Pope Francis was praised in the New York Times as showing a “deft hand” in diplomacy during his recent American trip. A manifestation of his deft hand was his lamentable failure, especially in his address to the United Nations, to condemn the policy of nuclear deterrence: the idea that peace can be kept by the threat of mass murder. Yes, the Vatican has in the past termed this “the most pressing moral issue of our times,” but that’s all the Vatican has done. I wasn’t disappointed by Francis’s failure to condemn the threat of nuclear mass murder because nothing he has said or done so far has led me to hope that he might do so.
His two choices for outstanding examples of American Catholicism, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, were in line with his not upsetting his American hosts by calling into question the morality of what has become a militarized, indeed murderous, American foreign policy.
Both Day and Merton, for vastly different reasons, were the safest possible choices in this regard. Now that Dorothy Day is safely dead, she’s not around to give Cardinal Dolan fits as she did his predecessor Cardinal Spellman who, his pudgy hand on the stock of a machine gun in Vietnam declared, “My Country Right or Wrong!” Thus Dolan eagerly pursues Dorothy’s cause for sainthood by portraying her as a repentant sinner, opposed to abortion, who devoted her life to the poor. But there’s no mention of Day’s condemnation of the U.S. firebomb raids on Japan or the nuclear massacres inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the latter the historic center of Japanese Catholicism. And, needless to say, nothing about Dorothy’s many arrests in the course of her unwavering opposition to American militarism.
Merton was an even safer choice. He didn’t like confrontations and never took risks in the cause of peace. I do believe, however, that Francis should, in any event, have thought twice about eulogizing a monk who had carried on an affair for six months with a 25-year-old student-nurse (even as Merton remained secure in the knowledge his snug hermitage was waiting for him whenever he chose to return to the cloister). As to what the young woman thought about being left in the lurch, we don’t know since no one seems to have bothered to ask her. But, then, she wasn’t a celebrity.
Had Francis taken the time to visit the infirmary at Fordham University, he could have met, as former CIA man Ray McGovern urged, with a true icon of American Catholicism, 94-year-old Dan Berrigan, S.J. But Dan would not have been a safe choice for Francis. Nor would his brother Phil’s widow, Liz, nor any of the Berrigan family for that matter, nor any of the Plowshares activists, such as Megan Rice, the 86-year-old nun who, after spending forty years as a missionary in West Africa, embarked on a life of crime culminating with her picture on the front page of the New York Times after she, with her relatively youthful companions Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed, made an incredible foray into the super-secure Holy of Holies of American nuclearism, the Y-12 uranium enrichment facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
An even more hazardous choice for Francis would have been the saintly Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, who greatly upset John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger by calling a Trident missile submarine based in his parish “the Auschwitz of Puget Sound.”
But given the chance to eschew pious platitudes and speak boldly in condemning the death wish embodied in nuclear deterrence, Francis demurred. And so it is that the last significant word from the Vatican on nuclear deterrence—and it was a word of immense harm—came in a letter of John Paul II to the UN read by an Italian archbishop that gave the green light to nuclear deterrence, declaring it “for the time being morally acceptable as long as it is a step towards nuclear disarmament.” That was three decades ago, and the U.S. today intends to spend a trillion dollars over the next three decades on “modernizing” our nuclear forces, to include a new generation of Trident missile. (Ohio-class submarines currently carry up to 24 Trident missiles, each with multiple independently targeted warheads, each thirty times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. But we still need newer missiles to make us safe, according to the U.S. military and the nuclear weapons lobby that shills for mass murder.)
In view of all this, especially with the periodic meeting of world leaders on nuclear proliferation coming up soon (where the nuclear elite won’t feel secure unless they retain enough warheads to destroy the world many times over), the pope had a moral duty to say something further on the morality of nuclear deterrence, which, according to fundamental Catholic moral theology, is intrinsically evil and the source of a host of other evils, including what President Dwight D. Eisenhower called “a theft from the poor” on a scale Ike never envisaged.
Yes, Francis did condemn the arms race, but in the usual abstract terms. In speaking to the U.S. Congress, he was addressing the governing body of the major supplier of weaponry to the rest of the world, a nation whose own military budget is not only much greater than that of its closest rival, China, but surpasses the total of the world’s 17 most heavily armed nations.
So having failed to speak truth to power, Pope Francis left these shores even more well liked than when he came (save for some disgruntled women, gays and lesbians, and victims of clerical sexual abuse). We Catholics call him the Vicar of Christ, but, as you recall, Christ wasn’t that well liked by the rulers of this world. If he had been, Christianity today would have some symbol other than a cross. A smiley face, perhaps?
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.