A Moral Blind Spot: The Catholic Establishment and the Y-12 Nuclear Protest

Sister Megan Rice

Sister Megan Rice

Michael Gallagher.  Introduction by William Astore.

It was called mutually assured destruction, or MAD for short.  In the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union threatened each other with mass murder.  If the nuclear missiles had flown, perhaps 100 million souls would have been vaporized in thirty minutes.  Perhaps the human species (and most other species) would have been threatened with extinction due to nuclear winter.  Not exactly a “love your neighbor” policy, nor a “love God” policy, considering a nuclear war would have destroyed most of God’s creation.

As Michael Gallagher notes in his first article for The Contrary Perspective, the Catholic Church has been largely silent on the moral issue of nuclear war.  Dedicated anti-war activists like Sister Megan Rice are essentially dismissed as zealots and ignored by the hierarchy.  As witnesses to Christ’s two great commandments, Rice and her fellow protesters are just too dedicated to the cause of peace and justice and love.  Aren’t they?  We can’t have that in the Catholic Church, can we?  W.J. Astore 

A Moral Blind Spot

Michael Gallagher

On February 18, a Federal Judge in Knoxville, Tennessee sentenced Megan Rice, an 84-year-old nun who served for forty years in West Africa, to a term of thirty-five months for her spectacular incursion into the Y-12 nuclear facility in Oak Ridge together with her fellow activists Michael Walli, 65, and Gregory Boertje-Obed, 58.  The equally culpable Walli and Boertje-Obed received longer sentences, five years each, mainly, it seems, because they weren’t venerable old nuns.

The enthusiastic world-wide support given the extraordinary trio failed to include so much as an absent-minded pat on the head from the American Catholic hierarchy.  Nor did they get much more attention from the liberal Catholic media—Commonweal, the Jesuit Magazine America and the National Catholic Reporter—perhaps because nothing makes a liberal quite as uncomfortable as a radical.

The secular media gave them somewhat more attention.  The New York Times, those wonderful folks who helped bring us the Iraq War, got so carried away by the sheer drama of three elderly Catholic radicals armed with wire cutters trudging three miles through a forbidden area to desecrate the holy of holies of America’s nuclear might with peace graffiti, ran a picture of Sr. Megan on the front page, a display that probably spoiled the breakfast of a comfortable churchmen like Cardinal Dolan of New York.

But then the Times, a senior member, after all, of what ex-CIA man-turned activist Ray McGovern terms the FCM (the Fawning Corporate Media), came to its senses, and there was no significant follow-up.  Journalists from The Guardian and Al Jazeera, on the other hand, interviewed the culprits in prison, and Mother Jones did a feature article on them.  And then, for good measure, People magazine—yes, People magazine!ran a story on their sentencing.

The moral obtuseness of the Catholic hierarchy runs deep.  Fr. John McKenzie, S.J. the eminent biblical scholar had an irreverent sense of humor.  In his classes at my seminary he referred to the aptly named Bathsheba’s rooftop ablutions as history’s most famous bath.  Then more seriously, but with a satirical sting, he wrote in The Civilization of Christianity that reasonably intelligent Catholics realize in their heart of hearts that the Mennonites have gotten Jesus right, but if the Church dared to give a like witness, the harmonious and mutually advantageous relationship between the Church and the American government, for example, would come to a crashing halt.

It did, in fact, give signs of doing just that a generation ago when the America bishops shook up the Reagan administration and the Pentagon with the first draft of their peace pastoral The Challenge of Peace.  Harmony was swiftly restored, however, when the bishops, under pressure from John Paul II, came out with two denatured subsequent drafts and, after a bit of the usual pious boilerplate concluded not with a bang but a whimper: they declared the nuclear standoff morally acceptable, not as a permanent state, but as a stage towards nuclear disarmament.

That was more than three decades ago.  To be fair, there have some steps since then, but baby steps, always allowing each of the warhead-packing negotiators to keep enough stuff on hand to destroy life on the planet two or three times over instead of five or six or whatever.

The American Church Hierarchy, like their brother bishops abroad, have never, ever declared a war fought by their country to be unjust.  Hence their reluctance to bring up the distressing subject of war lest they endanger their invincible ignorance—the kind that removes all guilt—by inadvertently learning too much and thus being forced to act morally or—as we used to say–commit a grievous sin.   And Plowshare activists like Megan, Michael, and Greg annoy the hell out of them by calling attention to our nation’s tireless preparations for nuclear Armageddon.

Bishops are supposed to be instructors of their dioceses in matters of faith and morals, and with instructors like this—hirelings rather than true shepherds—is it any wonder that Catholics—though aware in varying degrees that war is not good—don’t see the moral dimensions of a particular war as being any of their concern?

Pope Francis gave a homily recently in which he said that war was a bad thing, which was nice, especially since this was the first time that I recall his saying it. On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, his predecessor, John Paul II, lamented that “War is a defeat for mankind,” but he didn’t mention any war in particular though the United States of America, a Christian nation as many in our Congress and state legislatures vehemently insist, was about to launch a war that violated each and every condition needed to qualify as a just war and which, among a host of other evils, would decimate the Catholic community of Baghdad, which was quite older, by the way, than the dioceses of New York and Chicago. Pius XII also decried war, frequently, but like Francis and John Paul II, he never specified which war he was referring to though an eminently decryable one was raging all around him.

His successor, on the other hand, Paul VI, a mild-mannered man not noted for his decisiveness (“How’s your Hamlet doing up doing up there in Milan?” the jovial John XXIII once asked a Milanese priest) came out with a cri de coeur rather than a prepared statement when he visited Hiroshima and called the nuclear massacre perpetrated there, “a butchery of unprecedented immensity,” a declaration—and by implication an accusation—that set the teeth of many a patriotic American bishop on edge.

Unfortunately Paul VI’s Japanese itinerary didn’t include Nagasaki, the historical center of Japanese Christianity.  There the “second bomb”—dropped by a B-29 piloted by Major Chuck Sweeney and one of whose crewman was named Gallagher—had a plutonium core that made it much more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. The reason Nagasaki’s death toll did not surpass Hiroshima’s was that it missed its target point, the center of the city, and burst directly over Urakami, the most Catholic section of Nagasaki,  destroying the cathedral and, among its other victims, wiping out three congregations of nuns.

There was no comment on either atomic bombing by any Catholic bishop anywhere in the world, including the Bishop of Rome, over such heinous violations of the Just War theory, which condemns assaults on the civilian population—just as there had been none before that about the area bombing of Europe by the Royal Air Force and the fire bomb massacres committed by the American Air Force in Japan.  (The latter raids, it’s worth mentioning, were led by Curtis LeMay, the recipient of an honorary degree from a Jesuit school as, more recently, was John Brennan—my alma mater, John Carroll in the first instance, Fordham in the second.  And, oh yes, both degrees were in humanities.)

Ask the average American Catholic what are the issues facing the Church, and odds are that he or she will come up with the usual suspects—abortion, contraception, married priests, women priests, gay marriage, the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments, a decline in church attendance, and so on.   Some few with a broader vision might mention the clerical sexual abuse crisis, which despite all assurances from on high, is still far from resolved.

I don’t deny that these are significant matters, but war and the threat of nuclear annihilation especially are still more urgent and of greater moral consequences.  By confronting them, furthermore, the Church would regain a measure of the moral credibility that it squandered in rushing to consult its lawyers rather than the Holy Spirit when the clerical sexual abuse crisis arose.

An English lay theologian, a friend of mind, asked in a recent e-mail when I was going to warm up to Pope Francis, and I answered that I would once he commended Megan, Michael, and Greg in his next homily on war and chastised the American hierarchy for ignoring the Christian witness they embodied in condemning evil incarnate.

Michael Gallagher, a coeval of Sr. Megan and a former Jesuit seminarian, served as a paratrooper during the Korean War.  His book on Catholic activists, The Laws of Heaven, won the National Jesuit Book Award in theology in 1992, and his translation of Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow was a finalist for the National Book Award in translation in 1972.

9 thoughts on “A Moral Blind Spot: The Catholic Establishment and the Y-12 Nuclear Protest

  1. Thank you Michael Gallagher for the most forthright statement about your church I have ever read. Your religion is not alone though. Although Judaism is not as hierarchical as Catholicism a similar situation exists today in which orthodoxy rules over the basic tenets of Judaism which are similar to Catholicism. Any criticism of Israeli oppressive policies vis a vis the Palestinians is considered heretical. And to make matters worse, many Jews have been at the heart of policy making in the US for the last few years in which we have been sold aggressive war making as well as imperialistic and illegal foreign and domestic policies. The Moslems are not trailing far behind the West’s Judeo-Christian anti-human policies. God help the people on our small planet!

    • In my youth, I used to hear people say, when looking upon the the abused and destitute of this world: “There but for the grace of god go I.” Which always sounded to me like another way of saying: “There and by the curse of god go they.” The concept of omniscient omnipotence, whether of the all-knowing, all-powerful invisible super-parent or the all-seeing, all-controlling totalitarian state, carries with it the implication of responsibility for all the good and evil that happens on earth — or the utter indifference to both. I always thought that the latter alternative made the most logical sense, given the evidence that I could see. And whenever I heard people say: “God helps those who help themselves,” I immediately understood the message to the working-class: “You’re on your own.” So I never thought much about “gods” from about the time I learned to read and think for myself.

      For example: my Lutheran mother gave me a bible on December 25, 1959, and encouraged me to read it. Only twelve years old at the time, I never got further than Chapter 17 of the Book of Genesis. I found it incredible that a ninety-nine year old man would “fall down on his face” – twice – before the awful specter of an invisible something-or-other that promised to add a syllable to his name, making him A-bra-ham instead of just A-bram. Not only that, but the awful invisible specter granted the old guy and his descendants eternal title to some land on condition that he slice some skin off the end of his penis and off the penises of his sons (which his ninety-year-old wife would soon present to him), and their male children’s penises, and the penises of all their male slaves, and so on and so forth. I think I counted something like eight or nine references to circumcision just in that one little chapter. It occurred to me to wonder why the awful invisible specter would create males with foreskins on their penises only to then insist that they slice them off. I asked my mother about this but she found the whole subject embarrassing. Many years later when I had to visit a military hospital in Vietnam (to have one of my fingers x-rayed for a possible fracture) I passed by the ward where the circumcision and hemorrhoid patients recuperated from their surgeries. Some of the poor guys couldn’t stand up and some of them couldn’t sit down. I thought about that bible that my mother had given me and tried as best I could not to burst out laughing and crying at the same time.

      At any rate, since Muslims also slice off the foreskins of their male children and trace their ancestry back to the same ninety-nine-year-old man who fell down on his face and got a syllable added to his name for mutilating his own genitalia, then the Muslims have the same title to the land of Palestine as do the Jews who have also had the foreskins of their penises circumcised. It says so right there in the Old Testament of the Christian bible. And who can argue with something as authoritative as that?

      • God, that’s funny, Mike. Put differently, even God is laughing, if I may be so presumptuous as to judge the Almighty’s sense of humor.

  2. In addition to Spring Snow (春の雪 Haru no Yuki), Mr Gallagher also translated Runaway Horses (奔馬, Honba), volumes I and II, respectively, of Mishima Yukio’s tetralogy Sea of Fertility (豊饒の海 Hōjō no Umi). Volumes III and IV had other translators. I still have all four books but haven’t read them since I took a college course in Japanese literature more years ago than I care to remember. At any rate, I thank Mr Gallagher for his contribution to my earlier education in things Japanese.

    For my part, I spent seventeen years, off and on as time allowed, transcribing the Japanese version of The Threefold Lotus Sutra into a computer format that would display the text in pre-WWII Chinese characters instead of the simplified post-war characters that the Japanese use today. Then I merged the Japanese text with romanized alphabetic characters that would indicate pronunciation to English speakers who might want to chant the sutra together with native Japanese speakers as part of their recitation practice. The text contains a few errors, as anything printed does, and I offered to fix these, but the Japanese lay Buddhists I know considered the idea out of the question. “Millions of believers revere the sutra,” they told me, “so we can’t allow any tampering with their faith.” So there you have the age-old story of “biblical infallibility,” otherwise known as “bureaucratic inertia,” or “standardized error.”

    Anyway: “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition,” as my parent’s generation of Christians used to sing during WWII. Or, as the lifer warriors in Vietnam liked to say:

    “Kill a gook for god.”
    “Kill a commie for Christ.”
    “Kill them all and let god sort it out.”
    “Better dead than Red.”
    “Make love AND war.”
    “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s Viet Cong.”
    “Don’t knock the war, it’s the only one we’ve got.”

    Onward, Christian soldiers …General Jerry Boykin says that his god is bigger than anyone else’s god (or no gods at all). And moral cretins like this have access to thousands of nuclear weapons and think that Armageddon sounds like a good idea?

  3. From Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut:
    (Chapter 56 – A Self-supporting Squirrel Cage):

    Oh, a very sorry people, yes
    Did I find here.
    Oh, they had no music,
    And they had no beer.
    And, Oh, everywhere
    Where they tried to perch
    Belonged to Castle Sugar, Incorporated,
    Or the Catholic church.

    “Castle Sugar’s San Lorenzo operations … never showed a profit. But, by paying laborers nothing for their labor, the company managed to break even year after year, making just enough money to pay the salaries of the workers’ tormentors.”

    “[In San Lorenzo] the form of government was anarchy, save in limited situations wherein Castle Sugar wanted to own something or to get something done. In such situations the form of government was feudalism. The nobility was comprised of Castle Sugar’s plantation bosses, who were heavily armed white men from the outside world. The knighthood was composed of big natives who, for small gifts and silly privileges, would kill or wound or torture on command. The spiritual needs of the people caught in this demoniacal squirrel cage were taken care of by butterball priests.”

    So now a butterball nun goes to jail for spraying irreverent graffiti on the walls of San Lorenzo’s WMD factories. Not likely to affect either Uncle Sugar, Incorporated, or the Catholic church; for as Thomas Jefferson truly said two centuries ago:

    “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”

  4. Dan Berrigan is a priest. Fr. Boylan and Fr. Murphy, the leaders of the Irish peasant revolt in Wexford in 1798 were priests. I’m a Catholic, and the ideas embodied in my essay I owe to the Catholic Church, The six Jesuits martyred in El Salvador were priests. And then there was Archbishop Oscar Romero.

    • Prof Gallagher, are you still with us? I just came across your article looking for a connection on evil between John McKenzie and Hannah Arendt. His thoughts on evil in “The Double Edged Sword” predate her’s in the Eichmann trial by ten years.

  5. Pingback: Saint John Paul II? Really? | The Contrary Perspective

  6. Hello Mike,

    I was delighted to read your fine article. I not only agree wholeheartedly with you, but reading it brought back memories of Milford and West Baden. I continue to teach sociology at Gannon University, in Erie, PA.

    Dick Moodey

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