On Catholics and Peace: The Bomb

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This weeks post deals with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Arguments have been made on both sides as to whether or not this ended World War II, however, its clear that it was a violation of human rights.


Peace on Earth—which man throughout the ages has so longed for and sought after—can never be established, never guaranteed, except by the diligent observance of the divinely established order.

– Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 1963.

The order which Pope John XXIII speaks of in the above quotation is the “Order in the Universe” and the “Order between Men,”  which are subjects he goes into more detail in the encyclical. It took the Catholic Church in America a long time to be public about the Church’s teaching about the atomic bomb and new scientific weapons.  However, after long debate and many proceedings, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published a pastoral letter on war and peace, entitled “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.”  In the first two paragraphs of the letter, the American bishops write: “Faith does not insulate us from the daily challenges of life but intensifies our desire to address them precisely in light of the gospel which has come to us in the person of the risen Christ.”

They reiterated what Gaudium et Spes stated in Vatican II about how the use of force was only justifiable in very few circumstances.  On the third page, they make their opinion on nuclear weapons clear:

Under no circumstances may nuclear weapons or other instruments of mass slaughter be used for the purpose of destroying population centers or other predominantly civilian targets. Retaliatory action which would indiscriminately and disproportionately take many wholly innocent lives, lives of people who are in no way responsible for reckless actions of their government, must also be condemned.  

They stated that despite the efforts of non-proliferation, “the nuclear arsenals have escalated, particularly in the two superpowers,” referring to the United States and the Soviet Union.  They continue: “Saying ‘no’ to nuclear war is both a necessary and complex task.”  The Church has always been ready to apply moral principles to modern problems.

In the Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et Spes, Pope Paul VI relates to the moral argument detailed in Augustine’s “just war.”  Recall that in jus in bello, the defending party may only use the minimum amount of force required to defend themselves.  Gaudium et Spes, however, goes further in saying, “Acts of war involving [nuclear and scientific] weapons can inflict massive and indiscriminate destruction, thus going far beyond the bounds of legitimate defense.”  It then goes on to state, “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.”  It is made clear here that nuclear and scientific weapons violate the principles of jus in bello due to the fact they go beyond the minimum force necessary to defend against an aggressor.

Father Wilfred Parsons, a Jesuit priest, wrote an essay for the Catholic Association for International Peace in 1947 entitled The Ethics of Atomic War in which he argued that atomic war was total war.  He also used the jus in bello argument to claim that the use of nuclear weapons was only justifiable if the aggressor had used a nuclear weapon to begin.  The defense’s use must be retaliatory in nature and the weapons may only be used if it is the only option and necessary means to protect against further aggression or an enslavement of the remaining population.

Despite this position, the CAIP endorsed the early proposals from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom for the establishment of a United Nations Atomic Energy Commission and the international control over nuclear weapons.  These organizations would have control over the world’s nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.  However, it was received with push back because of the amount of sovereignty states would have to give up for more cooperation.

The contrast between the early lay Catholic peace groups and the 1985 pastoral letter is stark.  After the Great War and the first use of the bomb, some Catholics and ethicists stuck to the just war theory proposed by Saint Augustine.  However, the Church as a whole moved more in a direction that established an idea that war was not only wrong, but that these types of weapons when used in war are inhuman.  Since, we are “children of God,” we must remember the dignity of the human person when dealing with the laws of war.


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