An Interview with Father John Pawlikowski, OSM on the Moral Challenges on Nuclear Warfare

Updated: May 7, 2019

By Gordon Nary

Gordon: When President Obama visited Hiroshima on May 27, 2016, the visit was highly covered by the Catholic Media In advance of the visit. Bishop O Oscar Cantú, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) Committee on International Justice and Peace. said  " "Since Saint Pope John XXIII issued Pacem in Terris in 1963, the Catholic Church has called for a world free of nuclear weapons. Faith and reason, religion and science  agree on this issue, Nuclear weapons pose a moral challenge and represent an existential threat that requires action now."

In Gaudium et Spes, we are also taught "Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities  or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and  unhesitating condemnation"

However, there appear to be many  Catholic who may not concur with these teachings, especially as there appear to be  increased risks of the potential of other nations using them against the US. Could you comment on how we should address these concerns in our development of nuclear weapons

Father John: Catholic leadership, both at the level of the Vatican and here in the United States, has taken a firm stand against any use of nuclear weaponry.  This includes the use of such weapons as a deterrent.  This position actually emerges from the classical just war tradition which has dominated Catholic ethical thinking on war and peace issues for centuries.  The argument here is that nuclear weapons would produce such intense and widespread destruction, including the loss of human lives, that would make it impossible to met a key criterion of that just war tradition, i.e., proportionality.  The damage inflicted by the weapons would far surpass whatever good might theoretically result from "winning the war" through the use of such weapons.  And if such weapons are judged as immoral in terms of actual use then we really cannot employ them in a deterrent capacity if in fact we would never be justified in using them.

Let me make it clear, however, that this moral injunction applies only to the use of nuclear weapons, not at the moment to war as such in terms of security and survival.  There have been strong voices for totally eliminating war as a legitimate moral option within parts of the Catholic community, including at the highest levels.  Pope Paul VI's dramatic call for an end to warfare is but one example. Pope John Paul II clearly was moving against the notion of warfare, especially during the Gulf War.  And more recently a meeting at the Vatican on the issue of war and peace co-sponsored by the Vatican's  Justice & Peace Committee and unofficial Catholic peace groups such as Pax Christi  generated a statement against the continued use of any form of war as an instrument of peacemaking. 

That document called for an end to Catholic reliance on the just war tradition as the principal framework for moral decision making.  Instead the Catholic Church should reorient itself towards the promotion of peace in every situation.  Pope Francis himself has shown some sympathy for this perspective.  However, this statement has also received some pushback.  So at this point non-nuclear warfare remains an available moral option from the Catholic perspective especially at the governmental level.  In a recent editorial; The National Catholic Reporter has called upon Pope Francis to make the question of war and peace the focal point of the next episcopal synod.

Gordon: You teach a course at Catholic Theological Union that addresses the moral challenges of nuclear warfare. Could you summarizes  these challenges and comment on what we can do to address these challenges?

Father John: In my course on Catholic perspectives on war and peace issues I provide the participants with a history of the discussion from the very beginning of the church. Certainly the pacifist position was present in the first centuries when Christians were a marginal minority in Roman controlled society.  The motivation for such pacifism is not always clear ("Jesus' "do not kill" injunction, the need for soldiers to engage in emperor worship in the Roman army, etc.).  But even those church leaders who espoused pacifism assured the emperor that they were praying for the success of his wars.  The situation changed dramatically for Christians when Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity and church suddenly moved to a dominant role in political decisions. 

Christianity now had to face the often tough question of protection of the nation against enemies.  That question remains with us today as do other questions such has the use of military force to buttress at failed or failing state, use of military force in the face of famine, the increased reliance on technological warfare, especially the killing with drones, ecological damage from warfare, revolutionary warfare in states under the control of despots and groups such as ISIS.  My personal bottom line in the current situation we face globally is that why in the spirit of Jesus the church needs to express a proclivity for peace over war, there remain occasions when non-nuclear military action remains justified as an instrument of peacemaking.  But our first option as Christians ought always to be a search for a non-military way of achieving peace.

Gordon: In the July/August of Profiles in Catholicism, we featured a videos on Nuclear Proliferation, Deterrence and Disarmament:  Evolving Catholic Approaches which is also featured below for our new subscribers. In addition to the issues discussed in this meeting, what  are these some specific moral challenges on which we need that we need to focus?

Father John: I believe we need to build coalitions in terms of peacemaking.  No nation can go it alone in  terms of global security and peace.  This is not an easy task and requires some diplomatic sophistication and some compromise.  Authentic peacemaking is hard work.  It is far more than slogans and occasional gestures.  It requires a deep-seated ongoing commitment.  We need to explore what some are now calling "just policing" as a replacement for the use of military force,  Because nuclear weapons still pose a significant challenge disarmament must remain a high priority for the church in terms of its public political stance.

Gordon: Our current nuclear bombs are being developed with smaller nuclear warheads are more accurate and deadly and destroy smaller acreage than the original bombs. Since may not destroy entire cities, are there moral  challenges raised by the amount of damage and the number of lives that these bombs could destroy?

Father John: As I cannot morally justify the use of nuclear weapons there is no response to the question of their improved targeting capacity except, But on non-nuclear weaponry certainly more precise control of such weapons in terms of targeting enhances the morality of their use.  But it worries me that we have seen them fail in their supposed accuracy on more than one occasion. I also remain concerned about the divorce between those who detonate these more highly controlled weapons and the experience of the toll they exact.  Many are now launched from insulated controlled rooms where  those pushing the launch buttons have no personal contact with the damage the weapons actually cause.  Such a situation can remove any moral ambiguity for those who launch the weapons and makes it difficult to apply the traditional criteria associated with the just war framework.

Gordon: Do you have any thoughts on the importance of religious leaders to protest when they disagree on nuclear policies?

Father John: I believe bishops need to make known the American Catholic Church's opposition to the use of   nuclear weaponry.  The U.S. Bishops Peace Pastoral of several decades ago together with  its anniversary update argued that there is no way such weaponry can meet the criterion of Proportionality I believe bishops need to make known the American Catholic Church's proportionality test because of  the massive human and ecological damage their use would entail.  And if it is immoral to ever  use them it follows that they cannot serve as an effective deterrent.  The bishops need to  make this Catholic position quite evident in the public  sphere via,op-eds, social media posts and public rallies.

Gordon: Thank you for helping us better understand these moral challenges and hopefully work with our legislators to also reflect on them.

Nuclear Proliferation, Deterrence and Disarmament: Evolving Catholic Approaches

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