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Issue Date:  July 29, 2005

As U.S. enlarges nuclear arsenal, Vatican rethinks stance on deterrence


In May of this year the Vatican took a dramatic step that signals a sea change in Catholic moral teaching on nuclear weapons. In his address to the delegates at the Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, Vatican U.N. ambassador, called into question the ongoing morality of nuclear deterrence: “When the Holy See expressed its limited acceptance of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War, it was with the clearly stated condition that deterrence was only a step on the way toward progressive nuclear disarmament. The Holy See has never countenanced nuclear deterrence as a permanent measure, nor does it today when it is evident that nuclear deterrence drives the development of ever newer nuclear arms, thus preventing genuine nuclear disarmament.”

Ever since the Second Vatican Council’s unequivocal condemnation of any use of nuclear weapons, church teaching has been guided by the conflicting positions of being opposed to any use of nuclear weapons but allowing for the possession of them as a deterrent to ensure that they are never used. But when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed thereafter, the expectation was that nuclear disarmament would proceed and nuclear weapons would go the way of the other weapons of mass destruction -- biological weapons and chemical weapons -- which had already been outlawed under international agreement. Indeed, throughout the 1990s the Vatican was among the strongest voices calling for an international treaty to ban nuclear weapons. The new statement by the Vatican is the first time since the early 1980s that it has challenged the very morality of deterrence itself.

The change in the Vatican’s position may prod the U.S. bishops to do more. Thus far, they have focused their attentions more on the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy. In “The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace,” the 1993 U.S. bishops’ statement on the 10th anniversary of the Peace Pastoral (“The Challenge of Peace”), the U.S. Catholic church again cautioned that nuclear weapons must never be used and that their possession could only be justified as a deterrent to the use of nuclear weapons by others.

This position was clearly tempered by the uncertainty of the moment. It was not yet clear what would happen to the Soviet nuclear arsenal in the wake of the Union’s demise. Five years later it was clear enough that the Cold War nuclear standoff had been relegated to history and that U.S. plans for a massive $60 billion reinvestment in its own nuclear weapons arsenal signaled a new and enduring role for U.S. nuclear weapons that went well beyond the needs of deterrence.

More than 100 U.S. bishops belonging to the Catholic peace movement Pax Christi USA seized on this moment to issue their own critique of U.S. nuclear weapons policies in light of the strict conditions that allowed for the moral acceptance of deterrence. In “The Morality of Nuclear Deterrence,” issued in 1998, these bishops observed that U.S. deterrence policy had been expanded to confront nonnuclear threats and was itself an impediment to nuclear disarmament. They concluded, “The policy of nuclear deterrence is being institutionalized. It is no longer considered an interim policy but rather has become the very ‘long-term basis for peace’ that we rejected in 1983.”

The Pax Christi bishops’ statement proved all too prophetic. Revelations in The Washington Post in May, carried by news outlets around the world, confirmed that the Bush administration has indeed integrated nuclear weapons into what it calls its “Global Strike” option. The same article referred to a plan already drawn up to attack both North Korea and Iran with a combination of conventional and nuclear weapons.

Earlier, on March 15, the Pentagon placed on its public Web site the “Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations.” The executive summary states clearly that the line between nuclear and conventional attack has been obliterated and that the “integration of conventional and nuclear forces is therefore crucial to the success of any comprehensive strategy.”

The Pentagon’s “comprehensive strategy” includes using nuclear weapons against deeply buried targets. Its preferred weapon for this mission is the controversial Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. The Bush administration asserts that the blast and radioactive fallout from this weapon would be contained underground. However, a recent study by the National Research Council, a division of the National Academy of Sciences, concludes that the use of these weapons “would pose an incredible risk to civilians on the ground and in neighboring areas [with] casualties ranging from thousands to more than a million.”

Sixty years ago the United States vaporized 140,000 civilians in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, actions characterized by Pope Paul VI as a “butchery of untold magnitude.” As the world commemorates these anniversaries, the Bush administration, through its Global Strike capability, sits poised to unleash such atrocities anywhere and everywhere. The time has come for the Catholic church in the United States to take up the Vatican’s call for a reexamination of the whole strategy of nuclear deterrence and directly challenge this administration’s plans. Indeed, that challenge confronts all Catholics and citizens of conscience.

Dave Robinson is executive director of Pax Christi USA, the national Catholic peace movement.

National Catholic Reporter, July 29, 2005

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