...

"b) there is no reason to spend large sums of money on nuclear weapons if their use is explicitly ruled out."

True, but conventional weapons are far more expensive for their effectiveness and deterrent and then there is huge quantities of lives which may perish in the operation of them. The old saying it's "a bigger bang for the buck" is very true for nuclear weapons.