Politics & Policy

The Bishops’ Bomb

What happens when Church leadership abandons just-war theory?

In the months preceding the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, which reshaped the principles governing the size and purpose of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was busy at work. Its Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development issued various position papers urging the administration to drastically reduce the role and size of the arsenal. Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore, previously Archbishop for the Military Services, took the message to venues ranging from a deterrence conference hosted by U.S. Strategic Command (the command responsible for nuclear-strike operations) to the Global Zero Summit in Paris. Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote letters to the same effect to the Senate, the House, and President Obama. After the new arms-control agreement between Obama and Medvedev was announced, the USCCB president and archbishop of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George, wrote to Obama expressing his support. The Conference issued an “Action Alert” urging its swift ratification and a “Catholic Study Guide” for the laity.

The nuclear-policy positions of the USCCB are simple and radical. Archbishop O’Brien summarized them in a dinner speech to the four-star general and staff of U.S. Strategic Command: that we “renounce the first use of nuclear weapons, declare that they will not be used against non-nuclear threats, and confine our nation’s nuclear doctrine to deterring the use of nuclear weapons by others,” and that we “work toward taking weapons off immediately available alert status.” Archbishop O’Brien also called for bans on testing existing weapons, designing new ones, and producing weapons-grade fissile material.


These declarations are decades old, taken almost verbatim from the 1983 pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace. This letter criticized NATO’s reliance upon tactical nuclear weapons for deterring or repelling a massive Soviet invasion, and it deplored the wastefulness of the U.S.-Soviet arms race.

Classic just-war theory, in contrast, asserts the right of self-defense, even preemptive self-defense. The leader who chooses war must do so as a last resort and must conduct the war justly. In doing so, he must pursue a good proportional to the harm he might cause, and this harm must not be the means by which he achieves the good. George Weigel attributes the discrepancies between the moral teaching of The Challenge of Peace and that of classical just-war theory to “an abandonment of the classic Catholic heritage” prompted by Vatican II’s call for a new moral approach to war and peace.

After Vatican II, the just-war tradition was cast aside in favor of institutional responsibility for structural injustice, as Weigel documents in Tranquillitas Ordinis. This new construct of justice is fundamentally collective and materialist. Thus, use or even mere possession of a nuclear weapon becomes immoral; regardless of the owner’s intent, the weapon itself becomes A Bad Thing. Thus, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle could declare that “Trident is the Auschwitz of Puget Sound” — presumably without attributing evil intent to the crew members of his own archdiocese.

Likewise, The Challenge’s chief objection to the U.S.-Soviet arms race was that it was “a massive distortion of resources in the face of crying human need.” Just last year, the ever-redistributionist USCCB issued an Action Alert urging Catholics to support Rep. Jim McGovern’s (D., Mass.) “Global Security Priorities” resolution, which would have cut $13 billion per year from U.S. nuclear-related defense spending and increased international aid for “child survival, food security, and universal education.” The idea of a limited government responsible for keeping the peace, so that charities and commercial enterprises can meet these human needs, is perhaps too American for our bishops.

And even if we assume that The Challenge of Peace offered reasonable recommendations for its time (after all, it enjoyed some academic and even military currency), we must remember that it was directed toward one of two major powers — powers that were governed, stable, and believed to be rational, predictable agents. That is not the situation we’re facing today. As Keith Payne writes in The Great American Gamble, “Most of what we then believed to be true about deterrence is of questionable value now because the stakes, the opponents, the contexts, and our deterrence goals differ so dramatically from those of the Cold War.”

Yet the bishops’ view on nuclear weapons has only fossilized since 1983. For example, on the issue of weapons modernization, instead of bilateral restraint, they now demand unilateral restraint despite contradictory actions of every other nuclear power. This unilateral imperative has always had a voice in the USCCB; during the Cold War, Archbishop Hunthausen told a Lutheran synod that “one obvious meaning of the cross is unilateral disarmament. . . . We must dismantle our weapons of terror and place our reliance on God.” Then on the margins, the unilateral approach is now at the center of the USCCB.


An even more disturbing trend is the bishops’ eagerness to issue specific recommendations to Congress on technical issues about which they and their staffs know very little. Bishop Wenski of Orlando, in a letter to the Senate subcommittee responsible for funding the weapons labs, citing a single lab assessment that “the majority of plutonium pit types have credible lifetimes of at least 85 years” to conclude that “the panel’s findings demonstrate that the [Reliable Replacement Warhead] program is unnecessary.” This is equivalent to refusing to buy a new car because the pistons in the old one are still in good shape.

Another sophomoric analysis underlies the Conference’s endorsement, led by Bishop John Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, of the late senator Edward Kennedy’s (D., Mass.) amendment to de-fund the earth-penetrating warhead, citing a finding that “the weapons cannot penetrate to depths required for total containment” and thus could cause civilian casualties if used. They omit the more complete explanation: that earth-penetrating warheads, because they deliver ground shock far more efficiently, can drastically reduce required yield and the ensuing fallout and civilian casualties.

The Challenge recognized that the authors “speak as moral teachers, not as technical experts.” If the USCCB must take positions on these technical issues, its staff must be informed by fact, but instead it is driven by ideology. The fact is that by focusing on technology such as the Reliable Replacement Warhead, we can have fewer, cheaper, safer nuclear weapons without any loss of military effectiveness. What champion of peace and the poor wouldn’t favor such a program?

The bishops also fancy themselves experts on Iran. They have declared that building a new weapon would send the wrong message to potential nuclear states. Of course, the bishops may be right, and having fewer, newer weapons could present a net diplomatic liability that outweighs gains in security and economy. (Though if that’s the case, North Korea must not have been listening when we sent the right message.) But either way, authoritative-sounding Conference statements on such prudential judgments (let alone alliances with legislators enjoying perfect ratings from NARAL Pro-Choice America) tend to diminish the authority that’s already threatened by a scandal-obsessed media, and they’re best reserved for serious issues of faith and morals.


One issue on which the bishops have refused to offer an opinion is targeting strategy. But their statements on strategic and technical issues align with only one such strategy.

The three classic categories of target are an enemy’s forces, his ability to lead and control them, and the industry and infrastructure he needs to support them. By advocating de-alerting and no-first-use policies, and by opposing missile defense, the bishops have ruled out destroying enemy forces in the field, or even intercepting them, before they can strike the first blow. Thus the USCCB has negated the right of self-defense acknowledged in both international law and just-war theory — and ruled out the strategy that would create the fewest civilian casualties on both sides. By condemning the earth-penetrating warhead, the bishops also jeopardized the counter-leadership strategy — or at least any such strategy that does not unnecessarily waste thousands of innocent lives.

What strategy do the bishops leave us with? Eisenhower’s “massive retaliation” against industry and infrastructure. This targeting strategy incurs the highest civilian casualties and is least likely to quickly end the conflict; thus, it is least likely to pass the test of proportionality. It is also the strategy most likely to violate the just-war principles that require the evil to be unintended and the good to not be derived from the evil. It is the strategy in which the moral effect — in this case, destruction of the economic and logistic underpinnings of the war effort — is least likely to shift the course of the war, and the seductive, immoral effects — terror, revenge — are achieved most effectively.

Notes taken during the decisions to drop atomic bombs on Japan provide evidence that Truman’s intent was to destroy not the enemy’s war machine but his will to fight. That Churchill and RAF Bomber Command violated double effect is more clearly documented. That the bishops have left us with the strategy behind the desolation of the great centers of Japanese and German industry, culture, and Catholicism should give us pause. Fortunately, the bishops’ position is several steps beyond the reduced role of nuclear weapons endorsed by President Obama’s posture review.

Serious moral assessment of nuclear warfare begins with the recognition that, as in all war, some acts are more permissible than others. Most clearly acceptable is the use of a nuclear weapon to intercept an incoming intercontinental ballistic warhead. These midcourse interceptors detonate at altitudes at which they do not inflict casualties. The United States fielded such a system during the Cold War; another still defends Moscow. Who would question Russia’s moral right and even duty to defend its capital with such a system?

To list the applications of strategic nuclear weapons from least to most morally problematic, we would rank them in decreasing order by the ratio of good intended to harm foreseeable. Along with anti-missile defense, we would place anti-aircraft defense, particularly where the detonation occurs above fallout-free altitude or over the ocean or other large unpopulated areas, as least problematic. Next, we would place counter-force attack, since countries typically place their own nuclear forces in lowly populated areas. (Our own Minuteman silos, for example, are scattered across the prairies and mountains of the Midwest.) At its best, a counter-force strike is confined as narrowly as possible to the military target; its end is to avert devastation of much greater magnitude. The counter-leadership and counter-industry strategies follow; the number of innocent lives lost increases, and the probability of quickly achieving narrow and legitimate military aims ultimately decreases as we approach the extreme.

Despite this variation in moral acceptability of nuclear use, the bishops have condemned nuclear weapons uniformly. Cardinal George wrote to President Obama, “The horribly destructive capacity of nuclear arms makes them disproportionate and indiscriminate weapons that endanger human life and dignity like no other armaments. Their use as a weapon of war is rejected in Church teaching based on just war norms.” Since they condemn any and all nuclear use, the bishops must defend their proposal for deterrence either by admitting that they would never actually support their strategy’s immoral execution, or by drawing a moral distinction between committing and merely threatening to commit a heinous act. Yet such a distinction is extremely problematic. John Finnis concludes that ethicists as diverse as “Abelard, Aquinas, Butler, Bentham, Kant, and Sidgwick” have all endorsed the principle that “one may not intend what one may not do.” In his Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer concludes that it is immoral to threaten an immoral act of war.


Another problem, both moral and practical, is the bishops’ insistence that nuclear weapons be renounced as a deterrent against chemical or biological attacks. Gas and germ warfare are forbidden by international law; nuclear warfare is not. The bishops would have us renounce a lawful response to a criminal act. To enact the bishops’ preferred policy would sacrifice the deterrent that saved Israeli civilians and coalition troops from Iraq’s considerable biological and chemical weapons in the Gulf War. Following the war, the Iraqi foreign minister and senior military officials confirmed that Saddam Hussein did not escalate the conflict with chemical or biological warheads because he interpreted President George H. W. Bush’s promised “strongest possible response” to such a crime as a nuclear threat and concluded that Israel might respond similarly. Bush had already decided not to use nuclear weapons, he and his former cabinet attest, but the salutary effect of his ambiguity demonstrates the value of the policy the bishops would have us relinquish.

Many people have forgotten that the first U.S. president to call for a world without nuclear weapons was not Barack Obama at Prague. Ronald Reagan preceded him at Reykjavik. Reagan ignored the bishops’ policy recommendations: He increased NATO’s nuclear forces, increased defense spending, created the Strategic Defense Initiative, and developed new warheads, new missiles, and new bombers. He refused the bishops’ call for “maximum political engagement” in favor of unremitting criticism of the Evil Empire. His hard line brought the Soviets to the bargaining table, achieved significant bilateral arms reductions, won the Cold War without bloodshed, and bankrupted Soviet Communism. History has been unkind to The Challenge of Peace.

Democrats in Congress and the White House, on the other hand, have followed the USCCB’s recommendations almost to the letter. Congress has killed funding for warhead modernization. President Obama has replaced a deliberately ambiguous U.S. nuclear policy with the Nuclear Posture Review, which comes very close to “no first use.” Let us pray that history is kinder to the bishops this time round.

John Andrews is a National Review Institute Washington fellow and a nuclear analyst at Headquarters, U.S. Air Force. He previously served as a nuclear analyst at U.S. Strategic Command. The opinions expressed here are solely his own.


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