Despite the possibility that what a deranged Vladimir Putin planned as a small war against Ukraine could morph into a nuclear catastrophe capable of engulfing us all, the United States is still the most warlike nation on earth.
Wars don’t come cheap these days, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the only truly non-partisan issue in Congress is the Pentagon budget. Democrats and Republicans alike, neither of whom expect to get shot at, vie with one another to show how resolute they are in keeping America strong no matter what the cost, even in human lives, though preferably those of foreigners.
The Pentagon budget, now creeping toward $800 billion, is more than three times that of China, our closest rival, a country that had the effrontery to build an aircraft carrier of its very own to challenge our eleven. The generosity of Congress enriches people who in the 1930s were stigmatized as “merchants of death,” but the latter have since learned the value of public relations. America’s military-industrial complex, as might be expected, led the way in recruiting the very best PR talent. The war to liberate Kuwait (Desert Storm) came to us thanks in part to the creativity of Hill & Knowlton (known in the trade as the Torture Lobby). Wars have persisted even as critical domestic problems continue to go unaddressed, such as American school children suffering brain damage due to lead-contaminated drinking water.
There is something immoral about all this. To be fair, the Catholic Church in the United States, for which morality is presumed to be a major concern despite some very public failings, does take notice of war now and then. Or rather it used to. It hasn’t done so lately.
The United States Council of Catholic Bishops meets twice a year, which you’d think would give a troubled bishop the opportunity to call into question the morality of much of what our armed forces have been up to. But you’d think wrong. Successive cliques of ill-educated, narrow-focused reactionaries—Burke, Gomez, Lori, Cordileone, Kurtz, and Dolan the most prominent among the current crop—have succeeded in keeping the topic of war off the agenda for more than thirty years. Nor have they seemed to have had much trouble doing so.
Recently, however, two bishops have spoken up in their own dioceses. Bishop Stowe of Lexington and Archbishop Wester of Santa Fe have pleasantly surprised Catholics like me by issuing pastoral letters calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, my pleasure is diminished by the realization that such efforts, however welcome, will do little to stave off a nuclear Armageddon after which, in the words of Nikita Khrushchev, the living will envy the dead.
The Vatican—even during the imperious reign of John Paul II, whose attention was fixed upon restoring freedom to his native land (which is now on the road to dictatorship)—has been forever calling for nuclear disarmament. But how has it called? In what tone of voice? That’s the key question.
Forty years ago, and far too long after the nuclear massacres of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—atrocities that the Catholic Church in America, like its government, has yet to condemn—the bishops of the United States, prodded, I’m sure, by Ronald Reagan’s missile-rattling rhetoric, surprised everybody by announcing that they were going to prepare a pastoral letter on war.
The deliberations of the committee, headed by Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, got off on the wrong foot when Bernardin was forced to announce at the first meeting that they were by no means to condemn the possession of nuclear weapons, an edict from Rome that slammed the door in the face of the Holy Spirit, whose guidance they presumably would be imploring.
But the bishops labored on and brought forth “The Challenge of Peace.” It was a good but compromised document. Not compromised enough, however, for John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. After the first draft was scrutinized in Rome, Bernardin and Archbishop John Roach, chairman of the U.S. Council of Bishops, were called on the carpet in Rome to defend it to the “NATO bishops” (a Vatican dicastery previously unknown to me), who were more concerned about a Soviet armor thrust through the Fulda Gap than anything that Jesus might have said.
Bernardin and Roach duly met with their critics, and the NATO bishops came away content. The concessions were major. One, for example, was purging a declaration of “no first use” of nuclear weapons in response to an attack with conventional weapons. The first draft had not done anything quite so bold. It merely proposed that any circumstances in which a first use would be morally acceptable would be difficult to imagine. Well: Ratzinger and the NATO bishops had no problem imagining one.
When the final version of The Challenge of Peace came out in May of 1983, the Pentagon, which had been a bit worried, and hawks everywhere—especially devout Catholic hawks like William F. Buckley Jr—breathed a sigh of relief. It was obvious to all who cared to read it that the bishops had waffled. With all due modesty—well, some anyway—the title of a subsequent article of mine in Commonweal, “Sidestepping The Challenge of Peace,” summed it up. (Commonweal disagreed with me, and still does, but that’s another story.)
Whatever the case, the Peace Pastoral is gone and forgotten, a failure that casts a pall to this day over subsequent (and toothless) Vatican statements on how nice peace is and how bad war is.
What do I want the Church to do? Let me quote somebody else, somebody who answered that question far better than I ever could.
In 1948 the Dominicans of Paris invited Albert Camus to address them about what he and other non-believers wanted to hear from the Catholic Church in the wake of the horrors of World War II, their hope being that they could unite to confront the horrors that yet impended.
Camus, who described himself and others like him as “isolated individuals,” was quite willing to challenge the Church. He did not share the beliefs of the Dominicans, he said, but neither did he dismiss them. He recounted how during the war he, even as a non-believer, had looked to Rome. He wanted to hear a “great voice” raised to condemn the monstrous evil of the war, but he failed to hear it. There were those who said that they had heard it, but what little the world heard from Rome was the Church speaking in what he dismissed, not without cause, as its “encyclical voice,” a form of speech that was prolix, abstract, and devoid of inspiration for all those not attuned to it. (The word “Jew,” incidentally, did not make the cut.)
The Dominicans wanted to know what the world expects of Christians. He gave them his answer:
What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out loud and clear and proclaim their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man. Christians must get away from abstraction and confront the bloodstained face that history has taken on today.
And what happens, Camus went on to ask, if Christianity doesn’t rise to the challenge? And here Camus shows a prescience that eludes the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. For it was a question quite pertinent to our own era, marked as it is by empty churches and tepid bishops.
If Christianity does turn away from the challenge, Camus told the Dominicans,
Christianity will lose once and for all the virtue of revolt and indignation that belonged to it long ago. In that case self-proclaimed Christians may still be among us, but Christianity itself will die, and world will suffer greatly for its loss.
In the spirit of Camus, here’s my recommendations. However reluctant our bishops might be to confront the blood-stained face of history, they could make a start by talking to people who know more than they do and have experienced more than they have.
In his book The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg, working for RAND, tells how he was shocked to see an unguarded fighter plane on the tarmac armed with a nuclear bomb. (This was more than 60 years ago, but even today nuclear surety remains less than sure.). A drunken pilot could jump into the cockpit and be off to Beijing to set off World War III just like that. In any case, Ellsberg took the opportunity to place his hand on the bomb and feel the heat of radiation. I’m sure he would be happy to share his feelings at the next USCCB conference if invited.
Then there’s Bishop Botean, who leads the Romanian eastern rite Church in the United States. He’s the only Catholic bishop who issued a letter condemning the Iraq invasion, calling it an unjust war in which Catholics may in nowise participate. If the USCCB was willing to hear what he had to say, it would give some of the disgruntled brethren an opportunity to ask what prompted him to be such a spoilsport.
There’s also Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel and veteran of the Vietnam war, who is the head of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He’s a conservative Catholic who is a severe critic of American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.
Finally, Archbishop Wester had the grace to praise the late Sr. Megan Rice who appeared on the front page of the New York Times after, at age 82, invading the Holy of Holies of nuclear weaponry in Oakridge, Tennessee. The USCCB could follow up on the incredible feat that she and her two companions carried off by recognizing and commending the Plowshares Movement, founded by the Berrigans, a group of heroic men and women who have borne witness against nuclear weapons and suffered greatly for it. They have heeded Jesus’ command to shout what he taught them from the rooftops, instead of keeping their mouths shut about anything that might disturb major donors. (Those big churches and episcopal palaces aren’t going to maintain themselves!)
The bishops have much to learn from talking to people like the ones I’ve listed here. They might even learn to denounce the abomination of genocidal nuclear weapons—and especially any idea that a “first use” policy of the same is in any way morally defensible.
Michael Gallagher served as a paratrooper during the Korean War. His book on Catholic activists, Laws of Heaven, won the National Jesuit Book Award in theology, and his translation of Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow was a finalist for a National Book Award.