Dithering on the Brink

The Impending Nuclear Apocalypse

Michael Gallagher

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced on January 23, 2020 that its symbolic “Doomsday Clock” has moved forward to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest to catastrophe that the scientists have judged the world to be at any point since its creation in 1947, at the outset of the Cold War.

My title may evoke a quaint English village, but I thought it might be more enticing  than, say, “The Impending Nuclear Apocalypse”. If your average American has ever heard of the Doomsday Clock, its relentless approach to midnight affects them less than did the words of Jeremiah in the Kingdom of Judah. Which brings up the role of religious faith in all this.

Until Pope John XXIII—whose like, alas, I look not to see again—convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) Rome had prided itself on viewing all things in relation to the eternal  When a crisis arises, however, an organization whose mode of operation recalls the Land of the Lotus Eaters where it’s always afternoon is unlikely to respond promptly..

And when Rome finally responds, it often begins—especially when the crisis is gravest—something like “The Church has always been foremost” or “As the Church has always taught,” recalling Boeing’s “Our preeminent concern has always been the welfare of our passengers.”  Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, a rare American Catholic intellectual, characterized the Church more accurately as “inevitably arriving on the scene late and out of breath.”   Today’s phrase might be “kicking and screaming.”

Without downplaying the peril of Global Warming,  I believe our lockstep, August 1914-like, march to nuclear catastrophe is a more immediate threat.  Without radical action, Global Warming will destroy human life, but the vast nuclear arsenal, primed and ready, could ravage the world many times over by this time tomorrow.

In 1980, the US Catholic bishops perhaps finally aware that their supposedly Christian nation was the sole country guilty of nuclear massacre, screwed up their courage and appointed a committee to prepare a pastoral letter. This was issued in 1983 as “The Challenge of Peace,” intended to confront the moral questions raised by modern war.

“The Challenge of Peace,” however, was not widely promulgated and though its potential impact greatly upset rightwing pundits and the Pentagon before its release, it was played down by a pope who cherished Ronald Reagan’s friendship and was unwilling to interfere with the Pentagon’s defense of the Free World (especial the Polish part) even if it meant selling Latin America down the river (It has recently emerged that the infamous Mozote massacre—upwards of a thousand campesinos slaughtered—was carried out by an American-trained unit of the Salvadoran army, who then murdered six Jesuit faculty of the University of Central America and their cook and her daughter.)

Most tellingly, when the peace pastoral committee was nearing completion of its task in 1982, John Paul II sent a letter to the UN in which he proposed something he termed an “interim ethic.”  For the time being, he wrote, Nuclear Deterrence seems to be best provided it’s not  permanent  but a step towards ridding the world of nuclear weapons.

This mild, non-prophetic observation somehow failed to prompt the reigning nuclear powers to spring into action and achieve a nuclear-free world.  At this very moment, moreover, the Pentagon, flush as usual thanks to its indulgent sugar daddy Congress, is showering money on the Military Industrial Complex to spur on the production of a user-friendly bomb—ordered up by Donald Trump, no less.  The Pentagon prefers to refer to it as “a more usable bomb,” a term, if anything, even more chilling.  It’s called the W76-2, a nice little bomb that fits on a Trident missile.

The beauty of the user-friendly W76-2 is that it can be “dialed down” to have even less impact than the Hiroshima bomb. And since our Tridents are cruising beneath most if not all the Seven Seas, you can set its dial up or down as suits your fancy (or Trump’s) , and the W76-2 will arrive at its destination in five or ten minutes.  The Tennessee, the first Trident to sail armed with W76-2s, has just returned after an extended cruise in European waters.  (I’m sure that it also carried its fair share of our good old-fashion city busters, just in case Mr. Trump was having a really bad day on the green at Mar-a-Lago.)

But don’t get all worried about the user-friendly bomb.  A W76-2 is probably, we hope to hell, unlikely to metastasize into the thermonuclear equivalent of Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover.” But it might.  In that case a single W76-2 would trigger reactions—physical and human—that will either vaporize our children and grandchildren—and us too if the MIC really gets cracking on this—or reduce us to the state of the emaciated and dying victims of war and famine that affront our vision as we watch TV from our cozy recliners. (A word from Nikita Khrushchev is in order here re the aftermath of a nuclear war: “The living will envy the dead.”)

A key document of Second Vatican is the constitution The Church in the Modern World—a title that ipso facto  had to shock and offend  Vatican functionaries, who had never wanted to see Rome overrun with unsophisticated prelates untutored enough to question their tranquil ways.  The constitution took special heed of nuclear weapons:

An assault on population centers with weapons of mass destruction is a crime against God and man that merits unequivocal and immediate condemnation. (1965)

Catholic moral theology, moreover,holds that to threaten an evil act intending to carry it out is per se evil and is—to use a word  rarely used currently in Rome unless we’re talking sex—sinful.

Russell Shaw, a former U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops staff member and a genuine conservative, most clearly expressed this, writing in September 2018 in the Arlington Catholic, The argument in defense of deterrence doesn’t work as long as willingness actually to use the deterrent in some circumstances exists. Conditional willingness to do something one would prefer not to do if the circumstances for doing it arise is real willingness — and willingness like that is the existential keystone of deterrence.

The Pentagon would agree.  Any military man or woman will tell you that Deterrence has no force without a clear intention to use nuclear weapons when appropriate. The question  is, when is it ‘appropriate’, and who decides?

John Paul’s “interim ethic” has no moral basis whatsoever.  It recalls Situation Ethics, which  gave theologians something to chew over in the 60s until the Death of God took its place only to yield in turn to Consequentialism (the end justifies the means), an aberration scarcely discernible from Situation Ethics), which John Paul and his righthand man, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, would anathematize in the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor. Given John Paul’s 1982 letter to the UN, it would not have surprised the peace pastoral committee when  its chairman,Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago,  told them that they  should not condemn the possession of nuclear weapons. Thus the window was slammed shut lest the Holy Spirit flutter in and compel them to confront the intrinsic sinfulness of Nuclear Deterrence, which, contrary to John Paul’s hopes, has begun to look more and more like a permanent state (absent, of course, a nuclear armageddon). And during the next two and a half years of the pastoral’s composition, Rome kept up the pressure.

The first draft of the pastoral had dared to quote an overlooked sentence from “To Live in Christ Jesus,” the American bishops 1968 pastoral that condemned Nuclear Deterrence:

As possessors of a vast nuclear arsenal we must realize that not only is it wrong to use them against population centers but to threaten to do so as a policy of deterrence.

Ironically, neither the Pentagon nor the American bishops, even the most martial of them (Cardinal O’Connor of New York, a retired Navy chaplain with the rank of admiral), who signed off on the 1968 pastoral seemed to have taken note of the radical character of this admonition, which did not appear in the second draft. The second draft, nevertheless, still expressed grave doubt about any justification for a first use of nuclear weapons (an option, incidentally, that the Pentagon, too, holds fast and now has its W76-2 to make first use seem less suicidal).  This was too much for the Vatican, especially the so-called NATO bishops, who were more concerned about a Soviet armored thrust through the Fulda Gap than they were about anything that Jesus might have thought or even the strictures of the Just War theory.

John Paul II summoned Bernardin and Archbishop Roach, the president of the U.S. Bishops Conference, on the carpet in Rome to justify themselves to the NATO bishops.  The latter were content that the committee had failed to condemn nuclear deterrence and the possession of nuclear weapons, but they demanded two more concessions, which the pope and Cardinal Ratzinger—no matter their future dismissal of Consequentialism—readily granted.  A country should unrestricted rights to use nuclear weapons against conventional weapon attack, and, the first use of nuclear weapons should be allowed if necessary.

Over the years, professional theologians have been reluctant to confront the horror of Nuclear Deterrence.  (They are currently into “Peace Building,” which doesn’t disturb the Pentagon at all.)

Now, however, it seems that the Catholic Church’s silence on nuclear weapons has been broken.  A few Sundays ago didn’t I hear words, “nuclear weapons,” that I had all but given up on hearing from the pulpit?  I wasn’t as stunned as I might otherwise have been, however, since Pope Francis himself had actually uttered them, though in venues in which he could hardly have refrained from doing so—Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the latter being the historical center of Japanese Catholicism and the site of the first martyrs in a persecution that was the longest in Church history.

Since I’ve written since the 60s about the sinfulness of even the threat to use nuclear weapons, I should be thrilled, but I remain un-thrilled. Yes, on his way back to Rome Francis reiterated what he said at Nagasaki, not only condemning the use of nuclear weapons but even their possession. .  The former was old news, however, as we’ve seen from the no nonsense condemnation in The Church in the Modern World in 1965The latter was indeed new, but the pope’s failure to also condemn Nuclear Deterrence robbed it of its value.  Even if the nuclear powers agreed to get rid of their nuclear weapons—something not too probable given  Libya’s fate—it would take decades to destroy all nuclear weapons if, indeed, the genie having been long out of the bottle, it would even be possible.  What, for example, if some nations had second thoughts about agreeing to do so?  What if, heaven forbid, they lied about conforming?  In any event, nukes would be around for a very long time, and as long as they were, Nuclear Deterrence, even if unacknowledged, would still be the monster in the room.

Meanwhile, our homegrown Stable Genius— whom, it’s painful to acknowledge, 52% of white Catholics, helped elect—eagerly looks forward to getting his hands on some of those user-friendly nukes.

To sum up: (1) the Catholic Church has gone on record as declaring the use of Nuclear Weapons against a civilian population a crime against God and humanity that merits immediate condemnation.  (2)  But, given the nature of nuclear weapons, there is no other way of using them, not even if they happen to be those aforesaid user-friendly bombs.  Even a modest nuclear “exchange” between India and Pakistan would not only be evil in itself but could easily trigger a process that, among other undesirable effects, would lead to the extinction of you and me.  (3) And since the Church, furthermore, teaches that the intention to do evil is itself evil (something that Jesus made quite clear), it follows that any person—not just those who actually launch these hellish weapons but all those involved in their creation and deployment—are committing a crime that merits immediate condemnation.

In 1980 when the Pentagon and the White House feared that the American bishops were actually going to take names and kick butt, they marshalled all their propaganda resources to avert it. (I’m also sure that some of our American bishops communicated their fears to their NATO counterparts.)    When “The Challenge of Peace” was finally released, therefore, the Pentagon, the White House, and all those devout Catholics, clerical and lay, who believed that there could be no such thing as excess in the defense of freedom breathed a sigh of relief.

The peace pastoral had waffled, and there was nothing to fear from it.  The Church could go on deploring nuclear weapons as much as it liked—that’s what churches do—but if the Church went beyond deploring and declared that Nuclear Weapons and all their works and pomps were evil and all those involved shared the guilt, that would be something quite different.  But unless the Church follows through and has the courage to declare Nuclear Deterrence sinful and forbid Catholics to participate in it, all these pious proclamations will to come to nothing. As they have to date.

If enough Catholics obeyed the pope, however, the consequent disruption would lead to a head-on-clash with the government of the United States, which might possibly be the reason Francis failed to mention it.

As Francis’s cautious behavior in Argentina illustrates—first as the Jesuit provincial and later as the Archbishop of Bueno Aires—confrontations are not Francis’s style.  If they were, he would not have hesitated to make common cause with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo as Oscar Romero would have done.

Despite having squandered so much of its moral authority, the Church retains a significant measure of it due to the witness of its faithful remnant—the four churchwomen martyred in El Salvador; Archbishop Oscar Romero, who preceded them in martyrdom; Bishop Thomas Gumbleton and Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, both betrayed by the  American Catholic hierarchy’s cowardice; the Catholic Worker movement; Plowshare activists like the Kings Bay Seven (whose number  includes Liz McAlister and Martha Hennessy, the latter the granddaughter of  Dorothy Day) now facing long prison terms because of their incursion into the Kings Bay Trident base (a remarkable feat, it would seem, but one like those that nuns in their eighties have been accomplishing with  ease); as well as a cloud of other witnesses to whom both the Catholic and the mainstream secular media pay scant if any attention.

The Church has an obligation under pain of sin, to support and vindicate what this faithful remnant has been doing.  If it does, more Catholics might think twice before giving up  on it

Michael Gallagher, 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.

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