Monday, March 15, 2010

Can We Morally Cut Our Nuclear Arsenal?

For years now, nuclear disarmament (even unilateral disarmament) has been vehemently debated in Catholic intellectual circles. Since the Obama Administration is now negotiating a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with the Russian Federation and this Catholic debate influences to some extent the realm of public policy, it seems opportune for the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property—TFP to pronounce itself on the moral legitimacy of America maintaining and improving its nuclear arsenal and delivery capability, particularly as the TFP’s viewpoint runs contrary to that expressed by some Catholic commentators.

The Erroneous Position: Morally Acceptable Only if Pursuing Gradual Nuclear Disarmament

According to these Catholics, a nuclear arsenal would only be justified as an interim measure, while the nation pursues its gradual dismantling, thus tending to bring about a peaceful world. However, they argue, since this progressive dismantling has not occurred, the moral justification for maintaining that arsenal no longer exists. Thus, for example, Canadian diplomat Douglas Roche claims: “In the eyes of the Catholic Church, nuclear weapons are evil and immoral and must be eliminated as a precondition to obtaining peace.”1

This position is wrong. As we shall see, Catholic teaching permits America to have and use a nuclear arsenal, and world conditions today are such that it would be gravely imprudent for America to reduce its nuclear arsenal and delivery capabilities. Only when the world undergoes a moral conversion could America prudently do so.

* * *

A. The Principle of Legitimate Self-Defense

According to natural law and Catholic morality, the principle of self-defense applies both to individuals and nations. This pertains to personal or territorial integrity, as well as natural and supernatural values without which life loses its meaning.

A corollary of this principle as it applies to nations is that they should develop the means to cope with current or potential threats to their sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as to restore justice, safeguard their citizens’ rights and the nation’s honor, even, if necessary, by means of a defensive or preemptive war.2

In other words, the principle of self-defense justifies maintaining a standing army, properly equipped to carry out its mission. For America, in the present context, this includes the right to maintain, improve, and expand its nuclear arsenal and delivery capabilities. Besides playing a critical deterrence role, these weapons and delivery systems provide America with the proven ability to carry out large-scale, focused strikes on multiple military targets simultaneously that can quickly and drastically alter the configuration of a war.

B. History Teaches: “If You Want Peace, Prepare for War”

There is no doubt that, in theory, one should seek to preserve world peace by avoiding as much as possible the risk of armed conflict and thus making it unnecessary to maintain nuclear arsenals or even, to some extent, large stockpiles of conventional weapons. In theory, it is also preferable that disputes between nations be resolved through diplomacy, international agreements or treaties, rather than by wars or armed standoffs.

However, not all things that are better in theory can be carried out in practice. History shows that unilateral gestures of good will are seldom sufficient to resolve conflicts. A strategy of effective deterrence coupled with the effective determination and ability to wage war is usually the only way to preserve peace.

The wise maxim coined by the ancient Romans still applies today:“Si vis pacem, para bellum”—“If you wish for peace, prepare for war.”

C. Strategic Decisions Must Be Based on an Objective Analysis of Reality

A moral and strategic assessment of a fact or situation depends not just on good intentions or principles, but also on an objective examination of reality. Since morals and political science are practical and normative sciences, in order for their principles to be correctly applied, it is essential to start with an accurate assessment of reality. Otherwise, if the assessment of the facts or situation does not correspond to objective reality, one can come to false conclusions, even when based on correct principles.

An example of a completely different nature can make this point clearer.

The Gospel teaches us that Saint John the Baptist rebuked Herod Antipas for his immoral behavior, as he was living with Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip (cf. Mark 6:18). Now then, if Herod were not in fact living with his sister-in-law, Saint John the Baptist would still be right about the intrinsic immorality of adultery (a question of doctrine) but would be wrong about the actual behavior of the tetrarch of Galilee (a question of fact).

So also, in order to study the legitimacy of our nuclear arsenal and delivery capabilities one must consider both aspects of the matter: the
question of doctrine (the lawfulness of the use of nuclear weapons) and the question of fact (whether the actual situation allows for such use).

It is obvious that if the use of nuclear weapons were doctrinally unlawful in every situation, then the assessment of a particular set of facts justifying the use of America’s nuclear arsenal would be pointless.

D. Is It Morally Licit to Employ Nuclear Weapons? In What Conditions?
There is no doubt, however, that it is lawful to use nuclear weapons in
some circumstances. Nine years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki while the world sank deeper into the Cold War, Pope Pius XII accepted in principle the legitimacy of using nuclear weapons as a last resort, stressing however the need to do everything possible to avoid nuclear war through diplomatic negotiations.

In a speech on September 30, 1954, the Pope laid down the following conditions for the legitimate use of nuclear weapons:

1. Such use must be “imposed by an evident and extremely grave injustice;”

2. Such injustice cannot be avoided without the use of nuclear weapons;

3. One should pursue diplomatic solutions that avoid or limit the use of such weapons;

4. Their use must be indispensable to and in accordance with a nation’s defense needs;

5. That same use would be immoral if the destruction caused by the nuclear weapons were to result in harm so widespread as to be uncontrollable by man.

6. Unjustified uses should be severely punished as “crimes” under national and international law.3

E. Life is Not the Supreme Value for Man

One should note, moreover, that Pope Pius XII is referring here only to goods of the natural order: “the protection of legitimate possessions” or “the defense against injustice.” He is not analyzing the possibility of having to use such weapons to defend supernatural values; in other words, to prevent or eliminate situations that place the salvation of souls in great and imminent danger, for example, the imposition of a regime that is gravely contrary to Natural Law or which persecutes Catholics who show fidelity to their Faith.

Nor is the Pope ruling on the opinion of those who hold that human life is the supreme value for man. While life is the most excellent natural good, its preservation is not the ultimate end of man. As moralists Lanza and Palazzini write: “Life takes on meaning and is fully realized only if it is directed toward the search for God, with all other, particular and contingent ideals being absolutely dependent of that which is the supreme good.” They also explain that man’s ultimate goal—God’s glory and man’s eternal salvation—is the “supreme normative principle of human action.”4

Therefore, when man’s ultimate supernatural goal is at stake, the defense of human life cannot be placed above that ultimate good.
Judas Machabeus expressed this truth in his famous phrase: “It is better for us to die in battle than to witness the ruin of our nation and our sanctuary.”5 And the Divine Savior was adamant: “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?6

F. The Objective Reality: To Reduce America’s Nuclear Arsenal Is Gravely Imprudent Today

As mentioned earlier, a strategic decision must also be based on an objective analysis of the present reality and the foreseeable future. On this fundamental point, the words of Pope Pius XII in 1953 are particularly instructive:

The community of nations must reckon with the criminals without a conscience. These are unafraid of unleashing total war to achieve their ambitious plans. Therefore, if the other nations wish to protect the lives and property of their citizens, and rein in the international criminals, they must prepare for the day when they will have to defend themselves. This right to defense cannot be denied, even today, to any State.7

Is the world today free from international “criminals without a conscience,” who could resort to “total war”? Who could seriously think so, in light of, for example, the 2005 statement to foreign reporters by Chinese Red Army Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu, a dean at China’s National Defense University:

...if the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition onto the target zone on China's territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons.... [The United States] will have to be prepared that hundreds of cities will be destroyed.8

G. Disarmament Only with the Restoration of Ethical Principles

In a message to the United Nations Second Special Session on Disarmament, in 1982, Pope John Paul II explained the real problem: The arms race is the fruit of an ethical crisis and only with a restoration of ethical principles can a possible global disarmament have a chance at being effective. Otherwise, any such initiative is doomed to fail:

The production and the possession of armaments are a consequence of an ethical crisis that is disrupting society in all its political, social and economic dimensions. Peace, as I have already said several times, is the result of respect for ethical principles. True disarmament, that which will actually guarantee peace among peoples, will come about only with the resolution of this ethical crisis. To the extent that the efforts at arms reduction and then of total disarmament are not matched by parallel ethical renewal, they are doomed in advance to failure.

The attempt must be made to put our world aright and to eliminate the spiritual confusion born from a narrow-minded search for interest or privilege or by the defense of ideological claims: this is a task of first priority if we wish to measure any progress in the struggle for disarmament. Otherwise we are condemned to remain at face-saving activities.…

In current conditions ‘deterrence’ based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable. Nonetheless in order to ensure peace, it is indispensable not to be satisfied with this minimum which is always susceptible to the real danger of explosion.”9

H. Morally, Our World Today Is Much Worse than in 1982

Now then, the “ethical crisis” and “spiritual confusion” have only worsened over the last 28 years. The breakdown of moral standards in individuals and in the world’s political, cultural, and economic realms; the clerical sexual abuse scandals, the near destruction of the institution of the family everywhere, are leading the world to an ever-greater state of chaos.

Communism continues to dominate many countries, including China, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea; the Russian Federation cannot be trusted, as shown by its 2008 invasion of Georgia. It is no secret that the influence of the true Communist Party—the former KGB—in the Russian government is dominant.10

Terrorism has taken on worldwide and apocalyptic dimensions and is protected by countries that already possess or are on their way to acquiring nuclear weapons.

All this makes the considerations of John Paul II in the above-mentioned message to the United Nations even more valid today than they were in the early years of his pontificate.

I. The Role of the United States in the Defense of Christian Values

Over the decades, the United States has repeatedly come to the defense of peoples whose freedom or Christian values are threatened. We fought against Hitler’s neo-pagan Nazi regime in Europe, and after that against Communism in Korea, Vietnam, and Grenada.

Without delving into the political reasons or intentions of our nation’s leaders in those conflicts, we must emphasize the generosity with which the American people paid a bloody tribute in the defense of Christian values, which in turn obtained from Divine Providence special graces for our country.11

This spirit of generosity is still alive in our people and our Armed Forces in spite of the unprecedented moral crisis sweeping our country. Consequently, the United States can still play this great role of charitable intervention in defense of values without which life is not worth living.

If our nuclear arsenal and delivery capabilities are decreased or dismantled, however, the only military force seriously capable of confronting the international “criminals without conscience,” as Pius XII called them, will be greatly impaired. Only these “criminals” profit from this self-imposed state of weakness.

Conclusion: Moral Conversion Is the Indispensable Prerequisite for Nuclear Disarmament

In grappling with these complex and consequential strategic issues, it is not legitimate for Catholics to ignore their supernatural aspect. As Pope Pius XII observed, “the Christian desire for peace is practical and realistic” and “the genuine Christian will for peace means strength, not weakness or weary resignation. It is completely one with the will for peace of Eternal and Almighty God.”12

This Divine will was manifested anew to men, and this time by the Mother of God herself, in 1917, at Fatima, Portugal, in apparitions to three little shepherd children. She asked for prayer, penance, and a change of life, in sum, a moral conversion of the world. It is the TFP’s long-held opinion that until the world undergoes this conversion, there are simply no conditions for America to reduce its nuclear arsenal and delivery capabilities.

When this moral conversion occurs, it will be the fulfillment of Our Lady’s prophetic words at Fatima: “Finally, my Immaculate Heart will triumph!”

March 11, 2010

The American TFP

1 Douglas Roche, O.C., Nuclear Weapons and Morality – An Unequivocal Position (Address to U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Panel ‘Ethics, Policy, and the Proliferation of WMD’), Washington, D.C., Nov. 11, 2005, p. 10, at

2 “A people threatened with an unjust aggression, or already its victim, may not remain passively indifferent, if it would think and act as befits Christians.” Pope Pius XII, "Christmas Message of 1948," Vincent A Yzermans, ed., The Major Addresses of Pope Pius XII (St. Paul: The North Central Publishing Company, 1961), v. 2, p. 124.

3 “In principle, is modern ‘total war’ permissible? Specifically, is ABC [atomic, biological and chemical] warfare permissible? There can be no doubtespecially because of the horrors and the immense suffering resulting from modern warfarethat to initiate it without just cause (in other words, without it being imposed by an evident and extremely grave injustice that cannot be avoided through other means) is a ‘crime’ worthy of the severest national and international sanctions. In principle, one cannot even consider the question of the lawfulness of atomic, chemical and bacteriological war, except in the case when it is indispensable to defense, within the conditions mentioned. Even then, however, one must strive by all means to avoid it through international agreements or by creating limits for its use that are so clear and narrow that its effects are confined to the strict requirements of defense. When this form of warfare entails an extension of harm that completely escapes the control of mankind, its use should be rejected as immoral. Here it would no longer be the ‘defense’ against injustice and the necessary ‘protection’ of legitimate possessions, but purely and simply the annihilation of all human life within range. This is never permitted for any reason.” Pope Pius XII, “Sintesi di veritĂ  e di morale espressa alla VII Assemblea Medica Mondiale,” Sept. 30, 1954, in Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, Vol. XVI, 2 Marzo 1954 – 1 Marzo 1955, p. 169 (our translation from the French original).

4 Antonio Lanza and Pietro Palazzini, Principios de Teologia Moral (Madrid: Ediciones Rialp, 1958), Vol. I, p. 108 (our translation).

5 1 Mach. 3:59.

6 Mark 8:36-37.

7 Pope Pius XII, “Per il VI Congresso Internazionale di Diritto Penale,” in Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, Vol. XV, 1969, p. 340 (our translation from the French original and our emphasis).

8 Austin Ramzy, “Don’t Mess with us, Time, July 28, 2005, at,9171,1083955,00.html

9 Message of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to The General Assembly of The United Nations, June 7, 1982, at (our emphasis.)

10 Cf. Yevgenia Albats, KGB – State Within a State (London-New York: I.B. Taruris Publishers, 1995); Edward Lucas, The New Cold War – Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West (New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2008).

11The great Catholic thinker Plinio CorrĂȘa de Oliveira often manifested this opinion, which is in line with the Christmas message of Pope Pius XII on Dec. 24, 1948.

12 Pius XII, "Christmas Message of 1948," Yzermans, ed., The Major Addresses of Pope Pius XII, V. 2, p. 124.


  1. John, I don't see how the United States, especially under current leadership, can be seen as a morally-reliable agent to employ nuclear means. The proposition that they are that agent underlies your essay. I think you need to address that. It is not enough to point out that other nations are bad, or in some sense worse. The United States have killed 50 million of their own unborn citizens. What other factors give them the moral authority to wield such weapons?

    And of course, the lawfulness of such weapons is a matter of dispute. It is difficult to imagine the circumstances where the use of nuclear weapons in real world conditions could be morally licit. Perhaps using them against strictly military targets in the middle of an otherwise unpopulated area without significant fallout danger. But why would anyone care if an army were to take such a place?

    All in all, you may be able to formulate a theoretical case, but I can't see it playing out in actuality, as you urge us to consider the case. And if the nature of our government is anything like what is being shown during the healthcare takeover debate, I certainly trust the U.S. about as much as Russia.

  2. As a defense of general military preparedness this is an effective statement. But it seems to me that a primary problem unaddressed here is the question of whether nuclear weapons specifically can ever be used in a manner which is proportionate, discriminatory, and has a reasonable chance of success. Ven. Pius XII addressed the question of such weapons at a time when the number of atomic weapons was limited and thermonuclear weapons were still new. The Second Vatican Council considered the issue a decade later and declared: "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation" (Gaudium et Spes, #80). If nuclear weapons are inevitably the instruments of indiscriminate destruction, the use of such weapons is always immoral, and it is never licit to intend what it is immoral to do. Whether it is licit to threaten what one may not do is a more difficult question, further complicated in this case by the fact that a credible bluff would require a system indistinguishable from that required by the intention to attack, even to those in the system, which leads to the possibility of the system acting effectively in a crisis and launching an attack despite the lack of intent on the part of the bluffers.

    Many would argue that, indeed, nuclear weapons cannot be sufficiently discriminatory and proportionate to ever justify their use. Extensive counterforce strikes against strictly military targets would produce civilan casualties comparable to those resulting from a deliberate counterpopulation strategy. Even on the semantic level, while conventional weapons are said to cause "collateral damage" strategic planners speak of nuclear weapons causing "bonus damage".

    Yet ICBM silos in remote areas and fleets of warships at sea would both seem to be unquestionably legitimate targets for nuclear weapons. Still, there would likely be indirect effects of a nuclear attack in the form of panic and social disruption, the extent of which it is impossible to foresee. More importantly, it must be appreciated that even strikes against legitimate targets may run an unacceptable risk of escalation. It cannot be confidently assumed that a "limited" nuclear war would remain limited, and not build to a "thermonuclear spasm". Given the magnitude of the consequences of failure, it would appear that a reasonable chance of success is unobtainable except where the risk of escalation is negligible.

    Of course, the primary historical role of nuclear weapons has not been their active use in war but rather their employment as implicit or explicit threats in deterrence. This use falls under the question I asked above, about whether it is licit to threaten what one may not morally do. If deterrence, "the 'balance of forces' which sometimes has been called, and not without reason, the 'balance of terror'" (Ven. John Paul II, "Message to the UN Special Session 1982", #3) is morally licit but the use of nuclear weapons is not, then this has definite effects on nuclear policy, including mandating the adoption of a "no first use" policy and limiting the arsenal to the minimum sufficient for effective deterrence. This last should take into account the changes in the international situation over the last 20 years, not only the collapse of the Warsaw Pact but the ever-increasing economic interdependence of nations. Were China to launch a nuclear attack on the US, it would be ruinous for the Chinese economy even if the US did not retaliate, so that there exists a certain level of non-nuclear deterrence against attack.