Catholic Bishops Return to Nuclear Disarmament - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Catholic Bishops Return to Nuclear Disarmament

On January 11, 2022, Sante Fe, New Mexico, Archbishop John C. Wester issued a pastoral letter calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons, and held a press conference announcing the letter which is entitled “Living in the Light of Christ’s Peace: A Conversation Toward Nuclear Disarmament.” As a new Cold War ramps up with Communist China, a regime that is building up and modernizing its nuclear forces, and as the United States confronts the twin crises of Taiwan and Ukraine, Archbishop Wester calls upon his country to “take up the cause of worldwide nuclear disarmament with an urgency that befits the seriousness of this cause and the dangerous threat that looms over all humanity and the planet.” As Yogi Berra supposedly said, its déjà vu all over again.

In May 1983, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter entitled ”The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” joining other “peace movements” around the free world (and some American foreign policy “wise men”) in calling on the Reagan administration — then in the midst of a nuclear buildup in response to a decades-long Soviet nuclear buildup — to move toward disarmament. The 1983 letter brought swift and compelling responses by National Review’s religion editor Michael Novak, the renowned nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter, and the geopolitical thinker Edward Luttwak, among others. More about that later.

Archbishop Wester begins his pastoral letter by recalling his travel to Japan in 2017, where he visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the two cities that were destroyed by U.S. atomic bombs in August 1945. He read about school children in Hiroshima that ran to the windows attracted by the light of the nuclear explosion whose fate was instant incineration or “dying later in agonizing pain.” He recalled his own fears as a child during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when he looked up at the sky on his way home from school to see if any Russian planes were about to drop atomic bombs in him. “I became so frightened,” he wrote, “that I ran all the way home.”

In the letter, the Archbishop writes that after he returned to New Mexico, he took some friends to a history museum and reflected on the exhibits about the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, and expresses guilt over “what those bombs did to our Japanese brothers and sisters.” He felt “disturbed by our history, the long dark legacy of building the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, and the many thousands of nuclear weapons since then.” “We are the people who designed and built these weapons of mass destruction,” he writes. “We were the first to use them. We must be the people to dismantle them and make sure they are never used again.”

He then calls the building of the atomic bombs “blasphemous,” and announces his personal epiphany: “It became clear to me that the Archdiocese of Sante Fe must be part of a strong peace initiative, one that would make sure that these weapons would never be used again, that would never destroy our planet or one another, that instead we would clean up our poisoned land and fund global institutions that resolve all international conflicts through nonviolent means such as dialogue and negotiations.”

Archbishop Wester then heaps praise upon two of his Catholic forebearers: Father Louis Vitale who spent 50 years “organizing peace vigils, and engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience actions” at nuclear weapons test sites; and Sister Megan Rice who did a stint in federal prison for unlawfully entering the Oak Ridge, Tennessee nuclear weapons facility and who called the American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “the greatest shame in history.” They were, the Archbishop writes, “amazing prophetic people … speaking out for peace.” He calls upon his fellow Catholics to follow their example.

Archbishop Wester hears the voice of Jesus, who is saying: “Stop building nuclear weapons, do not prepare for nuclear war, dismantle your nuclear weapons, and welcome God’s reign of universal love and peace.” He attributes moral equivalence to the United States, Russia, China, North Korea, England, Pakistan, and Israel. They are all equally guilty of continuing the arms race. He writes about using the money spent on weapons to feed the poor and hungry. He makes the obligatory references to the threat of climate change. But he saves his fiercest criticism for the United States.

And here the Archbishop joins the throng of revisionist historians, such as Gar Alperovitz, who claim that the dropping of the atomic bombs was unnecessary to end World War II; that the U.S. dropped the bombs only to prove to the Soviet Union that we were “militarily superior” to them; and that in the “early 1950s” the “War Department” (he apparently is unaware that after the National Security Act of 1947, it was called the “Defense Department”) “created the myth ‘the atomic bomb saved lives’” and laments that the “myth remains widespread today.”

Archbishop Wester invokes the teachings of Pope Francis (and statements of previous Popes) who has called for a world without nuclear weapons and who has stated that “the possession of atomic weapons is immoral.” And he also invokes the 1983 pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace.” Which brings us back to Novak, Wohlstetter, and Luttwak.

Of the three, Novak was the only Catholic (he died in 2017 at the age of 83). In response to early drafts of “The Challenge of Peace,” Novak wrote a three-part series in Catholicism in Crisis, which National Review reprinted in its entirety, entitled “Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age.” Novak respectfully noted that the nation’s Catholic bishops “have a right and duty to express the truth of the Gospels entrusted to them and to restate the Catholic tradition for our time.” But he cautioned them to approach the subject of nuclear weapons in the context of the realities of geopolitics. “In fulfilling the moral imperative to prevent unjust uses of nuclear weapons,” he wrote, “Christian citizens must exercise clear and sustained thought. Any flight of reason into panic must be quietly resisted, and every flight into illusion curbed.… Neither slogans nor cold fear is a suitable substitute for prudent judgment.” The bishops must recognize, Novak urged, the need for the United States and its democratic allies to combat an aggressive totalitarian power such as the Soviet Union. “When an unjust aggressor injures human dignity,” Novak continued, “to stand aside is a form of complicity and collusion. To resist an unjust aggressor with proportionate means is demanded by justice. Thus, human dignity is the cause both of just peace and just wars. As there are wars which are unjust, so also there is peace which is unjust.” And Novak quoted Pope John Paul II, who said that “a totally and permanently peaceful human society is unfortunately a utopia, and that ideologies that hold up that prospect as easily attainable are based on hopes that cannot be realized, whatever the reason behind them.”

Novak also attempted to educate the bishops about the beneficial effects of nuclear weapons throughout history, preventing crises and small wars from developing into more disastrous conventional wars (October 1962, October 1973). Politics, Novak wrote, is imperfect, and “preserving peace and defending justice are political tasks,” not religious ones. The record of arms control and disarmament agreements, he continued, “has been, for the most part, a record of deception on the part of the cynically ambitious and of self-deception on the part of those who thought peace might be bought cheap.” Novak concluded with this admonition: “To abandon deterrence is to neglect the duty to defend the innocent, to preserve the Constitution and the Republic, and to keep safe the very idea of political liberty. No President by his oath of office can so act, nor can a moral people.”

In June 1983, Albert Wohlstetter in the pages of Commentary wrote “Bishops, Statesmen, and Other Strategists on the Bombing of Innocents.” Wohlstetter, at the time a renowned nuclear strategist perhaps best known for his Foreign Affairs article “The Delicate Balance of Terror,” respectfully dissented from the bishops’ pastoral letter which urged the United States to renounce the “use” of nuclear weapons (although until their elimination, we could threaten their use for deterrence purposes) and to avoid even planning to fight a nuclear war even in response to a nuclear attack by an enemy. In other words, wrote Wohlstetter, the bishops are okay with us threatening the use of nuclear weapons but under no circumstances are we ever to use them (or even plan for their use). “Precisely how this volubly revealed deception is to fool allies and adversaries … has not itself been revealed,” he wrote. The pastoral letter, he continued, reflected “ambivalence and incoherence.” The bishops’ letter, Wohlstetter lamented, reinforces “the impassioned pacifist and neutralist movements that have been growing in Europe and in the United States …”

And the bishops — following the lead of some civilian strategists — argued against efforts to “improve the capability to attack targets precisely and discriminately” with lower-yield, more accurate nuclear warheads and delivery systems. The bishops remained, Wohlstetter contended, in the strategic world of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) which held that peace would result by holding innocent civilians hostage to nuclear Armageddon. “Moralists,” he wrote, “[w]hile they have thought of themselves as aiming their opposition at the dangers of bringing on nuclear mass destruction, they have often stopped research and engineering on ways to destroy military targets without mass destruction; and they have done collateral damage to the development of precise, long-range conventional weapons.”

Wohlstetter called the bishops’ urging of total nuclear disarmament “utopian hopes” that would have the effect of undermining nuclear deterrence and thereby make nuclear and conventional wars more likely.

It was left to Edward Luttwak, one of our nation’s greatest strategists and thinkers, to unceremoniously put the bishops in their place in an article in Commentary entitled “How to Think About Nuclear War.” Most of Luttwak’s article was directed at the follies of American elder statesmen who advocated in the journal Foreign Affairs that the United States adopt a “no-first-use” of nuclear weapons policy. But Luttwak also noted that a host of priests, rabbis, and bishops prominently joined the chorus of voices claiming that “nuclear deterrence, and indeed nuclear weapons as such, are in themselves immoral.” He placed the consequences of following the bishops’ advice front and center: “If nuclear weapons were now disinvented, if all the hopes of the nuclear disarmers were fully realized, the Soviet Union would … emerge as the dominant power on the [Eurasian] continent, fully capable of invading and conquering Western Europe and beyond if its political domination were resisted.” (READ MORE: The New Nuclear Arms Race)

Moreover, “without nuclear deterrence,” Luttwak wrote, “great-power politics would resume as before 1945” with massive conventional casualties in great-power wars that would more likely result from crises where nuclear weapons acted as a deterrent. And in a direct attack on the bishops and other “anti-nuclear churchmen,” Luttwak scolded: “By what doctrine of theology, by what theory of morality, by what rule of ethics is it decreed that the small risk of nuclear war is a greater evil than the virtual certainty of the large-scale death in great-power wars no longer deterred?”

Four decades later, after our resilient nuclear deterrent helped us win the Cold War against the Soviet Union, we face a new challenger — just as evil and armed with nuclear weapons — that seeks to undermine the liberal world order established by the United States at the end of the Second World War, which was the most destructive war in history that only came to a final end with the dropping of two atomic bombs that, yes, ultimately saved lives, despite the revisionist claims of people like Archbishop Wester. This new challenger steadily increases its nuclear weapons capabilities, represses the Catholic Church in China, commits genocide against Muslim minorities, forcibly takes freedom away from the residents of Hong Kong, threatens to invade the free people of Taiwan, and released upon the world a viral pandemic that has killed millions. Archbishop Wester’s time would be better spent issuing a pastoral letter on the evils of the Chinese Communist Party than in starting or reviving a movement whose unintended effect will be to undermine the security of his own country.

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