“When We Americans Have a Problem, We Kill Somebody”

The hint of such weapons being used--how can this be morally acceptable to anyone, especially to a church that says it follows Christ?

The hint of such weapons being used–how can this be morally acceptable to anyone, especially to a church that says it follows Christ?

Michael Gallagher.  Introduction by William Astore.

The Contrary Perspective is pleased to offer an early look at the first chapter of Mike Gallagher’s new book, provisionally titled The Bishop’s Beggar: A Memoir.  Gallagher tackles the question of how and why the Catholic hierarchy failed to condemn mass murder, specifically the policy of mutual assured destruction by nuclear weapons, otherwise known as MAD, during and after the Reagan Administration.  With penetrating intellect and moral probity, Gallagher suggests that the Church’s failure to speak with authority against nuclear mass murder, to include the failure to condemn the “first use” of nuclear weapons by the United States and other Western, non-communist, countries, corroded or corrupted the Church, opening it to sin in ways that had nothing to do with nuclear mass murder but which had everything to do with the failure to protect innocents, e.g. the blanket cover-up of pedophile priests and their horrific crimes against children.

     Gallagher is that rare breed of Catholic who actually believes the Church should preach the teachings of Christ, and practice them as well, even when the words and works offend the powerful.  Would that more Catholic bishops had his moral courage.  W.J. Astore

What Ever Became of the American Bishops’ Peace Pastoral?

Michael Gallagher

Three years after I had published articles in New York Newsday and Commonweal praising, with caveats, the American bishops’ 1983 Peace Pastoral, The Challenge of Peace, I set to work to write another article for Commonweal, only this time no more Mr. Nice Guy.   The editors—I’ll have to give them some credit now since I’ll have so little to give the hereafter–gave the article an especially apt title: “Sidestepping the Challenge of Peace.”  (Seattle archbishop Raymond Hunthausen—harassed by the Vatican for being rude enough to call a Trident based in his diocese, the Auschwitz of Puget Sound , would quote from it extensively at the 1986 Pax Christi convention in Chicago when he received its “Teacher of Peace Award.”)

I began my article by noting that the United Methodists had come right out and condemned nuclear deterrence, goring the ox that John Paul II had giving a friendly pat on the rump at the UN.   “We have concluded,” the Methodists said, “that nuclear deterrence is a position that cannot receive the church’s blessing.”  Then, likening it by implication to another beast, the Golden Calf, they declared that, “Nuclear Deterrence has too long been reverenced as the idol of national security . . . and must not receive the church’s blessing even as a temporary warrant for holding onto nuclear weapons.”

From the perspective of a quarter of a century, it’s clear that I went a bit too far in my praise of the United Methodists.  I was, in fact, more than a little aware of this at the time.   I had concluded my Newsday and Commonweal articles with a “What now?” but I failed to do so with the Methodist declaration because I admired it so much and because, to be honest, I didn’t want to blunt the rhetorical force of my “J’accuse” directed against my own bishops.   But “What next?” was the obvious question to have asked once more.   Refusing to bless nuclear deterrence was all well and good, but it wasn’t likely to disturb the Defense Establishment much despite the notorious sensitivity of its myriad champions on Capitol Hill, who professed to be ardent patriots but were more concerned, I submit, about endangering a major source of pork for their states and districts. If the Methodist bishops, on the other hand, had enjoined the faithful not to participate in any way in the preparation for nuclear massacre as Walter Murphy’s Pope Francis does in Vicar of Christ, that would be a peace horse of a different color.  But they didn’t, and they still haven’t twenty-five years later.  He who says “A” must say “B.”  The Methodist “A” was more forthright than the Catholic “A,” but, needless to say, neither has yet said “B” nor gives any sign of doing so.

But capitalizing on the rhetorical opportunity handed me–when the rhetoric and the facts don’t match, print the rhetoric–I gave thanks that I was not a simplistic Protestant who didn’t believe in doing things by halves but a Roman Catholic who belonged to a Church that did, especially when an overwhelming moral compulsion gave it little choice but to speak truth to power, however timidly, on a subject other than abortion.  You couldn’t beat our bishops for making distinctions and spinning out airy nuances to justify not only rending unto Caesar what was due to Caesar but allowing him full line of credit to boot.  They could thus take a stand on a highly controversial public issue and offend no one but Michael Novak and William F. Buckley Jr., who didn’t count because they were Catholics too.   I didn’t mention George Weigel.  His star had not yet risen high enough to take notice, but his avid fawning upon the movers and shakers who controlled reactionary foundations would soon get him there.

Then I thought of Stanley.  I had met Stanley four years before after the release of the second draft of the Peace Pastoral, a time when fear and expectation were abroad in the land that the Catholic Church, the most patriotic of institutions, had stirred itself from its pious languor vis-à-vis public issues other than abortion and was laboring to give birth to a radical statement about nuclear weapons, one that would jeopardize that marriage of Cross and Flag that Cardinal Spellman had consummated with special ardor.  Though Stanley was a fellow parishioner of mine at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Ridgewood, N.J., we apparently went to different Masses since I never laid eyes upon him until he responded to a notice I had put in the parish bulletin about a getting a group together to study The Challenge of Peace.  (Notice my admirable show of charity in presuming that Stanley did go to Mass.  I just can’t help myself.)

I found six parishioners willing to meet once a week during Lent with my wife and me.  Five of them I had already known.  They were sincere Catholics, not especially political, who were eager to know just what the bishops had said.  As I’ve noted, there were no sermons on the Peace Pastoral just as there had been none on “Economic Justice for All,” the pastoral letter on the economy.  As for Stanley, however, it soon became evident that he, though quite sincere himself, was of a quite different cast of mind.

Now I won’t say that Stanley was then or at any other time a member of the CIA though he was not averse to dropping hints that something of the sort might have been the case.  On the other hand his extensive travels in the Far East and other places (he had a Japanese wife), to which he dropped oblique allusions, could have been nothing more than the usual itinerary of, say, a soybean importer.  What matters, however, is that Stanley was about as far to the right as you can get, and, as might be expected, he took the Peace Pastoral as a personal affront.  Before he read it, that is.  Once we were finished our study, Stanley was no longer much concerned one way or the other.

“They waffled,” said Stanley. “It’s obvious.  If they really believed what they say they believe about nuclear weapons, than I don’t see how they could have come to the conclusion they came to.”

This, I stress, was Stanley talking.  Not Dan Berrigan, who would, if asked, have said the equivalent, but Stanley, a wholehearted advocate of muscular Christianity at its brawniest and a fervent anti-Communist.   Stanley had a logical mind, however, and conditions or no conditions, he knew the moral equivalent of a blank check when he saw one.

For another metaphor I drew upon what was once our National Pastime before being displaced by those NFL’s gladiatorial combats more congenial to our brutal era.  What the bishops had done, in effect, was, after leading the Military-Industrial Complex for eight and a half innings, serve up a gopher ball in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded, and there went the old ball game.  Nor had we in the three years since the release of the Pastoral heard a peep out of the committee set up to report on how a properly chastened Reagan administration had heeded its admonitions.  It was almost as though they preferred not to know.

I then suggested that this obscure committee, whose obscurity would only deepen as the years passed, could save further expenses on coffee and danish by forthwith closing up shop.  The Reagan Administration, I said, would have no more regard for the mild admonitions of the Peace Pastoral than did Stanley.  Nor, as it turned out, would the men who succeeded Reagan.  Bush pere and fils, Clinton, and Obama have had in fact had far less need to do so since in the course of the three decades since its release it has become a dead letter.   Obama’s example is especially instructive.  Surely it was the first time in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize that the honoree took such pains to insist upon the place of war in the scheme of things. Reinhold Niebuhr was his inspiration not the Challenge of Peace.

The American bishops were by no means altogether to blame in 1983.  Rome had enjoined them from the very beginning that they could be no means outlaw the possession of nuclear weapons (an injunction that seems to me to come close to sinning against the Holy Spirit, the one sin that Jesus had called unforgivable, but judge not and you shall not be judged, I always say.)  What also weighed heavily upon their deliberations in 1982 and 1983, moreover, was the papal statement delivered in a letter read to the UN in June of 1982, an intervention that should go down in history as a bleak day for both the Gospel and moral theology.

John Paul II’s endorsement of nuclear deterrence as “based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a step along the way towards a progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable,” had the effect of lobbing a gopher ball broad as a harvest moon across the plate to exponents of muscular Christianity—Reagan’s Catholic advisers in particular, including his boyhood friend William Clark, who, asked at his confirmation hearing as national security advisor what he thought about nuclear proliferation, confessed that he had no opinion.

John Paul’s almost offhand green light for deterrence—had he considered it of great importance, one would think that he would have delivered his message in person to  the UN—bears much of the responsibility for the American’s hierarchy’s reluctance to revisit The Challenge of Peace for the past thirty years save for a brief mention on the tenth anniversary in The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace, their 1993 pastoral, much of which taken up with dithering over the moral implications of Reagan’s much-hyped  Strategic Defense Initiative, aptly nicknamed Star Wars since it was a fantasy then and remains a fantasy today. As for nuclear deterrence as morally acceptable only as a temporary measure meant to lead to eventual disarmament, the bishops acknowledged that Washington had not made any significant progress in this direction over the previous decade nor had it given any indication that it intended to do so any time soon.  One might expect, therefore, some show of episcopal disapproval, but none followed.  The rest was silence.  One that remains unbroken twenty years later.

In reference to John Paul’s UN statement, Jim Castelli, in The Bishops and the Bomb, quoted Cardinal Joseph Krol of Philadelphia, a true conservative and one of the few members of the episcopacy who had no qualms about differing with a pope whose candidacy he had promoted at the conclave that elected him.  Krol, whose brother, Joe, owned a bar a short walk from our home in East Cleveland,  went on record during the discussion of the Peace Pastoral as saying that “tolerated” would have been preferable to “accepted.”  Nor had my old classmate from St. Philomena’s had any qualms in turn about taking issue with Krol.  (As a layman, Grisez wasn’t worried about jeopardizing his chances of making bishop.)   One can tolerate another’s evil, said Grisez, but not one’s own.

The second and final drafts of the Peace Pastoral took their cue from this ill-conceived papal concession, but the first draft (apparently written before the UN statement but released just after it) stated in a no-nonsense fashion that that the “deterrence relationship that exists between the United States, the Soviet Union, and other powers is objectively a sinful situation (emphasis mine).   The phrase “sinful situation” survived in quotation marks in the second draft (“All of these conditions are the reason we have called the arms race, with deterrence as its key element, a ‘sinful situation’”), but the bishops pruned it from the final version, apparently feeling that  quotation marks didn’t neutralize it enough to pass Rome’s scrutiny.

Also present, if hurried over, in drafts one and two and gone from the final version was Russ Shaw’s lapidary sentence tucked unnoticed into To Live in Christ Jesus, a forthwith declaration in contrast to which The Challenge of Peace would represent a step backwards, but, of course, nobody important would notice.

It’s obvious why the bishops, many of whom had unwittingly approved Shaw’s condemnation of deterrence in 1976, banished it entirely from the Peace Pastoral once its implications sunk in.  For it might have given the logical-minded cause to wonder how something that was declared wrong in 1976 could be “still morally acceptable” (emphasis mine) in 1982, when the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists had set the hands of the Doomsday Clock a bit closer to midnight.  (At the moment it’s set at five minutes to midnight but given the dismaying news coming from Ukraine and Gaza at this writing, it’s not likely to remain there long.)

Judging from our complacency, however (Cleveland is rejoicing over the return of LeBron at the moment and eagerly anticipating the exploits on field and off of Johnny Manziel), you’d never guess our peril.  I can’t help thinking about Jesus’ words comparing his generation with those who lived in the time of Noah, “eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage” until the Flood came and overwhelmed them.

After lamenting the bishop’s issuing their challenge only to duck it themselves, I went on in my article to ask what would happen if they were to take their stance towards their country’s readiness to commit nuclear massacre if need be as a model for moral theology in other areas.

Let’s be honest, I said.  Let’s be practical.  Let’s get away from the Groves of Academe, from those pleasant seminars and workshops, from the germ-free, child-free environments (children of all ages are an annoying distraction from serious endeavor of any kind—and from some enjoyable non-serious endeavors too) that seem to be the habitat of American Catholic theologians, and venture into what for what of a better terms we call the real world, the kind of world that Catholics must contend with.

What would happen, I asked, if the final ambivalence of the peace pastoral did serve as a model in other areas of moral theology?  No matter how exceptional the circumstances in each case, no matter how hedged about and bristling with conditions, the result of such episcopal largesse would be to reduce the effective teaching authority of the Church to a shambles.  Parents would have no idea what to tell their children.  Even then, in 1987, we were sliding in that directions, I noted, because of the touchy-feely cast of so much religious education (something I knew firsthand as a Sunday school teacher confronting “the furry belly of a camel”) and the dearth of effective pastoral guidance, which only corroborated my contention that an overwhelming number of American Catholics simply did not know what to think about their country’s unrelenting and quite expensive preparation for nuclear massacre.  True, many, if not most, of us were just as happy about not knowing since it gave us leave to indulge ourselves in the abundance of diversions that American life provided even then, before the tsunami of electronic gadgets engulfed popular culture.  But what of the authentic Christian witness that the bishops never tired of urging upon us in the abstract?

Yes, I wrote, the latest Andrew Greeley survey might reveal that Catholics were thinking in more dubious terms about the arms race, but while we were thinking more dubiously, the Reagan administration was doing more dubiously.

And, yes, George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger, and William Clark, coached like beauty pageant queens by Georgetown professors who professed to believe in God and, supreme leap of faith, limited nuclear war, had taken to larding their apologia with terms such as “measured” and “proportionate,” speaking of “limiting collateral damage.” and insisting that they had no intention whatsoever of targeting population centers “as such.”  But was anybody naive enough to think, I wrote, that anything had really changed since the Peace Pastoral came out in May 1983?   Except, of course, that the world was that much closer to nuclear massacre.  Except, of course, that the vacillation of our supposed spiritual guides has enabled us Catholics to harden our hearts still more and turn our eyes away from the light still more determinedly.

Then I took note of the protests that arise from those who would insist that nothing had happened, deterrence had worked, our great nation has not been party to a nuclear holocaust.  America was guiltless.  I, they would insist, was ranting on about potential, not actual, evil.

I was indeed concerned about potential evil, about future evil, about the aftermath of pushing those buttons and sending those ICBM up, up and away on their lethal missions.  And I still am, a concern intensified then as it is now by being the father of three children and the grandfather of two.  But I was also concerned, I wrote, about actual evil, about evil that was here with us then and, needless to say, is here with us now.

In Catholic moral theology, though Catholic moral theologians rarely come out and say so (and bishops never), your intention is what’s primary.   But don’t take my word for, I said.  I called upon a higher authority, much higher.  “The ancients told you not to commit adultery,” said Jesus, “but, amen, I say to you, whoever looks at a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery with her.  The decision to yield to lust is not merely a potential evil but an actual evil.  Or as we used to call it, a sin.   I observed that I though it was a remarkable commentary on the sex-fixated character of Catholic moral theology that no moral theologian I’m aware of seems to have thought of applying  this supremely apt text to deterrence—to our looking at Moscow and Leningrad with the fixed intention—the moral equivalent of lust in the heart—to destroy them.  Much less, I wrote, has any prominent theologian I knew of pondered the effect of an evil intention so intense and so prolonged upon the mind and will of individuals and of the nation itself.  For the habit of sin, as Aristotle noted of every habit, grows easier and more natural with practice.

To the extent that American bishops had acquiesced to tolerating this bloodlust, moreover—and they had acquiesced quite a ways and, at this writing, are still doing so (“who remains silent consents”)—they were aggravating their guilt and crippling their moral authority, not just with regard to modern war but to everything else as well, including the sexual morality that they so prized.  Which, of course, is an outcome that the sexual abuse scandal seems to have corroborated in horrifying fashion.

In describing the contrast between the American bishops’ ambivalence on nuclear deterrence and their absolutism on sexual morality, I presented two detailed examples couched in language not at all in keeping with the cool objectivity that marked most Commonweal articles.  The first was a dialog between “Susan” and the American Hierarchy, which might seem inspired by recent events at prestigious universities, not excluding Notre Dame, but I wrote it a generation before rape scandals were to tarnish even the Golden Dome:

Dear American Hierarchy: I’m eighteen years old and a freshman at a Catholic college.  I was a virgin until two weeks ago when I was gang raped in the lobby of my dorm by six drunken football players–all of them on scholarship.  Now I’m pregnant.  May I have an abortion?  Respectfully yours, Susan.

And the reply of the American hierarchy?  It was prompt and altogether compassionate:

Dear Susan: Our pastoral hears are deeply grieved to hear about your problem, but the answer is no.  Devotedly yours in Christ, the American Hierarchy.  P.S. We will pray for you.

To which Susan responded:

Dear A.H., I don’t see how you can stand by and let that doddering old fool Reagan get ready to blow up the world and kill millions of pregnant women and their unborn babies and not let me have an abortion.  S.

Dear Susan: You don’t understand.  Unless we let Mr. Reagan get ready to blow up the world and kill millions of pregnant women and their unborn babies, the Communists will come and take over.  How would you like to live in a society where Christian values count for nothing? Devoted yours in Christ, A.H.

Dear A.H.: Why don’t you come and spend a few days in my dorm?  S.

And if Suzanne instead of Susan had written her own bishops, she would have gotten the same response.  For if the American hierarchy had waffled on the nuclear issue, the French and German hierarchies—concerned about a Soviet armor onslaught through the Fulda Gap—simply capitulated without any attempt at rationalization.

The French bishops showed themselves as adept at trimming their sails to the wind of a Socialist government as their 18th century predecessors had been to the that of a Bourbon monarchy (which incidentally didn’t turn out too well for them, except of course for Talleyrand).   Their pastoral letter of 1983—which, I submit, they never would have written if their American brother bishops had been content to let sleeping dogs, especially vicious sleeping dogs, lie—they called Winning the Peace, a verb choice that was ominous to anybody at all attentive to nuances. They acknowledged—and here, to give credit where credit was due, they were far more candid than their American counterparts—that theirs was a “poor man’s deterrent” based upon “an anti-city strategy, itself clearly condemned, without appeal,” an obvious reference to the Vatican II declaration I’ve already quoted, though they were shrewd enough not to cite it lest somebody look it up and read the whole thing.

And so the French bishops, emboldened by John Paul’s statement to the UN, were confident enough that they could get by with the rhetorical equivalent of a Gallic shrug.

But threat is not use,” they wrote. “Does the immorality of use render the threat immoral? This is not evident.”

This is not evident!  Jesus wept.

Besides condemning deterrence itself as being intrinsically evil, I devoted much of my article to speculating upon about the effect of an intention so intense and so prolonged to commit mass slaughter upon the mind and will not only of the missileers themselves but the nation as a whole.  “Living in sin,” is a habit, and Aristotle wrote that habits, good or bad, become more ingrained the longer they’re practiced.

As to the first, I gave the hypothetical example of a missileer I called Fred, a devout Catholic and family man.  Suppose, I wrote, that Fred, after a few years of twenty-four hour shifts on alternate days in the course of which he knows he might be commanded at any moment to kill several million human beings, including infants and pregnant women, he stops in a bar on his night off and, after two or three beers, he meets a friendly woman—this, as you see, is not what Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan called an impoverished abstraction—with whom he goes to bed with.  Could it be there is a link between Fred’s adultery and his fixed intention to kill all those people?  Could it also be that in a more sober state afterwards, he would try to rationalize his conduct by asking what right does the Church have to call him a sinner for committing adultery when it has nothing to say about his readiness to commit mass murder?  Might he even start to have severe doubts about the bishops’ really believing what they professed to believe?  And if they didn’t, why should he.

I made up Fred in 1986, but I didn’t make up in 2013—nor could I possibly have made up—the major general in charge of the 20th Air Force, a command that oversees 450 ICBM’s in silos across the northern plain states, who was repeatedly drunk and boorish in the course of heading an official delegation to Moscow in the summer of 2013 as part of a nuclear security training exercise with his Russian military counterparts.   According to the subsequent investigation, the general’s conduct “exceeded the limits of accepted standards of good conduct and behavior.”

Well, I guess so.  This very model of a modern major general frequently boasted about how important he was and how he saved the world everyday.  (Which of course implied that he could destroy it everyday as well.)   And there was the matter of his excusing his lateness for one meeting by saying he had met two “hot babes” at the bar of a Mexican restaurant in Moscow the night before.  The said “hot babes” turned out to be foreigners, who presumably weren’t spies but just a couple of nice girls out for a good time who loved men in uniform.

Whether this very real general, now relegated to the Air Force Space Command (where he is charged, perhaps, with keeping an eye out for signs of Martian aggression), suffered from the same traumatic stress and  moral qualms in 2013 as my fictional Fred a generation earlier, I have no idea, but I wouldn’t rule it out.  At any rate the media has been full in recent months of reports testifying to the low morale of the Missile Command, stories that included the dismissal of nine officers, the reports of security lapses (a blast door left open to facilitate pizza delivery), and widespread cheating on  readiness tests.

But let’s consider the effect of a prolonged state of nuclear deterrence not only on the men and women directly charged with the stressful, as well as tedious, duty of maintaining it, but on the nation as a whole.  Is it mere coincidence that the rising tide in violence of every sort in this country has gone hand in hand with that vastly diminished regard for the sanctity of human life that nuclear deterrence, like abortion, embodies?  It is mere coincidence, moreover, that when the Roe v. Wade decision was issued in 1973, nuclear deterrence had been accepted as the status quo for nearly three decades and that Americans had been watching the misbegotten Vietnam War on the 8 o’clock news for nearly two decades?  As Dan Berrigan once observed, when we Americans have a problem, we kill somebody.

The Commonweal editors published an article accompanying mine by Edward Doherty.   Doherty, a retired Foreign Service office, had been an advisor to the U.S. Catholic Conference for many years and had been very much involved in the writing of the Peace Pastoral.  Given all that, you might suppose that Doherty—we were never to meet unfortunately—would defend the work of the bishops and upbraid me, a rash outsider, for channeling Savonarola in my assault on these honorable men.   Quite the contrary!  Perhaps the committee had paid little heed to Doherty’s advice.  In any case, whether Doherty had read my article or not before he wrote his, I don’t know—nowhere does he refer to it—but he not only corroborated everything I had written, but he condemned the morality of “acceptance” or “toleration” or whatever you want to call it of nuclear deterrence with a theologically approved name: consequentialism.

Consequentialism, he wrote, was a theological error identified and condemned as such by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, and celebrated in popular culture as the Inquisition. Doherty’s title, “A Classic Case of Consequentialism,” expressed his theme as clearly as “Sidestepping The Challenge of Peace” had mine.

If I wrote like Savonarola, Doherty, a layman like me, wrote like a dispassionate theologian (something—a theologian, that is—that neither of us was, which should give one cause to wonder what the theologians themselves were up to all this time.)  He began by quoting extensively from The Ratzinger Report, which he called the “strange and unguarded apology for the views of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger on the church, moral theology, and sex,” particularly in one section, in which Ratzinger talks about what he refers to as:

the so-called “morality of ends”—or, as it is preferred in the United States, where it is particularly developed and diffused–of “consequences”; nothing in itself is good or bad; the goodness of an act depends entirely upon its ends and upon its foreseeable and calculated consequences.  After becoming aware of the problematical character of such a system, some moralists have attempted to tone down “consequentialism” to “proportionalism”; moral conduct depends upon the evaluation of the “proportion” between good and evil.

What the future pope seemed to be describing here used to be called “Situation Ethics” in its brief heyday in the late 50s (theological fads come and go like any other; the “Death of God” would eclipse Situation Ethics in the following decade), and no reputable American Catholic theologian I know of had been willing to touch it with a ten-foot pole, either then or since despite Ratzinger’s viewing with alarm.  But no matter, his distaste for what he saw as American theological adventurism comes across pretty well here, and Ratzinger’s distaste was especially potent because of his position.

Doherty went on to point out that while condemning consequentialism in the United States, “Ratzinger seems to ignore the extent to which the morality of ends informs the judgments of the Holy See when it addresses the moral questions of international political life, in particular those posed by the military confrontation between the two superpowers.”   And, Doherty asserted, John Paul II’s UN statement was a classic example of the morality of ends or of consequentialism or proportionalism or whatever–my own choice being the succinct “the end justifies the means.”

As I had, Doherty referred to the French and German peace pastorals and, as I had implied, wrote that their conclusions did not flow from a moral evaluation of nuclear deterrence but rather the manifest desire to avoid “casting any aspersions on the military strategy of either of their nations.”

Doherty also mentioned something I had failed to note in my critique: “The German pastoral letter,” he wrote, “Out of Justice, Peace [a title only slightly less ominous than the French Winning the Peace], was also at pains not to reject NATO first use strategy, focusing instead on measures “to maximize war prevention,” the latter being a much nicer way of describing nuclear deterrence.”       

Had I been aware, as Doherty had, of the American bishops yielding on no first use (NFU), I would have paid more attention to the final draft of the Peace Pastoral’s waffling on NFU in response to an assault with conventional weapons, a concession made in deference to the fears of the “NATO bishops,” a class of prelate new to me.

The second draft, like the first, had declared, “We do not see any situation in which the deliberate initiation of nuclear warfare, on however restricted a scale, can be justified,” the sentence that upset Archbishop Hoffer and his NATO cohort.    It remained in the final draft, but the bishops etiolated it enough to mollify Hoffer by tacking on a lame and ambiguous conclusion: “At the same time, however, we recognize the responsibility the United States has had and continues to have in assisting allied nations in their defense against either a conventional or a nuclear attack.  Especially in the European theater, the deterrence of a nuclear [emphasis in the original] attack may require nuclear weapons for a time, even though their possession and deployment must be subject to rigid restrictions.”  Prescinding from the question as to whether a nation can ever have a responsibility to sin (Reinhold Niebuhr, of course, would say yes, and, as has become more evident everyday, so would Barack Obama, who quoted him more than once in his Nobel acceptance speech, and, more significant, has put his convictions into practice), I submit that this tortured rhetoric embodies waffling on the scale of a Belgian waffle, a metaphor especially suited to the NATO context.  Italicizing “nuclear” let the American bishops off the hook, allowing them to bless the deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe without specifying how and when they were to be used.

NATO has, in fact, never to this day made a NFU pledge, though–ironically in view of Archbishop  Hoffer’s indignation in 1983—Germany proposed the adoption of a NFU pledge at a NATO summit in 1990, but their allies, including the American bishops’ countrymen in the Pentagon, not a few of them Catholic, voted it down.   It’s also worth noting that the at their 1988 convention the Democrats, always eager to show that they can hang as tough on national security as those bellicose Republicans, voted down a NFU plank in their platform.  (This bold gesture, redolent of patriotism, didn’t help Michael Dukakis much, however, since it had to compete with the two infamous photos: one of Willie Horton and the other of the unfortunate Dukakis as Snoopy-in-a-tank.)

What troubled me the most, however, about justifying the retention of the First Use option in Doherty’s account was the opinion expressed by Cardinal Ratzinger that “the geopolitical context must [emphasis mine] be taken into account in judging the morality of deterrence.”

How could this man charged with overseeing the aforesaid Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, have possibly found a theological basis for so boldfaced a rationalization?   Though I’m not a licensed theologian, I’m familiar enough with the New Testament.  Could I really have gotten Jesus so wrong?  Did he actually say, “Love your enemies as far as the geopolitical context warrants it” and “When a man strikes you on one cheek, turn the other cheek depending upon the geopolitical context”?  Or could it be that what Jesus said didn’t figure in Ratzinger’s consideration?

As for Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, John Paul II’s secretary of state, Doherty wrote that he, “referred to the ‘common conviction’ that the only [emphasis Doherty’s] means at our disposal to avoid the two dangers–and which in substance at least has proven to be effective–is for the time being a sufficient deterrence,” and of course by sufficient deterrence, the cardinal meant nuclear deterrence.  As for the “two dangers,” Casaroli had previously identified them as that of nuclear war and that of “the imposition of an ideology and a socialist regime.”

Ratzinger’s and Casaroli’s  arguments embodied, Doherty wrote, a classic case of “consequentialist reasoning.”  They legitimized means that were at best morally dubious in order to safeguard “desirable short-term political ends.”  Doing so they made it clear that while consequentialism was by no means sauce for the American goose when it came to sexual morality it was sauce, nevertheless, for the Vatican gander when it came to political reality.

Doherty concluded by saying, “The experience of centuries has taught Catholics that the magisterium of the Church can’t help but be schizophrenic when the Holy See tries to be at one and the same time moral teacher and political actor.”   Though he ends on a pessimistic note a little short of cynicism, I’m sure that Doherty was no cynic.  Had he thought there was no hope a change for the better, he wouldn’t have written at all.

Morality must inform every political act, regardless of the geopolitical context, and if doesn’t, then the act is sinful, and should be called so.  It should be called so with especial force if it those who perform it are comfortable old men who are, by definition, well versed in moral principles and so have no claim to the get-out-of-jail-free card of invincible ignorance.  (A card that would later by played, to universal ridicule, by the American hierarchy when it stood accused of covering up sexual abuse.)

Edward Doherty died just a few years after our articles were published.  In retrospect, how odd it is that, with American universities and seminaries teeming with theologians and producing more everyday, two non-theologians, a former diplomat and a former translator from the Japanese, should be the ones to confront what the Vatican once call the “most urgent moral issue of our era” and argue that nuclear deterrence was morally untenable–not by the standards of non-violence alone but by those of the Just War Theory and the documents of Vatican II.

Why I didn’t get into contact with Doherty immediately, I don’t know.  I had pretty much lost contact with the USCC after being fired two years before, and by the time Commonweal published our articles, I was once more thumbing through my dictionaries as I plodded ahead on translating a long and lackluster Japanese novel that, as I had become more and more aware, stood not chance of finding an American publisher.  (It didn’t.)  As for the princely sum I had gotten from Commonweal, I had rushed out and squandered on luxuries my wife had not thitherto enjoyed.

I wish Doherty and I had had a chance to talk.   The moral laxity of the Church had dire consequences to be sure in past centuries, but the stakes had risen to a degree inconceivable after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  I’m speaking primarily of nuclear war, of course, but not just the nuclear war itself but rather the spiritual consequences of the Church’s failure to confront it.  The unwillingness to act on a moral issue that cries out for attention leads to a like dereliction of duty on other moral issues, and failure reinforces failure.  The sexual abuse crisis, as I said–both the abuse itself and the attempts to cover it up–are glaring examples of the lack of faith that has caused both Rome and the American bishops to temporize on the issue of nuclear deterrence and thus bring the Church to a state where no one pays any attention to what the it has to say about anything unless it’s one of the foot-in-mouth lapses that marked Benedict XVI’s papacy.

Twenty-five years have passed since Doherty and I wrote our joint “J’accuse, ”  and the American bishops have only fallen deeper into the moral torpor that came over them after producing the noble but flawed Challenge of Peace, unable to rouse themselves to confront the omnipresent evil of war in the modern age, an enormity of unprecedented dimensions.   And as for Rome, Ratzinger, a major obstacle in 1987 as the head of the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith became still more so as Benedict XVI, a pope no less stern than  his predecessor when it came to cracking down on what he viewed as dissent and just as “understanding” with regard to the “geopolitical context.”

The latter bias recalls Christian missionaries (though by no means all) who preached universal love in China in the 19th and 20th centuries but liked to keep the gunboats handy in case their message didn’t take.  After all, Ita Ford, Jean Donovan, Dorothy Kazel, and Maura Clark had no gunboats to protect them in El Salvador and look where that got them.

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.


2 thoughts on ““When We Americans Have a Problem, We Kill Somebody”

  1. I appreciate moral thrust of the article, but it goes on for over 7,000 words and I must confess to sheer exhaustion after trying to read through it all. If I may take the liberty of attempting a brief synopsis, the author’s quote of a conclusion by Edward Doherty will probably do as well as any other:

    “The experience of centuries has taught Catholics that the magisterium of the Church can’t help but be schizophrenic when the Holy See tries to be at one and the same time moral teacher and political actor.”

    Unfortunately, I don’t see where the unification of Church and State — Emperor Constantine’s “donation,” or “fatal gift” in the Third Century — has necessarily taught Catholics much of anything, since they would not subscribe to Catholicism — i.e., Religious Absolutism — if it had. For a while following the Protestant Reformation, about half of the world’s former Catholics had learned enough about Religions Absolutism to embark upon a historic sequence of schisms that broke away from one new church orthodoxy after another, always approaching closer to the idea of the individual conscience as arbiter of moral conduct. Ultimately, this process of rejecting the commands of “authoritative” hierarchies — of whatever sectarian nature — eventually resulted in the Constitution of the United States, founded upon entirely secular principles prohibiting the State from having anything to do with religion of any kind. Now, that constituted “learning from the experience of centuries.”

    However, as Thomas Jefferson observed and warned:

    “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.”

    So the Great Unlearning began even before the ink on the parchment had dried; because the secular despot always needs the priests, ministers, rabbis, and imams — a.k.a., “theologians” — to supply him or her with hordes of fearful, credulous, compliant followers. As well, the priests, ministers, rabbis, and imams need the secular despot to enforce with the sword or prison compliance with their avowedly “spiritual” mumbo-jumbo: a.k.a., “theology.” For as Charles Sanders Peirce wrote:

    “The principal business of theologians is to make men feel the enormity of the slightest departure from the metaphysics they assume to be connected with the standard faith.”

    And this attempt to “standardize” individual “faith” renders it, in fact, just another name for uncritical obedience to the assumed metaphysics supplied by theologians, which abject obedience has no moral or ethical content whatsoever. As Noam Chomsky writes in Failed States: the Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy:

    “The world has not renounced war. Quite the contrary. By now the world’s hegemonic power accords itself the right to wage war at will, under a doctrine of ‘anticipatory self defense’ with unstated bounds. International law, treaties, and rules of world order are sternly imposed on others with much self-righteous posturing, but dismissed as irrelevant for the United States …”

    “Among the most elementary of moral truisms is a principal of universality: we must apply to ourselves the same standards we do to others, if not more stringent ones. It is a remarkable comment on Western intellectual culture that this principle is so often ignored and, if occasionally mentioned, condemned as outrageous. This is particularly shameful on the part of those who flaunt their Christian piety, and therefore have presumably at least heard of the definition of the hypocrite in the Gospels.”

    In summary, then, only one moral principle applies, and no religious tradition or doctrine has any monopoly upon the exercise of it: namely, that others have the right to treat us precisely as we treat them.

    • Mr Murry: No matter what the topic is, your commentary is always the same no matter how you rephrase it: religion is the source of all that’s wrong with the world, and if we all became good atheists–like Stalin, Pol Pot, and Hitler–things would soon get better.

      The Plowshare Activists, if not Catholic, are motivated by religious faith. What do you think of them? And while I’m at it, I deeply resented your referring to Sr. Megan, a heroic woman, as a “butterball nun.”

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