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Nuclear Deterrence: The Changing Moral Teaching of the Church

In Nagasaki, Japan, Pope Francis said no to nuclear weapons and the strategy of deterrence.

This post traces the evolution of the teaching of the Catholic Church on the morality of nuclear weapons. He is particularly interested in the deterrence strategy of nuclear powers. Under this strategy, Russia and the United States keep their nuclear weapons ready to deter each other from using them first. Accepting for a time conditional deterrence, the Church now officially condemns even the possession of nuclear weapons.

The Immorality of Using Nuclear Weapons

A professor of philosophy at Catholic University in the 1960s told his class that the only moral use of a nuclear weapon would be against a warship at sea. In other words, the vast majority of nuclear bombs in the world have no moral purpose. This is the position of the Catholic Church today. Admiral William Leahy, already in 1945, expressed precisely today’s Catholic position: The bombings of Japanese cities were violations, he told President Truman,

…of all the Christian ethics I have ever heard of and all the known laws of war.… I was not taught to wage war that way and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children. (University of Baltimore Magazine, “10 Things You Might Not Know About US History”)

The long-standing teaching of the Church and international law agree. Nations at war must not intentionally kill innocent civilians.

Innocent civilians almost inevitably become victims of war. This is called collateral damage. An attack intended to kill enemy soldiers can often stray away from the target unintentionally. Military intelligence is not perfect, especially when it comes to locating civilians. A military target may be large enough to justify an attack even when civilians are present. But an attack that destroys a city is unlike any of these cases. You cannot deliberately wipe out a city full of innocent civilians and only intend to destroy soldiers and military capabilities. Whether you admit it or not, you intended to kill everyone in the area you were aiming for. It was not accidental. It makes the action immoral.

The moral hazard of deterrence

For decades, the Church has struggled with the moral status of owning weapons that cannot be used morally. The major nuclear powers, including the United States and Russia, have stockpiled enough nuclear weapons to destroy civilization as we know it. The belief is that the certainty of “mutually assured destruction” will deter both sides from starting a nuclear war. This deterrence strategy is a moral conundrum. For deterrence to work, you must intend to commit a hateful and immoral act, if your enemy does. Essentially, the country is telling the military in missile silos, submarines and bombers that they should follow orders, not their conscience. I don’t know how a Catholic, or any corporate body, could register for these jobs.

To deal with this unsatisfactory arrangement, the Catholic Church took a prudential decision. He would not condemn the strategy of deterrence (and the possession of nuclear bombs) as long as there was a good faith movement towards the elimination of these weapons. An American Catholic article traces the history of this conditional acceptance of deterrence:

  • In his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris (peace on earth) Pope John XXIII strongly condemned nuclear weapons. Yet, reluctantly, he made an exception for possession of nuclear weapons for deterrence purposes.
  • In June 1982, Pope John Paul II clarified: “Under present conditions, deterrence based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a stage on the way to progressive disarmament, can still be deemed morally acceptable.
  • In 1983, the U.S. Catholic bishops continued with their conditional endorsement of deterrence: “It is a transitional strategy justifiable only in conjunction with a resolute determination to pursue arms control and disarmament.”

The highs and lows of nuclear disarmament

Over the next 10 years, the world changed. The Soviet Union dissolved into its member states. It seemed that the “cold war” was coming to an end.

Until then, progress in nuclear arms control was mainly about preventing a bad situation from getting worse. Nuclear-weapon states had signed various treaties beginning in 1959. Some treaties aimed to keep certain areas of the world, such as Antarctica and the seabed, free of nuclear weapons. Other treaties limited the extent to which a country’s nuclear arsenal could grow. Others aimed to prevent more countries from going nuclear.

More ambitious treaties were to come, and stocks of nuclear weapons would begin to dwindle. The American Catholic article notes that “with new partners in Russia, American negotiators have made rapid progress on nuclear disarmament.” But, the article laments,

… like the 20e century was coming to an end, Vatican diplomats were frustrated by the slowdown in disarmament.

A world without nuclear weapons was not a goal that the nuclear powers pursued very seriously.

But the year 2010 saw another high point in the field of nuclear disarmament. With New START (New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), the United States and Russia built on previous START treaties. Both countries “met the central treaty limits on February 5, 2018 and have remained at or below the level ever since,” the US State Department said. The treaty halved the number of nuclear missile launch systems and reduced the number of deployed warheads by two-thirds compared to the original 1991 START treaty.

Then came the presidency of Donald Trump and the rollback on a number of nuclear weapons treaties. New START was still in effect, but only a few days after the next presidential inauguration. New President Joe Biden quickly renewed the treaty, with Russian cooperation, for five years.

The problem remains.

At first glance, it seems that we are still on the right track to limit nuclear armaments and avoid a new nuclear arms race. Not necessarily. New START limits the number of nuclear weapons, not their quality. Russia and the United States are considering huge expenditures in the effort to outdo each other in the quality of nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

A new weapon mutation is the development of smaller, low-yield nuclear weapons. These, presumably, could be used on the battlefield and turn a country’s wasted effort at war into victory. Or, just as likely, escalate into all-out nuclear war. The war in Ukraine saw Russian President Putin engage in such nuclear rattle.

New delivery systems include rockets that fly like airplanes but at hypersonic speeds. They can maneuver at low altitude, escaping radar detection.

In recent years, the US Department of Defense has offered to replace and modernize its entire fleet of land-based nuclear missiles. The Biden administration has yet to weigh in on those plans.

The Church says, “Enough!

The new millennium has seen growing discontent in the Church with the nations’ reliance on deterrence and the halting pace of disarmament. The American Catholic article lists:

  • In 2006, Pope Benedict expressed his dissatisfaction with the world’s progress towards nuclear disarmament. The pope’s message for the World Day of Peace called the possession of nuclear weapons for defense (i.e. deterrence) purposes “not only harmful but also completely fallacious”.
  • Archbishop Celestino Migliore was the Vatican’s permanent observer to the United Nations in 2010. With the utmost diplomacy, he said:

The conditions that prevailed during the Cold War, which formed the basis of the Church’s limited tolerance of nuclear deterrence, no longer apply consistently and effectively.

  • In 2014, the Vatican joined the Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. Even sitting quietly on top of missiles and in the bays of B-1 bombers, they are an impermissible theft of resources that should be devoted to the fight against world poverty and other humanitarian issues.

The Vatican was one of the main supporters and one of the first to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. In 2017, 122 nations signed the treaty, but none of the nuclear powers.

Two months after the signing of the treaty, Pope Francis decisively broke with the conditional acceptance of deterrence. He condemned not only the threat to use nuclear weapons, but also “their very possession”. Commenting for America Magazine, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego said:

Pope Francis has made it clear that due to the significant risks of even anticipated or accidental war, and the gargantuan and devastating effects of nuclear war, and provoking other nations to possibly use them, possession it -even of these weapons is now doomed, regardless of intent.

US Catholic bishops address US nuclear policy.

In a major statement in 2018, the Catholic bishops of the United States noted the Church’s long-standing support for treaties and initiatives to reduce and even ban nuclear weapons. They listed several objectives for the national nuclear policy. Among other recommendations, they said the United States should:

  • Stop relying on nuclear weapons for security,
  • Ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,
  • Commit never to use nuclear weapons in the first place or in response to non-nuclear threats,
  • Make deeper cuts in nuclear arsenals,
  • Reject plans to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in the modernization of nuclear weapons systems.
  • Remove land-based nuclear weapons from “launch on warning” status to reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war.

The risk posed by nuclear bombs in missile silos scattered mainly in western lands is one of the concerns of the Union of Concerned Scientists. The last article in this series will take up their recent proposal to eliminate this risk. They suggest removing the land part of our deterrence strategy. This would leave the rest of our nuclear “triad” intact – bombers and submarines with nuclear missiles. Deterrence would still be the name of the game, but in a safer form. Taken unilaterally, it could even challenge Russia to make its own bold move.

Image Credit: Arab News