Is It Bad to Have Bad Things?

November 29, 2017

Earlier this month Catholic World News editor Phil Lawler opined in a Catholic Culture article regarding the Holy Father’s recent remarks about nuclear weapons. [1] Mr. Lawler wrote an article in March entitled “This Disastrous Papacy” [2], so you know what’s coming.

Let us begin our analysis with the remarks of the pope under consideration, which were contained in an address to participants in the international symposium, “Prospects for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament” [3], wherein he said,

“In this Symposium, you have met to discuss issues that are critical both in themselves and in the light of the complex political challenges of the current international scene, marked as it is by a climate of instability and conflict.  A certain pessimism might make us think that ‘prospects for a world free from nuclear arms and for integral disarmament’, the theme of your meeting, appear increasingly remote.  Indeed, the escalation of the arms race continues unabated and the price of modernizing and developing weaponry, not only nuclear weapons, represents a considerable expense for nations.  As a result, the real priorities facing our human family, such as the fight against poverty, the promotion of peace, the undertaking of educational, ecological and healthcare projects, and the development of human rights, are relegated to second place (cf. Message to the Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, 7 December 2014).

“Nor can we fail to be genuinely concerned by the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental effects of any employment of nuclear devices.  If we also take into account the risk of an accidental detonation as a result of error of any kind, the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.  For they exist in the service of a mentality of fear that affects not only the parties in conflict but the entire human race.  International relations cannot be held captive to military force, mutual intimidation, and the parading of stockpiles of arms.  Weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, create nothing but a false sense of security.  They cannot constitute the basis for peaceful coexistence between members of the human family, which must rather be inspired by an ethics of solidarity (cf. Message to the United Nations Conference to Negotiate a Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, 27 March 2017).  Essential in this regard is the witness given by the Hibakusha, the survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, together with other victims of nuclear arms testing.  May their prophetic voice serve as a warning, above all for coming generations!”

Mr. Lawler is concerned that Pope Francis, in saying these things, “has ventured into new territory in Church teaching….” Of course, he acknowledges that the Church “has frequently lamented the existence of nuclear armaments, and Vatican II clearly condemned the use of any weapons that would destroy civilian population centers.” And he recognizes that each “successive Pontiff of the nuclear age has wholeheartedly endorsed the quest for disarmament.” But he is concerned that our current Holy Father has taken things a bit far. Until the pope’s remarks, he says, “Church leaders had stopped short of condemning the possession of nuclear weapons.” It follows, Mr. Lawler reasons, that it should be okay to possess them. His argument is this:

“Nuclear weapons—like many other weapons, including a police official’s gun—are intended primarily for their deterrent effect. World leaders do not intend to launch their nuclear-tipped missiles. Indeed it is a salient fact that although thousands of nuclear devices have been developed in my lifetime, not one has been used in combat. Many strategists agree that nuclear deterrence, problematical though it may be, prevented the outbreak of a massive global conflict during the Cold War, and if that is true, it is no small achievement.”

Of course, as Pope Francis pointed out, nuclear weapons have indeed been used in combat, but we can take some comfort in the fact that they haven’t been so used in Mr. Lawler’s lifetime. But Mr. Lawler believes that a nuclear arsenal has the laudable purpose of deterrence, and this even though world leaders don’t really intend to launch their nuclear weapons. His concern is that a nation that gets rid of its nuclear weapons will no longer be able to deter countries that have no intention of using their nuclear bombs from using them. Moreover, we will lose the manifold benefits associated with the decades-long standoff of the Cold War.

But the main concern that he has is that the current occupant of the Peter’s Chair not only just doesn’t get it, but that he’s adding things to Magisterial teaching, and making up a new religion where countries don’t get to possess such weapons of mass destruction. This pope gets that a lot. He’s constantly being accused of trying to change Catholic doctrine. And, once again, it isn’t true.

In April of 1963, Pope John XXIII published the encyclical Pacem in Terris [4], wherein he said that the proper goal regarding nuclear weapons is “ultimately to abolish them entirely.” (Sec. 113) And that’s a good idea, because nuclear weapons are bad. That is why Pope John XXIII said that “justice, right reason, and the recognition of man’s dignity cry out insistently for a cessation to the arms race. The stock-piles of armaments which have been built up in various countries must be reduced all round and simultaneously by the parties concerned. Nuclear weapons must be banned.” (Sec. 112) Apparently he didn’t care how much deterrent they provide.

But Mr. Lawler is saying that Pope Francis is calling, not for a simultaneous banning, but for unilateral disarmament. The pope didn’t actually say that, of course, but let’s take a look at Mr. Lawler’s concern from the standpoint of Catholic teaching generally.

First of all, the “Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. ‘The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), Sec. 2312) [5] For example, “’Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.’” (CCC, Sec. 2314) [6] This implicates not only the use, but the very possession of weapons of mass destruction, since a “danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons— especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons—to commit such crimes.” (Ibid.) The mere possession of such weapons is not harmless, because it provides an impetus for their use, not to mention Pope Francis’s concern about their unintentional implementation.

Regarding Mr. Lawler’s concern that they be possessed for their deterrent effect, the Catechism says this:

“The accumulation of arms strikes many as a paradoxically suitable way of deterring potential adversaries from war. They see it as the most effective means of ensuring peace among nations. This method of deterrence gives rise to strong moral reservations. The arms race does not ensure peace. Far from eliminating the causes of war, it risks aggravating them. Spending enormous sums to produce ever new types of weapons impedes efforts to aid needy populations; it thwarts the development of peoples. Over-armament multiplies reasons for conflict and increases the danger of escalation.” (CCC, Sec. 2315)

There being moral concerns about the deterrence argument for possessing nuclear weapons, and since their possession aggravates rather than lessens the risk of war, and since, moreover, it “impedes efforts to aid needy populations,” what Catholic argument can be made for their possession?

Now Pope Francis didn’t write the Catechism himself; it was finished before he became the pope. So, once again, although his enemies and opponents insist he is trying to change Catholic doctrine, it turns out that what he says is firmly grounded in historic Catholic teaching. Now it’s wrong to say things about people that aren’t true, so they really should stop that.


Jack Quirk