To the Editor:
Anyone speaking to the issue of nuclear-weapons policy must avoid two obviously untenable positions: (1) ceding to the Russians military superiority, since their capacity for ruthlessness and disregard for free political institutions is well documented; and (2) rationalizing the status quo, since there is no moral justification for nuclear war. Michael Novak’s article [“Arms & the Church,” March] suffers from the latter, and egregiously so, for by arbitrary selection he distorts the position of his opponents and in effect sets up a straw man.
Mr. Novak acknowledges that the Roman Catholic Church has always recognized and still recognizes the moral legitimacy of waging war in the defense of one’s country against unjust attack. Then he turns to the testimony of John Cardinal Krol before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to prove that the American bishops are opposed to the present deterrence policy of the U.S. government: since the use of strategic nuclear weapons cannot be morally justified, the declared intent to use them is wrong. According to Mr. Novak this line of reasoning leads to the conclusion that “security may dictate surrender.” This is not, however, the conclusion either the bishops or Cardinal Krol drew, but the one drawn by Father Francis X. Winters, commenting on a sermon delivered by Cardinal Krol at the White House six days after his testimony.
What conclusion the committee of bishops will reach about U.S. defense policy will presumably be presented in a statement scheduled for publication next fall. During the intervening period one must hope that all sides of this soul-trying issue will be explored by the bishops as well as by all concerned Americans with the candor and seriousness it deserves.
Mr. Novak’s article has the effect if not the intention of preventing this exploration. For him deterrence is the only acceptable policy. The choice between red or dead is unacceptable to Mr. Novak, as it is to many others. But for him: “Avoidance of both sickening alternatives is the moral good which deterrence, and deterrence alone, effects.” That, I submit, is as neat a rationalization of the status quo as one could give. . . .
George B. Pepper
New Rochelle, New York
To the Editor:
While I agree completely with Michael Novak that nuclear deterrence and resistance to totalitarianism are moral endeavors, this does not mean that there are no moral objections to the methods used in pursuit of these legitimate goals. I reject the naive and simplistic notions of the antiwar movement that disarmament is a feasible policy, but I also reject the current MAD strategy of retaliation against Russian population centers in the event of war. . . .
If a war were to break out between the West and the USSR, U.S. policy should have as its goal the liberation of the people living under Communist tyranny and not their massacre; this should be second only to the goal of preserving the populations of the West from attack. The policy of mutual destruction of cities serves neither of these goals. Mr. Novak, however, endorses this policy.
The U.S. needs to restructure its strategic forces in such a way as to provide for the physical protection of its own population and to threaten the military-political capability of the USSR. That means a counter-force strategy for the offense and an anti-missile system for the defense, supplemented by civil defense. Deterrence would not be weakened by such a system since the key to deterrence is the knowledge by Soviet leaders that they cannot win a nuclear war. An improved U.S. war-fighting/survival strategy would reinforce that knowledge. In fact, since it would improve the ability of the U.S. to control escalation, it would extend deterrence downward to help prevent initial crises, for with this strategy the Soviets would have more to fear from confrontations.
Counterforce is a more moral strategy because it tends to confine destruction during war to military targets, thus avoiding the sort of megadeath Armaggedons conjured up by the peace movement and science-fiction authors. City-busting is not a necessary tactic in a nuclear war. Such a war would be too short for industrial strength to matter much once the shooting started. In a drawn-out war of attrition, such as the first two world wars, fully mobilized populations become a tool of war and thus subject to attack. But that is not likely to be the case in a nuclear exchange. Victory in such a conflict would be determined by the destruction of existing weapons, military units, and command-control facilities—the targets of counterforce.
There is every sign that the Soviets understand this better than we do. Thus their emphasis on large standing forces, the stockpiling of weapons, blitzkrieg tactics for their conventional forces, and counterforce tactics for their nuclear forces. This is because the Soviets hold the “old” notion derived from Clausewitz that the purpose of war is political gain, not wanton destruction. And the proper aim in war is victory, not suicide.
So long as mass murder of civilians is our chosen policy in war, the antiwar movement will be able to scare the West along the path of unilateral disarmament with campaigns such as “Ground Zero Week.” The central selling point of all “Ground Zero Week” activities was the horror of bombing cities.
Thus on practical political and military grounds as well as on moral grounds, the United States must shift its strategy and force structure to the requirements of counterforce.
William R. Hawkins
To the Editor:
. . . Lamenting that Cardinal Cooke’s defense of the moral tolerability of the strategy of nuclear deterrence was “scathingly attacked,” Michael Novak’s own scathing attack on bishops who have questioned this strategy seems to be on grounds that their moral judgment is against “the plainly expressed will of the American people.” How many repugnant policies have been defended in these terms! Mr. Novak charges that these bishops place themselves beyond dissent and then reports the dissent of Cardinal Cooke, Bishop O’Connor, and others. Accusing the bishops of taking a “political and partisan position” rather than a religious one, he argues that their position is unacceptable, because it is “neutral” and does not serve the partisan interests of the United States as Mr. Novak interprets these interests. Drawing a caricature of the position presented by some bishops, e.g., implying that they have argued “better red than dead,” he then attacks his own caricature. (Is it really possible that Catholic bishops have to defend their opposition to Communism?) He further caters to anti-clericalism by stating that some lay Catholics have studied the issue longer, as if the bishops (a) were consulting none but one another, and (b) should leave moral judgments to technical experts. . . . Finally, Mr. Novak’s remark about the bishops’ desire to have clean hands at the expense of “looking down upon those who keep them free,” insultingly begs the question and ignores the fact that church leaders throughout the world are subjecting themselves to persecution and assassination in the name of freedom.
Shame on you, Mr. Novak! If you have nothing to contribute to the moral argument, you would do us all a favor by at least avoiding the kind of reckless writing that corrupts the language of the debate which must take place. . . .
[Reverend] Philip J. Murnion
New York City
To the Editor:
Along with Michael Novak, I am one of a growing number of concerned Roman Catholics who are deeply disturbed by the pacifist trend of American Catholic clergymen, and their senseless pronouncements regarding the immorality of defensive wars in a nuclear age and the morality of unilateral disarmament. . . .
Bruce F. Sterling
New York City
To the Editor:
Michael Novak is quite right in his conclusion that the political views of the Catholic bishops who speak for unilateral nuclear disarmament must be open to question—not because their views are “Catholic” in nature, but because they are purely political in nature.
Unfortunately there are many religious spokesmen who, having founded a political belief upon religious doctrine, feel that any questioning of their political stance is an attack upon their religion. . . .
To say that nuclear disarmament is an effective way of ending war is but a repetition of the age-old pacifist dream that if one lays down one’s own arms, the other fellow will also lay down his. This is like saying that the best way to eliminate crime is to dismiss the police force, or that the best way to end fires is to do away with the fire department.
History has never supported that enticing dream. Those of us who remember the last war in Europe can recall that Hitler was not deterred one whit by the pacifists who sold Czechoslovakia to Germany. . . .
Lybrand P. Smith
To the Editor:
While influential American Catholic bishops—and Canadian bishops as well—may denounce American nuclear deterrence or the Soviet nuclear threat as immoral, on the alleged authority of Vatican Council II, Pope John Paul II disagrees.
In his pronouncement on peace broadcast to the world on December 21, 1981, the Pope said: “Christians, even as they strive to resist and prevent every form of warfare, have no hesitation in recalling that, in the name of an elementary requirement of justice, peoples have a right and even a duty to protect their existence and freedom by proportionate means against an unjust aggressor.”
Michael Novak writes:
George B. Pepper is aware of some alternative to deterrence; I wish he would share it with us. Not wishing to cede to the Soviets military superiority, not accepting a choice between red or dead, not accepting the status quo, what does Mr. Pepper accept? When he writes that “there is no moral justification for nuclear war,” he sheds no light on what we must do to prevent nuclear war, immoral as such war would certainly be. For our moral duty is not acquitted by announcing moral principles but by preventing what we abhor.
As for Cardinal Krol’s position before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I believe the Cardinal’s logic does lead to declaring the possession of a nuclear deterrent morally wrong. We shall soon enough see how rigorous the logic of the bishops is. Should they wish to escape that conclusion, they will have to begin by revising Cardinal Krol’s premises, for it is in these that the flaws reside.
William R. Hawkins makes some astute observations about the moral, military, and political superiority of a counterforce strategy over mutual assured destruction. In general, I applaud the shift from the latter to the former. But this shift does require (a) new and better communications and control systems, more capable than the sadly neglected systems of the present; (b) new, more accurately targetable delivery systems, to replace twenty-year-old bombers and missiles designed for grosser purposes and now creaking with age; (c) improved intelligence about Soviet military tarets and their changes over time; and (d) public willingness to think carefully about priority targets and fine points of tactics. (I do not mention the need for antimissile defense systems and a massive civil-defense program, both of which were defeated in the Congress at an earlier period of U.S. nuclear superiority.) Will the U.S. bishops support the full range of new expenses required to put a counterforce strategy into effect? Will any religious groups? Will the public?
A democratic society is usually at a great disadvantage in facing a resolute dictatorship, since the voting public ardently wants peace and resists expensive defenses until the threat is clearly revealed. Thus, the mismatch between Soviet preparations and our own, well if briefly described by Mr. Hawkins, is extremely worrisome.
Father Murnion knows as well as I do that bishops in the Catholic Church teach with authority on matters of faith and morals. What is at stake is the full, authoritative statement the bishops will make at their annual meeting this coming November. Father Thomas Ambrogi of San Francisco has aready announced to the press that the first draft being considered by the bishops as of early May declares even the possession of nuclear weapons immoral. If he is correct, the logic of development which my article faithfully reported will have reached its term. If so, Catholics of conscience and loyalty who hold a quite different moral view will have, alas, to choose between the conscience of the bishops and their own. That of the bishops will have authoritative weight against dissenters, as Father Murnion will surely recognize.
Father Murnion thinks the record of the present generation of bishops as opponents of Communism is clear; I certainly wish it were. As for anti-clericalism, Father Winters, S.J., not I, posed that issue. The bishops as a whole will spend less time and energy on nuclear matters than the elected repesentatives of the people in the U.S. Congress. When they have spoken, on what grounds will they rest their case? Their clerical authority may well stand naked.
Ecclesiologically, are bishops the legitimate part of the Catholic community, whose proper vocation it is to decide such matters? I think not. Father Murnion thinks that it will suffice for the bishops (a) to have consultations and (b) to address “moral judgments” beyond those of “technical experts.” But staff-directed consultations often are a sham. And it is good theology to recognize that those Christians whose daily vocation involves them in specific areas of judgment offer a fund of moral and theological wisdom hidden from moralists at desks far away.
Church leaders who undergo persecution and assassination deserve respect. As for others, Reinhold Niebuhr addressed Protestant church leaders in the peace movement of early 1941: “The freedom of these men to speak and write depends upon the existence of a certain type of civilization. Yet they talk and act as if they believed that, whoever wins, religion-as-usual . . . will be the order of the day in America after the war.”
And he added: “The choice before us is clear. Those who choose to exist like parasites on the liberties which others fight to secure for them will end by betraying the Christian ethic and the civilization which has developed out of that ethic.”
As I see it, many statements by Catholic bishops during the last months involve the heresy of supposing that ethics inhabit a disembodied world, outside and above the institutions of civilization. They seem to regard American civilization solely as a “partisan interest.” A few would “trust in God” by disarming, hoping that the Soviets would do likewise. This is no orthodox trust in God. It is the faith of gnostics, for angels from some other world. Christians sound in their faith will resist such sentiment, even when it is piously spoken by bishops.
Surely, Father Murnion will grant that on contraception, the ordination of women, perhaps abortion, usury, the tradition of liberalism, and other matters, he would not be willing simply to concede that bishops always speak for the whole wisdom and range of Catholic faith. Yet on matters of nuclear disarmament, he is certain that they are towers of orthodoxy. Is this where they find Scripture clear? Is this where tradition is on their side? Or is this a place—an odd place—for thinking in “a way entirely new”? Not all will follow the bishops into such novelties. It will be a shame on theological, ecclesiological, and moral-political grounds, if the Catholic bishops of the U.S. choose to divide consciences here, where they have no special authority, where many matters are factual and prudential and subject to much dispute, and where many persons of good conscience are in wide disagreement. Many of us hope that the bishops, accordingly, will speak in an inclusive Catholic way, recognizing diversity, and not in a sectarian fashion.
The letters of Bruce F. Sterling, Lybrand P. Smith, and Eugene Griffin add strength to my argument, for which I am grateful.