SATURDAY READING: Peace — A Religious Responsibility, by Thomas Merton

peace christian responsibility thomas merton

Between 1918 and 1939 religious opposition to war was articulate and widespread, all over Europe and America.  Peace movements of significant proportions were active in Germany, Britain, and the United States.  Yet they were crushed without difficulty and almost without protest by totalitarian regimes on the one hand, and silenced by the outbreak of a clearly defensive war on the other.  Since 1945 there has been nothing to compare with the earlier movements of protest.  Instead we have witnessed the enormous and crudely contrived fiction of the Communist Peace Movement which has been accepted with disillusioned resignation on one side of the Iron Curtain while, on the other, it has managed to make almost all efforts of independent civilian or religious groups to oppose nuclear war seem dishonest or subversive.

Yet never was opposition to war more urgent and more necessary than now.  Never was religious protest so badly needed.  Silence, passivity, or outright belligerence seems to be characteristic official and unofficial Christian reactions to the H-bomb.  True, there has been some theological and ethical debate.  This debate has been marked above all by a seemingly inordinate hesitation to characterize the uninhibited use of nuclear weapons as immoral.  Of course the bomb has been condemned without equivocation by the “peace churches” (Quakers, Mennonites, etc.).  But the general tendency of Protestant and Catholic theologians has been to consider how far nuclear war could be reconciled with the traditional “just war” theory.  In other words the discussion has been not so much a protest against nuclear war, still less a positive search for peaceful solutions to the problem of nuclear deterrence and ever increasing Cold-War obsessions, but rather an attempt to justify, under some limited form, a new type of war which is tacitly recognized as an imminent possibility.  This theological thought has tended more and more to accept the evil of nuclear war, considering it a lesser evil than Communist domination, and looking for some practicable way to make use of the lesser evil in order to avoid the greater.

But it would seem that a genuinely religious perspective, especially a Christian perspective, should be totally different.  Therefore the purpose of the present article is to stand back from the imminent risks of the Cold War crisis, seeking to judge the problem of nuclear war not in relation to what seems to be our own interests or even our own survival, but simply in the light of moral truth.  A Christian ought to consider whether nuclear war is not in itself a moral evil so great that it cannot be justified even for the best of ends, even to defend the highest and most sacrosanct of values.

This does not imply a purely pacifist rejection of war as such.  Assuming that a “just war” is at least a theoretical possibility and granting that in a just war Christians may be bound to defend their country, the question we want to examine here is whether or not the massive and unlimited use of nuclear weapons, or the use of them in a limited first strike which is foreseen as likely to set off a global cataclysm, can be considered under any circumstances just.

The great problem is in fact that both in the East and in the West nuclear weapons are taken for granted.  Nuclear war is now assumed to be a rational option or at least nuclear deterrence is accepted as a reasonable and workable way of “preserving peace.”  The moral issue is generally set aside as irrelevant.  But if in all these cases a use of nuclear weapons even to threaten total or quasi-total destruction of an enemy is immoral, then we are living in a completely noxious situation where most of our political, economic, and even religious thinking is inseparably bound up with assumptions that may ultimately prove criminal.  And if this is so, we must be prepared to face terrible consequences. For moral truth is not a sentimental luxury.  It is as much a necessity to man and his society as air, water, fire, food, and shelter.

This essay takes the stand that the massive and uninhibited use of nuclear weapons, either in attack or in retaliation, is contrary to Christian morality.  And the arguments will be drawn particularly from Catholic sources.  Recent popes have declared ABC warfare (that is, atomic, biological, and chemical warfare) to be a “sin, an offense, and an outrage.” (Pius XII)  It may be quite true that these popes have also affirmed a nation’s right to defend itself by just means, in a just war.  It may also be true that a theological argument for the use of “tactical nuclear weapons” may be constructed on the basis of some of the popes’ statements.  But when we remember that the twenty-kiloton A-bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima is now regarded as “small” and a “tactical device” and when we keep in mind that there is every probability that a force that is being beaten with small nuclear weapons will resort to big ones, we can easily see how little moral value can be found in these theorizings.

“Tactical nuclear weapons” and “limited war” with conventional forces are of course proposed with the best intentions: as a “realistic” way to avoid the horror of total nuclear warfare.  Since it is claimed that men cannot get along without some kind of war, the least we can do is to insure that they will only destroy one another in thousands instead of in millions.  Yet curiously enough, the restraint that would be required to keep within these limits (a restraint that was unknown on either side after the early phases of World War II), would seem to demand as much heroism and as much control as disarmament itself.  It would therefore appear more realistic as well as more Christian and more human to strive to think of total peace rather than of partial war.  Why can we not do this?  If disarmament were taken seriously, instead of being used as a pawn in the game of power politics, we could arrive at a workable agreement.  It might not be ideal, but it would certainly be at once safer, saner, and more realistic than war, whether limited or total.  But we make ourselves incapable of taking either disarmament or peace with total seriousness, because we are completely obsessed with the fury and the fantasies of the Cold War.  The task of the Christian is to make the thought of peace once again seriously possible.  A step towards this would be the rejection of nuclear deterrence as a basis for international policy.  Nuclear war is totally unacceptable.  It is immoral, inhuman, and absurd.  It can lead nowhere but to the suicide of nations and of cultures, indeed to the destruction of human society itself.

We must now face the fact that we are moving closer and closer to war, not only as a result of blind social forces but also as the result of our own decisions and our own choice.  The brutal reality is that, when all is said and done, we seem to prefer war, not that we want war itself, but we are blindly and hopelessly attached to all that makes war inevitable.


No one seriously doubts that it is now possible for man and his society to be completely destroyed in a nuclear war.  This possibility must be soberly faced, even though it is so momentous in all its implications that we can hardly adjust ourselves to it in a fully rational manner.  Indeed, this awful threat is the chief psychological weapon of the Cold War.  American and Russia are playing the paranoid game of nuclear deterrence, each one desperately hoping to preserve peace by threatening the other with bigger bombs and total annihilation.

Every step in this political dance of death brings us inexorably closer to hot war.  The closer we get to hot war, the more the theoretical possibility of our total destruction turns into a real probability.

There is no control over the arbitrary and belligerent self-determination of the great nations ruled by managerial power elites concerned chiefly with their own self-interest.  The UN is proving itself unable to fulfill the role of international arbiter and powerless to control the pugnacity of the nuclear club.  Indeed, the big powers have been content to use the UN as a forum for political and propagandist wrestling matches and have not hesitated to take independent action that led to the discrediting of the UN whenever this has been profitable to them.  Hence the danger that the uncontrolled power of nuclear weapons may break loose whenever one of the belligerents feels himself sufficiently strong and sufficiently provoked to risk an all-out war.  Repeated threats to use the bomb have doubtless been mostly bluff, but one day somebody’s bluff is going to be called, perhaps in a very drastic fashion.

Meanwhile the United States alone possesses a stockpile of nuclear weapons estimated at 60,000 megatons.  This is enough to wipe out the present civilized world and to permanently affect all life on the planet Earth.  These nuclear bombs can be delivered by some 2,500 planes.  It is no secret that such planes are constantly in the air, ready to strike.  There are 200 missiles available to U.S. forces, mostly of intermediate range, and this does not suggest the immediate likelihood of a purely push-button war.  But it is estimated that by 1963 there will be two thousand more of them, of which a large proportion will be intercontinental missiles based in “hard” installations.  Attack on hard installations means ground bursts and therefore more fallout as well as more bombs.  Hence even an attack concentrated on our missile bases is bound to have a destructive effect on many population centers.

An ICBM can carry an H-bomb warhead to a destination five thousand miles away, twenty times faster than the speed of sound.  Intermediate-range missiles can be fired from submarines and deliver H-bombs which could reduce the eastern United States to a radioactive wasteland.  H-bombs will soon be fitted to satellites and will be able to reach a target within a few minutes, without hope of interception.

It must be remembered that H-bombs are relatively cheap to produce, and it is not difficult to build and deliver big ones.  Poison gas can also be delivered by long-range missiles.  One such gas is manufactured in quantity by the U. S. Army Chemical Corps, and it can exterminate whole populations of men as if they were insects.  A similar nerve gas, originally developed by the Nazis, is manufactured in Soviet Russia.  This gas is considered to be more effective against civilian populations than any nuclear agent.  It leaves industry and property intact and there is no fallout!  Shelters offer no protection against chemical agents.

In a word, the logic of deterrence has proved to be singularly illogical, because of the fact that nuclear war is almost exclusively offensive.  So far there is no indication that there can be any really effective defense against guided missiles.  All the advantage goes to the force that strikes first, without warning.  Hence the multiplication of “hard” weapon sites and of “deep shelters” becomes provocative, and instead of convincing the enemy of our invulnerability, it only invites a heavier preemptive attack by bigger bombs and more of them.  The cost of moving a significant portion of industry, business, and the population underground is prohibitive, and the whole idea is in itself nonsensical, at least as a guarantee of “peace.”

Far from producing the promised “nuclear stalemate” and the “balance of terror” on which we are trying to construct an improbable peace, these policies simply generate tension, confusion, suspicion, and paranoid hate.  This is the climate most suited to the growth of totalitarianism.  Indeed, the Cold War itself promises by itself to erode the last vestiges of true democratic freedom and responsibility even in the countries which claim to be defending these values.  Those who think that they can preserve their independence, their civic and religious rights by ultimate recourse to the H-bomb do not seem to realize that the mere shadow of the bomb may end by reducing their religious and democratic beliefs to the level of mere words without meaning, veiling a state of rigid and totalitarian belligerency that will tolerate no opposition.

In a world where another Hitler and another Stalin are almost certain to appear on the scene, the existence of such destructive weapons and the moral paralysis of leaders and policy-makers combined with the passivity and confusion of mass societies which exist on both sides of the Iron Curtain constitute the gravest problem in the whole history of man.  Our times can be called apocalyptic, in the sense that we seem to have come to a point at which all the hidden, mysterious dynamism of the “history of salvation” revealed in the Bible has flowered into final and decisive crisis.  The term “end of the world” may or may not be one that we are capable of understanding.  But at any rate we seem to be assisting at the unwrapping of the mysteriously vivid symbols in the last book of the New Testament.  In their nakedness they reveal to us our own selves as the men whose lot it is to live in a time of possibly ultimate decision.  In a word, the end of our civilized society is quite literally up to us and to our immediate descendants, if any.  It is for us to decide whether we are going to give in to hatred, terror, and blind love of power for its own sake, and thus plunge our world into the abyss, or whether, restraining our savagery, we can patiently and humanely work together for interests which transcend the limits of any national or ideological community.  We are challenged to prove we are rational, spiritual, and humane enough to deserve survival, by acting according to the highest ethical and spiritual norms we know.  As Christians, we believe that these norms have been given to us in the Gospel and in the traditional theology of the church.

II. The Christian As Peacemaker

We know that Christ came into this world as the Prince of Peace.  We know that Christ himself is our peace. (Ephesians 2:14)  We believe that God has chosen for himself, in the Mystical Body of Christ, an elect people, regenerated by the blood of the Savior, and committed by their baptismal promise to wage war upon the evil and hatred that are in man, and help to establish the kingdom of God and of peace.

This means a recognition that human nature, identical in all men, was assumed by the Logos in the incarnation, and that Christ died out of love for all men, in order to live in all men.  Consequently we have the obligation to treat every other man as Christ himself, respecting his life as if it were the life of Christ, his rights as if they were the rights of Christ.  Even if the other shows himself to be unjust, wicked, and odious to us, we cannot take upon ourselves a final and definitive judgment in his case.  We still have an obligation to be patient, and to seek his highest spiritual interests.  In other words, we are formally commanded to love our enemies, and this obligation cannot be met by a formula of words.  It is not enough to press the button that will incinerate a city of five million people, saying in one’s heart, “this hurts me more than it hurts you,” or declaring that it is all for love.

As Pope John XXIII pointed out in his first encyclical letter, Ad Petri Cathedram, Christians are obliged to strive for peace, “with all the means at their disposal,” and yet, as he continues, this peace cannot compromise with error or make concessions to it.  Therefore it is by no means a matter of passive acquiescence in injustice, since this does not produce peace.  However, the Christian struggle for peace depends first of all upon a free response of man to “God’s call to the service of his merciful designs.” (Christmas Message, 1958)  Christ, our Lord, did not come to bring peace to the world as a kind of spiritual tranquillizer.  He brought to his disciples a vocation and a task, to struggle in the world of violence to establish his peace not only in their own hearts but in society itself.  This was to be done not by wishing and fair words but by a total interior revolution in which we abandoned the human prudence that is subordinated to the quest for power, and followed the higher wisdom of love and of the cross.

The Christian is and must be by his very adoption as a son of God, in Christ, a peacemaker. (Matthew 5:9)  He is bound to imitate the Savior who, instead of defending himself with twelve legions of angels, (Matthew 26:55), allowed himself to be nailed to the cross and died praying for his executioners.  The Christian is one whose life has sprung from a particular spiritual seed: the blood of the martyrs who, without offering forcible resistance, laid down their lives rather than submit to the unjust laws that demanded an official religious cult of the emperor as God.  That is to say, the Christian is bound, like the martyrs, to obey God rather than the state whenever the state tries to usurp powers that do not and cannot belong to it.  We have repeatedly seen Christians in our time fulfilling this obligation in a heroic manner by their resistance to dictatorships that strove to interfere with the rights of their conscience and their religion.

Hence it must be stated quite clearly and without any compromise that the duty of the Christian as a peacemaker is not to be confused with a kind of quietistic inertia which is indifferent to injustice, accepts any kind of disorder, compromises with error and with evil, and gives in to every pressure in order to maintain “peace at any price.”  The Christian knows well, or should know well, that peace is not possible on such terms.  Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice.  It demands greater heroism than war.  It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.  The Christian fight for peace is not to be confused with defeatism.  This has to be made clear because there is a certain complacent sophistry, given free currency by the theologians who want to justify war too easily, and who like to treat anyone who disagrees with them as if he were a practical apostate from the faith who had already surrendered implicitly to Communism by refusing to accept the morality of an all-out nuclear war.  This, as anyone can easily see, is simply begging the question.  And one feels that those who yield to this temptation are perhaps a little too much influenced by the pragmatism and opportunism of our affluent society.

There is a lot of talk, among some of the clergy, about the relative danger of nuclear war and a “Communist takeover.”  It is assumed, quite gratuitously, that the Communist is at the gates, and is just about to take over the United States, close all the churches, and brainwash all the good Catholics.  Once this spectral assessment of the situation is accepted, then one is urged to agree that there is only one solution: to let the Reds have it before they get our government and our universities thoroughly infiltrated.  This means a preemptive strike, based not on the fact that we ourselves are actually under military attack, but that we are so “provoked” and so “threatened” that even the most drastic measures are justified.

If it is argued that there can be no proportion between the awful destruction wrought by nuclear war and the good achieved by exorcising this specter of Communist domination, the argument comes back: “better dead than Red.”  And this, in turn, is justified by the contention that the destruction of cities, nations, populations is “only a physical evil,” while Communist domination would be a “moral evil.”

It must be said at once that this has no basis in logic, ethics, politics, or sound moral theology.  Two quotations from Pope Pius XII will suffice to establish the true Catholic perspective on these points.

The destruction of cities and nations by nuclear war is “only a physical evil”?  Pope Pius XII calls aggressive ABC warfare a “sin, an offense, and an outrage against the majesty of God.”  And he adds: “It constitutes a crime worthy of the most severe national and international sanctions.” (Address to the World Medical Congress, 1954)  Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., whom no one can accuse of being a “pacifist,” (he favors the licity of “limited nuclear war” and also believes that such a war would have practical value) has stated, “The extreme position of favoring a war. . . simply to kill off all Communists, cannot be a legitimate Catholic opinion.”

The real issue here is not actually a moral principle so much as a state of mind.  This state of mind is the one which we find in the American mass media.  It is made up of a large number of very superficial assumptions about what is going on in the world and about what is likely to happen.  We are in a sorry state, indeed, if our survival and indeed our Christian faith itself are left entirely at the mercy of such assumptions!

III. Beyond East And West

We are no longer living in a Christian world.  The ages which we are pleased to call the “ages of faith” were certainly not ages of earthly paradise.  But at least our forefathers officially recognized and favored the Christian ethic of love.  They fought some very bloody and unchristian wars, and in doing so, they also committed great crimes which remain in history as a permanent scandal.  However, certain definite limits were recognized.  Today a non-Christian world still retains a few vestiges of Christian morality, a few formulas and clichés, which serve on appropriate occasions to adorn indignant editorials and speeches.  But otherwise we witness deliberate campaigns to oppose and eliminate all education in Christian truth and morality.  Not only non-Christians but even Christians themselves tend to dismiss the Gospel ethic of nonviolence and love as “sentimental.”  As a matter of fact, the mere suggestion that Christ counseled nonviolent resistance to evil is enough to invite scathing ridicule.

It is therefore a serious error to imagine that because the West was once largely Christian, the cause of the Western nations is now to be identified, without further qualification, with the cause of God.  The incentive to wipe out Bolshevism with H-bombs may well be one of the apocalyptic temptations of twentieth-century Christendom.  It may indeed be the most effective way of destroying Christendom, even though man may survive.  For who imagines that the Asians and Africans will respect Christianity and receive it after it has apparently triggered mass murder and destruction of cosmic proportions?  It is pure madness to think that Christianity can defend itself by nuclear preemption.  The mere fact that we now seem to accept nuclear war as reasonable and Christian is a universal scandal.

True, Christianity is not only opposed to Communism, but in a very real sense, at war with it.  However this warfare is spiritual and ideological.  “Devoid of material weapons,” says Pope John, “the church is the trustee of the highest spiritual power.”  If the church has no military weapons of her own, it means that her wars are fought without violence, not that she intends to call upon the weapons of nations that were once Christian, in defense of the Gospel.  Whatever we may think of the ethics of nuclear war, it is clear that the message of the H-bomb is neither salvation nor “good news.”

But we believe, precisely, that an essential part of the “good news” is that spiritual weapons are stronger than material ones.  Indeed, by spiritual arms, the early church conquered the entire Roman world.  Have we lost our faith in this “sword of the Spirit”?  Have we perhaps lost all realization of its very existence?

Of course we must repudiate a tactic of inert passivity that purely and simply leaves man defenseless, without any recourse whatever to any means of protecting himself, his rights, or Christian truth.  We repeat again and again that the right, and truth, are to be defended by the most efficacious possible means, and that the most efficacious of all are precisely the spiritual ones, which have always been the only ones that have effected a really lasting moral change in society and in man.  The church tolerates defensive use of weapons only insofar as men are unable to measure up to the stricter and more heroic demands of spiritual warfare.  It is absolutely unchristian to adopt, in practice, a standard of judgment which practically rejects or ignores all recourse to the spiritual weapons, and relegates them entirely to the background as if they had no efficacy whatever, and as if material weapons (the bigger the better) were the ones that really counted.

It seems that a great deal of the moral discussion about nuclear war is based, in fact, on the assumption that spiritual weapons are quixotic and worthless and that material weapons alone are worthy of serious consideration.  But this attitude is precisely what leads to a fundamental vitiation of the church’s traditionally accepted doctrine on the use of violence in war; it seeks in every possible way to evade the obligation to use war only as a last resort, purely in defense, and with the use of just means only.

Inevitably, as soon as the obsession with bigger and bigger weapons takes hold of us, we make it impossible for ourselves to consider the just rights of noncombatants.  We twist and deform the truth in every possible way in order to convince ourselves that noncombatants are really combatants after all, and that our “attack” is in reality “defense,” while the enemy’s “defense” really constitutes an “attack.”  By such tactics we disqualify ourselves from receiving the guidance of light and grace which will enable us to judge as spiritual men and as members of Christ.  Obviously, without this special gift of light, we remain utterly incapable of seeing or appreciating the superiority of spiritual weapons, prayer, sacrifice, negotiation, and nonviolent means in general.

This results in the unhappy situation that non-Christians with rather dubious doctrinal support in irreligious philosophies have been able to take over characteristically Christian spiritual methods, appropriating them to themselves and thus further discrediting them in the eyes of the orthodox believer who is already confused by the now instinctive justification of war and weapons as the “normal” Christian way of solving international problems.

We must remember that the church does not belong to any political power bloc.  Christianity exists on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and we should feel ourselves united by very special bonds with those Christians who, living under Communism, often suffer heroically for their principles.

Is it a valid defense of Christianity for us to wipe out those heroic Christians along with their oppressors, for the sake of “religious freedom”?

Let us stop and consider where the policy of massive retaliation and worse still of preemptive strike may lead us.  Are we to annihilate huge population centers, at the same time showering vast areas around them with lethal fallout?  Do we believe it is necessary to do this in order to protect ourselves against the menace of world Communism?

In these countries which we may perhaps be ready to annihilate, the vast majority is not Communist.  On the contrary, while the people have resigned themselves passively to Communist domination, and have become quite convinced that there is no hope to be looked for from us because we are their declared enemies, and intend to wipe them out, they are by no means Communists.  They do not want war.  They have, in many cases, lived through the horrors and sacrifices of total war and experienced things which we are barely able to imagine.  They do not want to go through this again.

We, in the name of liberty, of justice, of humanity, are pursuing a policy which promises to crush them with even greater horror, except that it may be perhaps “merciful” that millions of them will simply be blown out of existence in the twinkling of an eye.  Merciful?  When many of them have a Christian background, many are faithful Christians?

What good will our belligerent policy do us in those countries?  None at all.  It will only serve to reinforce the fatalistic conviction of the necessity of armament and of war that has been dinned into these populations by the Communist minority which dominates them.

How do we justify our readiness to wage a war of this kind?  Let us face the fact that we feel ourselves terribly menaced by Communism.   Certainly we believe we have to defend ourselves.  Why are we menaced?  Because, as time goes on, the Communists have gained a greater and greater advantage over us in the Cold War.  Why have they been able to do this?  This is a question of historic fact, which, however, is not absolutely clear, but anyone will admit that our very reliance on the massive power of the bomb has to a great extent crippled us and restricted our freedom to maneuver, and the Communists have been operating under the protection of this massive threat that is too enormous to let loose for any but the most serious causes.  Hence instead of the serious provocation, the massive attack, we are confronted with a multiplicity of little threats all over the world, little advances, little gains.  They all add up, but even the total of all of them does not constitute a sufficient reason for nuclear war.

But we are getting mad, and we are beginning to be thoroughly impatient with the humiliation of constant defeat.  The more humiliated we become, the worse we compromise our chances, the greater errors we make.

We used to have an unrivaled reputation among the backward peoples of the world.  We were considered the true defenders of liberty, justice, and peace, the hope of the future.  Our anger, our ignorance, and our frustration have made us forfeit this tremendous advantage.

IV. Moral Passivity And Demonic Activism

One of the most disturbing things about the Western world of our time is that it is beginning to have much more in common with the Communist world than it has with the professedly Christian society of several centuries ago.  On both sides of the Iron Curtain we find two pathological varieties of the same moral sickness: both of them rooted in the same basically materialistic view of life.  Both are basically opportunistic and pragmatic in their own way.  And both have the following characteristics in common.  On the level of morality they are blindly passive in their submission to a determination which, in effect, leaves men completely irresponsible.  Therefore moral obligations and decisions tend to become practically meaningless.  At best they are only forms of words, rationalizations of pragmatic decisions that have already been dictated by the needs of the moment.

Naturally, since not everyone is an unprincipled materialist even in Russia, there is bound to be some moral sense at work, even if only as a guilt-feeling that produces uneasiness and hesitation, blocking the smooth efficiency of machine-like obedience to immoral commands.  Yet the history of Nazi Germany shows us how appalling was the irresponsibility which would carry out even the most revolting of crimes under cover of “obedience” to legitimately constituted authority “for the sake of a “good cause.”  This moral passivity is the most terrible danger of our time, as the American bishops have already pointed out in their joint letters of 1960 and 1961.

On the level of political, economic, and military activity, this moral passivity is balanced, or overbalanced, by a demonic activism, a frenzy of the most varied, versatile, complex, and even utterly brilliant technological improvisations, following one upon the other with an ever more bewildering and uncontrollable proliferation.  Politics pretends to use this force as its servant, to harness it for social purposes, for the “good of man.”  The intention is good.  The technological development of power in our time is certainly a risk and challenge, but it is by no means intrinsically evil.  On the contrary, it can and should be a very great good.  In actual fact, however, the furious speed with which our technological world is plunging toward disaster is evidence that no one is any longer fully in control – least of all, perhaps, the political leaders.

A simple study of the steps which led to the dropping of the first A-bomb on Hiroshima is devastating evidence of the way well-meaning men, the scientists, generals, and statesmen of a victorious nation, were guided step-by-step, without realizing it, by the inscrutable yet simple “logic of events” to fire the shot that was to make the Cold War inevitable and prepare the way inexorably for World War III.  This they did purely and simply because they thought in all sincerity that the bomb was the simplest and most merciful way of ending World War II and perhaps all wars, forever.

The tragedy of our time is then not so much the malice of the wicked as the helpless futility of the best intentions of “the good.”  There are warmakers, war criminals, indeed.  They are present and active on both sides.  But all of us, in our very best efforts for peace, find ourselves maneuvered unconsciously into positions where we too can act as war criminals.  For there can be no doubt that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, though not fully deliberate crimes, nevertheless crimes.  And who was responsible?  No one.  Or “history.”  We cannot go on playing with nuclear fire and shrugging off the results as “history.”  We are the ones concerned.

In plain words, in order to save ourselves from destruction we have to try to regain control of a world that is speeding downhill without brakes because of the combination of factors I have just mentioned: almost total passivity and irresponsibility on the moral level, plus demonic activism in social, political, and military life.

First of all we must seek some remedy in the technological sphere.  We must try to achieve some control over the production and stockpiling of weapons.  It is intolerable that such massive engines of destruction should be allowed to proliferate in all directions without any semblance of a long-range plan for anything, even for what is cynically called “defense.”  To allow governments to pour more and more billions into weapons that almost immediately become obsolete, thereby necessitating more billions for newer and bigger weapons, is one of the most colossal injustices in the long history of man.  While we are doing this, two-thirds of the world is starving, or living in conditions of subhuman destitution.

Far from demanding that the lunatic race for destruction be stepped up, it seems to me that Christian morality imposes on every single one of us the obligation to protest against it and to work for the creation of an international authority with power and sanctions that will be able to control technology, and divert our amazing virtuosity into the service of man instead of against him.

It is not enough to say that we ought to try to work for a negotiated disarmament, or that one power bloc or the other ought to take the lead and disarm unilaterally.  Methods and policies can and should be fairly considered.  But what matters most is the obligation to travel in every feasible way in the direction of peace, using all the traditional and legitimate methods, while at the same time seeking to improvise new and original measures to achieve our end.

Long ago, even before the A-bomb, Pope Pius XII declared it was our supreme obligation to make “war on war.” (1944)  At that time he stressed our moral obligation to ban all wars of aggression, stating this duty was binding on all  and that it “brooks no delay, no procrastination, no hesitation, no subterfuge.”  And what have we seen since then?  The A-bomb, the H-bomb, the ICBM, the development of chemical and bacteriological weapons, and every possible evasion and subterfuge to justify their use without limitation as soon as one or the other nation decides that it may be expedient!

Therefore a Christian who is not willing to envisage the creation of an effective international authority to control the destinies of man for peace is not acting and thinking as a mature member of the church.  He does not have fully Christian perspectives.  Such perspectives must, by their very nature, be “catholic,” that is to say worldwide.  They must consider the needs of mankind and not the temporary expediency and shortsighted policy of a particular nation.

To reject a “worldwide” outlook, to refuse to consider the good of mankind, and to remain satisfied with the affluence that flows from our war economy, is hardly a Christian attitude.  Nor will our attachment to the current payoff accruing to us from weapons make it any easier for us to see and understand the need to take the hard road of sacrifice which alone leads to peace!

Equally important, and perhaps even more difficult than technological control, is the restoration of some moral sense and the resumption of genuine responsibility.  Without this it is illusory for us to speak of freedom and “control.”  Unfortunately, even where moral principles are still regarded with some degree of respect, morality has lost touch with the realities of our situation.  Modern warfare is fought as much by machines as by men.  Even a great deal of the planning depends on the work of mechanical computers.

Hence it becomes more and more difficult to estimate the morality of an act leading to war because it is more and more difficult to know precisely what is going on.  Not only is war increasingly a matter for pure specialists operating with fantastically complex machinery, but above all there is the question of absolute secrecy regarding everything that seriously affects defense policy.  We may amuse ourselves by reading the reports in mass media and imagine that these “facts” provide sufficient basis for moral judgments for and against war.  But in reality, we are simply elaborating moral fantasies in a vacuum.  Whatever we may decide, we remain completely at the mercy of the governmental power, or rather the anonymous power of managers and generals who stand behind the façade of government.  We have no way of directly influencing the decisions and policies taken by these people.  In practice, we must fall back on a blinder and blinder faith which more and more resigns itself to trusting the “legitimately constituted authority” without having the vaguest notion what that authority is liable to do next.  This condition of irresponsibility and passivity is extremely dangerous.  It is hardly conducive to genuine morality.

An entirely new dimension is opened up by the fantastic processes and techniques involved in modern war.  An American president can speak of warfare in outer space and nobody bursts our laughing – he is perfectly serious.  Science fiction and the comic strip have all suddenly come true.  When a missile armed with an H-bomb warhead is fired by the pressing of a button and its target is a whole city, the number of its victims is estimated in “megacorpses” – millions of dead human beings.  A thousand or ten thousand more here and there are not even matter for comment.  To what extent can we assume that the soldiers who exercise this terrible power are worthy of our confidence and actually realize what they are doing?  To what extent can we assume that in passively following their lead and concurring in their decision – at least by default – we are acting as Christians?

V. The Moral Problem

In all-out nuclear war, there is no longer question of simply permitting an evil, the destruction of a few civilian dwellings, in order to attain a legitimate end: the destruction of a military target.  It is well understood on both sides that all-out nuclear war is purely and simply massive and indiscriminate destruction of targets chosen not for their military significance alone, but for their importance in a calculated project of terror and annihilation.  Often the selection of the target is determined by some quite secondary and accidental circumstance that has not the remotest reference to morality.  Hiroshima was selected for atomic attack, among other reasons, because it had never undergone any notable air bombing and was suitable as an intact target to give a good idea of the effectiveness of the bomb.

It must be frankly admitted that some of the military commanders of both sides in World War II simply disregarded all the traditional standards that were still effective.  The Germans threw those standards overboard with the bombs they unloaded on Warsaw, Rotterdam, Coventry, and London.  The Allies replied in kind with saturation bombing of Hamburg, Cologne, Dresden, and Berlin.  Spokesmen were not wanting on either side to justify these crimes against humanity.  And today, while “experts” calmly discuss the possibility of the United States being able to survive a war if “only fifty millions” (!) of the population are killed, when the Chinese speak of being able to spare “three hundred million” and “still get along,” it is obvious that we are no longer in the realm where moral truth in conceivable.

The only sane course that remains is to work frankly and without compromise for a supranational authority and for the total abolition of war.  The pronouncements of the Holy See all seem to point to this as the best ultimate solution.

The moral duty of the Christian is by no means simple.  It is far from being a neat matter of ethical principle, clear cut, well defined, and backed by a lucid authoritative decision of the church.  To make the issue seem too simple is actually to do a great disservice to truth, to morality, and to man.  And yet now more than ever we crave the simple and the clear solution.  This very craving is dangerous, because the most tempting of all “simple” solutions are the ones which prescribe annihilation or submit to it without resistance.  There is a grim joke underlying all this talk about “Red or dead.”  The inherent destructiveness of the frustrated mind is able to creep in here and distort the whole Christian view of life and of civilization by evading the difficult and complex way of negotiation and sacrifice, in order to resort, in frustrated desperation, to “magic” power and nuclear destruction.  Let us not ignore this temptation, it is one of the deepest and most radical in man.  It is the first of all temptations, and the root of all the others.  “You shall be as gods. . . .” (Genesis 3:5)

On the contrary, our Christian obligation consists in being and remaining men, believing in the Word who emptied himself and became man for our sakes.  We have to look at the problem of nuclear war from the viewpoint of humanity and of God made man, from the viewpoint of the Mystical Body of Christ, and not merely from the viewpoint of abstract formulas.  Here above all we need a reasoning that is informed with compassion and takes some account of flesh and blood, not a legalistic juggling with principles and precedents.

In the light of these deep Christian truths we will better understand the danger of fallacious justifications of every recourse to violence, as well as the peril of indifference, inertia, and passivity.

It is not a question of stating absolutely and infallibly that every Christian must renounce, under pain of mortal sin, any opinion that the use of the bomb might be legitimate.  The H-bomb has not been formally and officially condemned, and doubtless it does not need to be condemned.  There is no special point in condemning one weapon in order to give casuistical minds an opportunity to prove their skill in evasion by coming up with another, “licit” way of attaining the same destructive end.  It is not just a matter of seeing how much destruction and murder we can justify without incurring the condemnation of the church.

But I submit that at this time above all it is vitally important to avoid the “minimalist” approach.  The issue of nuclear war is too grave and too general.  It threatens everybody.  It may affect the very survival of the human race.  In such a case one is not allowed to take any but unavoidable risks.  We are obliged to take the morally more secure alternative in guiding our choice.  Let us remember too that while a doubt of the existence of an obligation leaves us with a certain freedom of choice, the doubt of an evil fact does not permit such freedom.

We may well dispute the legitimacy of nuclear war on principle; but when we face the actual fact that recourse to nuclear weapons may quite probably result in the quasi-total destruction of civilization, even possibly in the suicide of the entire human race, we are absolutely obliged to take this fact into account and to avoid this terrible danger.

It is certainly legitimate for a Catholic moralist to hold in theory that a limited nuclear war, in defense, is permitted by traditional Christian moral principles.  He may even hold the opinion that the strategic use of nuclear, bacteriological, and chemical weapons is theoretically permissible for defense, provided that there is a possibility that what we are defending will continue to exist after it has been “defended.”

But when we come face-to-face with the terrible doubt of fact, dubium facti, the absolutely real and imminent probability of massive and uncontrolled destruction with the annihilation of civilization and of life, then there is no such latitude of choice.  We are most gravely and seriously bound by all norms of Christian morality, however minimal, to choose the safer course and to try at all costs to avoid so general a disaster.

Let us remember that even if one were to admit the theoretical legitimacy of nuclear weapons for purposes of defense, that use would become gravely unjust, without a shadow of doubt, as soon as the effects of nuclear destruction overflowed upon neutral or friendly nations.  Even though we may feel justified in risking the destruction of our own cities and those of the enemy, we have no right whatever to bring destruction upon helpless small nations which have no interest whatever in the war and ask only to survive in peace.  It is not up to us to choose that they should be dead rather than Red.

Pope Pius XII said in 1954 (concerning ABC warfare, described above as a sin, an offense, and an outrage against God): “Should the evil consequences of adopting this method of warfare ever become so extensive as to pass entirely beyond the control of man, then indeed its use must be rejected as immoral.”  He adds that uncontrolled annihilation of life within a given area “IS NOT LAWFUL UNDER ANY TITLE.”

Nor is it moral to overindulge in speculation on this dangerous point of “control.”  A lax interpretation of this principle would lead us to decide that a twenty-megaton H-bomb dropped on Leningrad is “fully under control” because all its effects are susceptible to measurement, and we know that the blast will annihilate Leningrad while the fallout will probably wipe out the population of Helsinki and Riga, depending on the wind.  Obviously what the Pope meant was much more strict than that.  He meant that if there was uncontrolled annihilation of everybody in Leningrad, without any discrimination between combatants and noncombatants, enemies, friends, women, children, infants, and old people, then the use of the bomb would be “not lawful under any title,” especially in view of the “bonus” effects of fallout drifting over neutral territory, certainly without control.  And I do not think “clean” bombs are going to get around this moral difficulty either.

Hence though nuclear warfare as such has not been entirely and formally condemned, the mind of the church is obviously that every possible means should be taken to avoid it; and John XXIII made this abundantly clear in his Christmas Message of 1961 where he pleaded in most solemn terms with the rulers of all nations to “shun all thought of force” and remain at peace.  The words of Pope John in this connection imply grave reservations even with regard to limited war which might possibly “escalate” and reach all-out proportions.

There can be no doubt whatever that the absence of formal condemnation cannot be twisted into a tacit official approval of all-out nuclear war.  Yet it seems that this is what some of our theologians are trying to do.

On the contrary, our duty is to help emphasize with all the force at our disposal that the church earnestly seeks the abolition of war; we must underscore declarations like those of Pope John XXIII pleading with world leaders to renounce force in the settlement of international disputes and confine themselves to negotiations.

Now let us suppose that the political leaders of the world, supported by the mass media in their various countries, and carried on by a tidal wave of greater and greater war preparations, see themselves swept inexorably into a war of cataclysmic proportions.  Let us suppose that it becomes morally certain that these leaders are helpless to arrest the blind force of the process that has irresponsibly been set in motion.  What then?  Are the masses of the world, including you and me, to resign themselves to our fate and march to global suicide without resistance, simply bowing our heads and obeying our leaders as showing us the “will of God”?  I think it should be evident to everyone that this can no longer, in the present situation, be accepted unequivocally as Christian obedience and civic duty.

It is true that Pope Pius XII in his Christmas Message of 1956 declared that a Catholic was bound in duty to help his country in a just war of defense.  But to extend this to all-out nuclear war is begging the question because papal pronouncements on nuclear war cast doubts upon its justice.  No theologian, however broad, however lax, would insist that one was bound in conscience to participate in a war that was evidently leading to global suicide.  Those who favor nuclear war can only do so by making all kinds of suppositions concerning the political and military facts: that it will be only a limited war or that the destructive effects of H-bombs are not as terrible as we have been told.  However much they limit the score sheet of megacorpses, it is difficult for us to admit the morality of all-out nuclear war.

This brings us face-to-face with the greatest and most agonizing moral issue of our time.  This issue is not merely nuclear war, not merely the possible destruction of the human race by a sudden explosion of violence.  It is something more subtle and more demonic.  If we continue to yield to theoretically irresistible determinism and to vague “historic forces” without striving to resist and control them, if we let these forces drive us to demonic activism in the realm of politics and technology, we face something more than the material evil of universal destruction.  We face moral responsibility for global suicide.  Much more than that, we are going to find ourselves gradually moving into a situation in which we are practically compelled by the “logic of circumstances” deliberately to choose the course that leads to destruction.

The great danger is then the savage and self-destructive commitment to a policy of nationalism and blind hate, and the refusal of all other policies more constructive and more in accordance with Christian ethical tradition.  Let us realize that this is a matter of choice, not of pure blind determinism.

We all know the logic of temptation.  We all know the confused, vague, hesitant irresponsibility which leads us into the situation where it is no longer possible to turn back, and how, arrived in that situation, we have a moment of clear-sighted desperation in which we freely commit ourselves to the course we recognize as evil.  That may well be what is happening now to the whole world.

The free choice of global suicide, made in desperation by the world’s leaders and ratified by the consent and cooperation of their citizens, would be a moral evil second only to the crucifixion.  The fact that such a choice might be made with the highest motives and the most urgent purpose would do nothing whatever to mitigate it.  The fact that it might be made as a gamble, in the hope that some might escape, would never excuse it.  After all, the purposes of Caiaphas were, in his own eyes, perfectly noble.  He thought it was necessary to let “one man die for the people.”

The most urgent necessity of our time is therefore not merely to prevent the destruction of the human race by nuclear war.  Even if it should happen to be no longer possible to prevent the disaster (which God forbid), there is still a greater evil that can and must be prevented.  It must be possible for every free man to refuse his consent and deny his cooperation to this greatest of crimes.

VI. The Christian Choice

In what does this effective and manifest refusal of consent consist?  How does one “resist” the sin of genocide?  Ideally speaking, in the imaginary case where all-out nuclear war seemed inevitable and the world’s leaders were evidently incapable of preventing it, it would be legitimate and even obligatory for all sane and conscientious men everywhere in the world to lay down their weapons and their tools and starve and be shot rather than cooperate in the war effort.  If such a mass movement should spontaneously arise in all parts of the world, in Russia and America, in China and France, in Africa and Germany, the human race could be saved from extinction.  This is indeed an engaging hypothesis – but it is no more than that.  It would be folly to suppose that men hitherto passive, inert, morally indifferent, and irresponsible might suddenly recover their sense of obligation and their awareness of their own power when the world was on the very brink of war.

In any case, as has been said above, the ordinary man has no access to vital information.  Indeed, even the politicians may know relatively little about what is really going on.  How would it be possible to know when and how it was necessary to refuse cooperation?  Can we draw a line clearly, and say precisely when nuclear war becomes so dangerous that it is suicidal?  If a war of missiles breaks out, we will have at the most thirty minutes to come to our momentous conclusions – if we ever know what is happening at all.  It seems to me that the time to form our conscience and to decide upon our course of action is NOW.

It is one thing to form one’s conscience and another to adopt a specific policy or course of action.  It is highly regrettable that this important distinction is overlooked and indeed deliberately obfuscated.  To decide, in the forum of conscience, that one is obligated in every way, as a Christian, to avoid actions that would contribute to a worldwide disaster does not mean that one is necessarily committed to absolute and unqualified pacifism.  One may start from this moral principle, which is repeatedly set before us by the popes and which cannot be seriously challenged, and one may then go on to seek various means to preserve peace.  About these different means, there may be considerable debate.

Yet it seems clear to me that the enormous danger represented by nuclear weapons, and the near impossibility of controlling them and limiting them to a scale that would fit the traditional ethical theory of a just war, makes it both logical and licit for a Catholic to proceed, from motives of conscience, to at least a relative pacifism, and to a policy of nuclear disarmament.

In so doing, however, he has a strict obligation to see that he does not take a naïve and oversimplified position which would permit him to be ruthlessly exploited by the politicians of another nuclear power.  The logic of all serious efforts to preserve peace demands that our very endeavors themselves do not help the war effort of the “enemy,” and thus precipitate war.  There is sometimes a danger that our pacifism may be somewhat shortsighted and immature.  It may consequently be more an expression of rebellion against the status quo in our own country than an effective opposition to war itself.

In a word, there are three things to be considered: (1) Christian moral principles, which by their very nature favor peace, and according to which nuclear war remains, if not absolutely forbidden, at least of exceedingly dubious morality; (2) the facts about weapons systems and defense policies.  Our moral decision and the morality of our participation in the economic and political life of a society geared for nuclear war demand imperatively that we realize the real nature of the military policies to which we contribute by taxation and perhaps also by our work in industry.  So much in our national life is today centered on the most intense and most overwhelming arms race in the history of man.  Everything points to the fact that these frightful weapons of destruction may soon be used, most probably on the highest and most expanded scale; (3) we must finally consider factors by which these military policies are dictated.

The Christian moral principles are relatively clear.  While there is still intense debate over details, no Christian moralist worthy of the name can seriously defend outright a nuclear war of unqualified aggression.

The facts about ABC warfare are also clear enough.  There is no question of the immense destructiveness of the weapons available to us.  There is no question that the destruction of civilization and even global suicide are both possible.  There is no question that the policies of the nuclear powers are geared for an all-out war of incredible savagery and destructive force.

What remains to be explored by the Christian is the area that is least considered, which also happens to be the area that most needs to be examined and is perhaps the one place where something can be done.

By what are our policies of hatred and destructiveness dictated?  What seems to drive us inexorably on to the fate which we all dread and seek to avoid?  This question is not hard to answer.  What started the First World War?  What started the Second World War?  The answer is, simply, the rabid, shortsighted, irrational, and stubborn forces which tend to come to a head in nationalism.

Christopher Dawson has said:

The defeat of Hitlerism does not mean that we have seen the end of such movements.  In our modern democratic world, irrational forces lie very near the surface, and their sudden eruption under the impulse of nationalist or revolutionary ideologies is the greatest of all the dangers that threaten the modern world.  It is at this point that the need for a re-assertion of Christian principles becomes evident.  In so far as nationalism denies the principle (or higher order and divine justice for all men) and sets up the nation and the national state as the final object of man’s allegiance, it represents the most retrograde movement the world has ever seen, since it means a denial of the great central truth on which civilization was founded, and the return to the pagan idolatries of tribal barbarism.

Dawson then goes on to quote Pope Pius XII who distinguishes between “national life” and “nationalistic politics.”  National life is a combination of all the values which characterize a social group and enable it to contribute fruitfully to the whole policy of nations.  Nationalistic politics on the other hand are divisive, destructive, and a perversion of genuine national values.  They are “a principle of dissolution within the community of peoples.”

This then is the conclusion: the Christian is bound to work for peace by working against global dissolution and anarchy.  Due to nationalist and revolutionary ideologies (for Communism is in fact exploiting the intense nationalism of backward peoples), a worldwide spirit of confusion and disorder is breaking up the unity and the order of civilized society.

It is true that we live in an epoch of revolution, and that the breakup and reformation of society is inevitable.  But the Christian must see that his mission is not to contribute to the blind forces of annihilation which tend to destroy civilization and mankind together.  He must seek to build rather than to destroy.  He must orient his efforts towards world unity and not towards world division.  Anyone who promotes policies of hatred and of war is working for the division and the destruction of civilized mankind.

We have to be convinced that there are certain things already clearly forbidden to all men, such as the use of torture, the killing of hostages, genocide (or the mass extermination of racial, national, or other groups for no reason than that they belong to an “undesirable” category).  The destruction of civilized centers by nuclear annihilation bombing is genocide.

We have to become aware of the poisonous effect of the mass media that keeps violence, cruelty, and sadism constantly present to the minds of unformed and irresponsible people.  We have to recognize the danger to the whole world in the fact that today the economic life of the more highly developed nations is in large part centered on the production of weapons, missiles, and other engines of destruction.

We have to consider that the hate propaganda, and the consistent heckling of one government by another, has always inevitably led to violent conflict.  We have to recognize the implications of voting for politicians who promote policies of hate.  We must never forget that our most ordinary decisions may have terrible consequences.

It is no longer reasonable or right to leave all decisions to a largely anonymous power elite that is driving us all, in our passivity, towards ruin.  We have to make ourselves heard.

Every individual Christian has a grave responsibility to protest clearly and forcibly against trends that lead inevitably to crimes which the church deplores and condemns.  Ambiguity, hesitation, and compromise are no longer permissible.  We must find some new and constructive way of settling international disputes.  This may be extraordinarily difficult.  Obviously war cannot be abolished by mere wishing.  Severe sacrifices may be demanded and the results will hardly be visible in our day.  We have still time to do something about it, but the time is rapidly running out.

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