Atomic Weapons, Nuclear, History, and Moral Questions Concerning

E Christian Brugger. New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement 2010. Editor: Robert L Fastiggi. Volume 1, Gale, 2010.

The adjective nuclear means “pertaining to the nucleus of an atom.” A nuclear bomb is a weapon that derives its destructive power from energy released from an atom’s nucleus through either fission or fusion. Nuclear fission is the process by which an atom splits into smaller fragments, and nuclear fusion the process by which multiple atomic nuclei fuse together to form a heavier nucleus. In both cases energy is released. In harnessing this energy for use in a weapon of mass destruction, hundreds of trillions of nuclear fissions or fusions must be made to occur within a very short period of time.

The first generation of nuclear weapons were fission bombs. In the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima (nicknamed “Little Boy”), uranium-235 (U235) was used (the number 235 because its nucleus contains 143 neutrons and 92 protons). The Nagasaki bomb (nicknamed “Fat Man”) used plutonium-239 (PU239). U235 and PU239 were chosen because of their propensities to undergo fission (the nuclei of other elements are more stable and do not easily split).

Consider fission in U235. If a single free neutron penetrates the U235 nucleus, the nucleus splits releasing fragments that include two or three more free neutrons plus 200 MeV (million electron volts) of energy: (U235 + n → fission + 2 or 3 n + 200 MeV). The two or three free neutrons then collide with two or three more U235 atoms, causing each nucleus to split. With each generation the number of fissions increases exponentially. In eighty generations about 6 x 1023 fissions (or one mole) occur if a self-sustaining chain reaction can be generated. This releases approximately 2.3 × 1013 joules of energy, equivalent to about 5,500 tons of TNT. A chain reaction in a piece of U235 the size of a grain of rice can generate energy equivalent to three tons of coal or fourteen barrels of oil. The Little Boy atomic bomb contained 64 kilograms of U235. (Fat Man contained 6.2 kg of enriched plutonium.)

After World War II, a second generation of more powerful nuclear weapons was developed using energy released through nuclear fusion. The process of fusion involves combining, or fusing, multiple nuclei of lighter elements, such as the hydrogen isotopes tritium and deuterium, into more stable heavy elements. Corresponding to the generation of the new, more stable nucleus is the liberation of significant amounts of energy. But extremely high temperatures are required to drive the fusion process. And so fusion weapons, also called thermonuclear weapons (or hydrogen bombs), combine in rapid succession both fission and fusion reactions. An initial, or primary, fission stage generates the necessary high temperatures to ignite the secondary fusion stage, which in turn liberates more neutrons to fuel further fission reactions. The yield of energy of this type of weapon is theoretically limitless. Whereas the two bombs dropped on Japan each had yields of 15,000-20,000 tons of TNT, thermonuclear weapons can generate explosive yields equivalent to hundreds of millions of tons of TNT.

History of Nuclear Weapons

In 1898 French physicist Pierre Curie and his Polish wife, Marie Curie, discovered the radioactive elements radium and polonium. They found the elements radiated energy at a rate greater than any chemical process could account for. In 1905 German physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) published his Special Theory of Relativity, which helped explain the relationship between mass and energy. He proved that the amount of energy in an object equals its mass multiplied by the square of the speed of light (186,282 miles per second) showing that a small amount of matter can yield an enormous amount of energy.

In 1932 British physicist James Chadwick, assistant to the famous experimental physicist Ernest Rutherford, confirmed the existence of the neutron: it possessed no electrical charge and so could pass through the electrical barriers of a nucleus and penetrate the nucleus itself. Atomic physics was turning to the question of how to compel the nucleus to give up its enormous energy. According to the account of historian Richard Rhodes, that same year Leó Szilárd, a Hungarian-American physicist, who later was assigned to work on the Manhattan Project, wrote: “If I wanted to contribute something to save mankind, then I would probably go into nuclear physics, because only through the liberation of atomic energy could we attain the means which would enable man not only to leave the earth but to leave the solar system” (Rhodes 1986, p. 25). Two years later, Szilárd submitted the first patent for a method for generating a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction (i.e., a nuclear explosion). In 1938 three German scientists, Otto Hahn (1879-1968), Lise Meitner (1878-1968), and Fritz Strassmann (1902-1980), demonstrated that when a uranium atom is bombarded by a single free neutron the atomic nucleus splits; in the process it emits additional free neutrons (nuclear fission).

On August 2, 1939, on the eve of the start of World War II, Albert Einstein reluctantly sent a letter to President Roosevelt informing him of rapid advances in German attempts to purify uranium-235 and its potential for producing a super-bomb. The letter prompted Roosevelt to form a committee to investigate the military implications of atomic research. In September

1942 the president formed the Manhattan Project to secretly build an atomic bomb before the Germans did. He placed it under the directorship of Robert Oppenheimer. In December 1942 two members of the project, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilárd, demonstrated the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction in a lab under the squash courts at the University of Chicago. Oppenheimer, though encouraged by the project’s success, is said to have quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Kenneth T. Bainbridge, the gruff physicist and director of the test, told Oppenheimer, “Now we’re all sons of bitches.” Two and a half years later during the dawn of July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb, named Trinity, was detonated at a remote site near Alamogordo, New Mexico, illustrating in horrifying graphics the validity of Einstein’s famous equation, E = MC2.

Three weeks later, on August 6, 1945, the B-29 Superfortress bomber named Enola Gay dropped a four-ton atomic bomb (“Little Boy”) on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The one bomb killed an estimated 90,000 people. Three days later, on August 9, a bomb (“Fat Man”) containing several pounds of plutonium was dropped on Nagasaki. It left 40,000 dead. In both cities, the overwhelming majority of dead were civilians. Six days later, on August 14, Japan surrendered to the Allied Powers, officially ending the Pacific Campaign and hence World War II.

Over the next forty-five years, the United States and its allies challenged the Soviet Union and its allies in a race to create the most nuclear weapons. At its peak in the 1960s, the United States had approximately 32,000 nuclear weapons in its arsenal. On July 1, 1968, a Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was signed at Washington, London, and Moscow, and it entered into force in 1970. Its three main provisions included commitments to nonproliferation, disarmament, and the peaceful use of nuclear technology. The NPT contains the only international, multilateral agreement with any binding commitment to nuclear disarmament. It was extended indefinitely at its twenty-five-year review conference in 1995. The next review conference is scheduled for May 2010. Presently there are 189 countries party to the treaty, five of which possess nuclear weapons: The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council). Israel, India, and Pakistan each possess nuclear weapons, and none is an NPT signatory. North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the process of decommissioning rapidly accelerated, although thousands of nuclear weapons still exist.

Catholic Teaching

The Catholic Church has steadfastly opposed the spread and use of nuclear weapons. Catholic opposition began even before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As early as February 1943, PIUS XII expressed the Church’s grave concern about weapons of a type that could cause “a dangerous catastrophe for our entire planet” (February 21, 1943). The Church’s explicit advocacy for abolition of nuclear weapons began soon after World War II. In 1953 Pius XII, while acknowledging the principle of the legitimate self-defense of nations, called for an international agreement to “proscribe” (proscrire) “ABC warfare” (i.e., atomic, biological, and chemical warfare) (October 19, 1953). He repeated the call in his Easter address of 1954. Turning his attention to the “new, destructive armaments unheard of in their capacity for violence,” he wrote: “But, if everything is peace and joy in heaven, here on earth the cold hard facts are quite otherwise.” He warned that such weapons “could cause the total extermination of all life, animal and vegetable, and of all the works of man over ever-widening regions.” And he vowed to “tirelessly endeavor to bring about, by means of international agreement… the effective proscription and banishment of atomic, biological and chemical warfare” (April 18, 1954).

In September 1954 Pope Pius asked whether warfare using atomic bombs is “permissible as a matter of principle.” His affirmative answer was qualified by four normative conditions: just grounds, necessary self-defense, last resort, and discriminate use. A nation has just grounds when it is faced with “an obvious, extremely serious, and otherwise unavoidable violation of justice.” Even still, it cannot be justified unless and until recourse to this type of war “is deemed absolutely necessary as a means of self-defense”; further still, “every possible effort must be made to avert it through international agreements”; finally, its use must be strictly limited to defense against injustice and necessary safeguarding of “legitimate possessions”; if it ends as “the pure and simple annihilation of all human life within the radius of action,” then “its use should be rejected as immoral” (September 30, 1954). The fourth principle, discriminate use, has carried most weight in the Church’s subsequent moral analyses of nuclear weapons.

In his Christmas Radio Message of 1955, Pope Pius called on nations and their leaders—as “an obligation in conscience”—to support international conventions that will advance a threefold aim: (1) “renunciation of experimentation with atomic weapons”; (2) “renunciation of the use of such”; and (3) “general control of armaments.” He starkly described a future where such conventions are eschewed:

This is the spectacle offered to the terrified gaze as a result of such use: entire cities, even the largest and richest in art and history, wiped out; a pall of death over pulverized ruins, covering countless victims—their limbs burnt, twisted and scattered—while others groan in their death agony. Meanwhile the specter of a radioactive cloud hinders survivors from giving any help, and inexorably advances to snuff out any remaining life. There will be no song of victory, only the inconsolable weeping of humanity which in desolation will gaze upon the catastrophe brought on by its own folly (December 24, 1955). (cf. Benedict XVI, January 1, 2006)

Pius’s successor, Pope John XXIII, in his famous social encyclical of 1963, Pacem in terris, criticized the enormous global expenditure on armaments by developed countries—the “vast outlay of intellectual and material resources”—which ends up diverting needed social assistance away from underdeveloped countries (PT, 109; see also Mater et magistra, nos. 203-204). He rejected the belief that a balance of nuclear arms is the only means of assuring peace (PT, 110). Although he reluctantly agreed that “the monstrous power of modern weapons does indeed act as a deterrent,” he said he feared “that the very testing of nuclear devices for war purposes can, if continued, lead to serious danger for various forms of life on earth” (no. 111). Following his predecessor, Pope John taught that “nuclear weapons must be banned” by a “general agreement… on a suitable disarmament program” and an “effective system of mutual control” (no. 112). He famously stated that because of the “terrifying destructive force” of modern weapons, “it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice” (no. 127). In October 1965 Pope PAUL VI, repeating the message of his two predecessors, called on the member states of the United Nations to support comprehensive disarmament of “the terrible weapons that modern science has given you” (October 4, 1965) (cf. Address of Benedict XVI, April 10, 2008).

In 1965, drawing on Pius XII’s teaching on necessary self-defense, Vatican II maintained in Gaudium et spes (GS) that the “massive and indiscriminate destruction” threatened by the new “scientific weapons” goes “far beyond the bounds of legitimate defense” (no. 80). The Council condemned “bellum totale” (“total war”), which it defines as “any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population.” To intend such destruction, the Council taught, “is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation” (no. 80; cf. CCC, no. 2314, Wilton Gregory, August 6, 2004).

Early in his pontificate, in June 1982, Pope John Paul II, following his predecessors as well as a 1981 recommendation of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, urged an assembly at the United Nations to follow through with a nuclear arms reduction plan that is “balanced, simultaneous and internationally controlled” (June 7, 1982, no. 8); see PAS, October 7-8, 1981). To further support progressive disarmament, the holy see, in its capacity as a Permanent Observer to the United Nations, ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty on February 25, 1971; it ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty on July 18, 2001. In 1997, Archbishop Renato Martino, representing the Holy See, urged the U.N. Committee on Disarmament, in the Vatican’s strongest admonition to date, to renew its effort in favor of nuclear disarmament:

Nuclear weapons are incompatible with the peace we seek for the 21st century. They cannot be justified. They deserve condemnation. The preservation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty demands an unequivocal commitment to their abolition…. This is a moral challenge, a legal challenge and a political challenge. That multiple-based challenge must be met by the application of our humanity (October 15, 1997).

The U.S. bishops addressed nuclear weapons in their 1968 Pastoral Letter Human Life in Our Day, their 1976 statement To Live in Christ Jesus: A Pastoral Reflection on the Moral Life, and their 1983 Pastoral Letter The Challenge of Peace God’s Promise and Our Response. In Human Life in Our Day, the bishops lament the “anti-life direction of technological warfare” illustrated in the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons, which “would leave entire cities intact, but totally without life” (no. 103). Recalling Pius XII and Vatican II’s condemnation of total war, they reaffirmed the Council’s call for “reciprocal or collective disarmament” (no. 107). In To Live in Christ Jesus they taught that the “first imperative” on those with nuclear weapons “is to prevent their use” (p. 34, quoted in Weigel, Tranquillitas Ordinis, p. 258). In the Challenge of Peace the bishops condemned “counter-population warfare,” what Pius XII and Vatican II called “total war” (no. 147). They likewise condemned any “retaliatory action” using nuclear weapons that would not discriminate against the lives of the innocent (no. 148). On initiating a war using nuclear weapons, they stated: “We do not perceive any situation in which the deliberate initiation of nuclear warfare, on however restricted a scale, can be morally justified” (no. 150). They expressed grave skepticism on the question of a “limited” strategic use of nuclear weapons because of their uncertainty as to whether such weapons could ever be used without indiscriminately killing the innocent (no. 179).

In August 2005 William S. Skylstad, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), in a letter on the sixtieth anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, wrote: “No matter how noble the ends of a war may be, they cannot justify employing means or weapons that fail to discriminate between noncombatants and combatants” (August 2, 2005). Bishop Howard Hubbard, addressing the U.S. Secretary of State in April 2009, went a step further: “Nuclear war is rejected in Church teaching because the use of nuclear weapons cannot insure noncombatant immunity” (April 8, 2009). Although what consistently has been rejected has not been nuclear war per se, but its indiscriminate use, his statement does express the increasing unconditional opposition within the American hierarchy toward the use and possession of nuclear weapons.

The Holy See on Nuclear Deterrence

The Catholic Church has never explicitly condemned the build up of nuclear weapons and provisional targeting of hostile nations for purposes of deterring acts of alien aggression. It has, however, been a constant antagonist against the logic of nuclear deterrent strategy; GS, n. 81, gives a clear expression of this position: “the arms race is an utterly treacherous trap for humanity” (Vatican II, GS, no. 81). We should also note that in condemning the type of retaliation that nuclear deterrent strategy usually threatens (e.g., in GS, n. 80, “the destruction of entire cities”, GS, no. 80) Church teaching justifies a moral rejection of deterrent strategy under most concrete circumstances.

In June 1982 Pope John Paul II stated that nuclear deterrent strategy as a stage in a process toward complete disarmament “may still be judged morally acceptable.” He insisted, however, that this is no more than a minimum “which is always susceptible to the real danger of explosion” (June 7, 1982, no. 8). The Catechism of the Catholic Church, after repeating Vatican II’s condemnation of total war (no. 2314), taught that accumulating arms as a means of ensuring peace risks aggravating the causes of war, increases the danger of escalation, impedes efforts to aid countries in need, and thwarts international development (no. 2315; cf. 2329). In May 2005, the Holy See, again addressing the United Nations, said that “the time has come to re-examine the whole strategy of nuclear deterrence.” Further:

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 towards 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. (Celestino Migliore, May 4, 2005)

The United States Bishops on Nuclear Deterrence

The U.S. bishops have also long been critics of nuclear deterrence strategy. In Human Life in Our Day, without condemning the deterrent, they “seriously question[ed]… the advantage to be gained by nuclear superiority” which only causes an escalation of the weapons resulting in a situation which is neither more stable nor secure (no. 113). The bishops pledged a “united effort toward forming a climate of public opinion for peace” and called on Catholics and all people of good will to pray for peace (nos. 114, 116). In 1979 John Cardinal Krol, on behalf of the U.S. bishops’ conference, taught that, “Catholic dissatisfaction with nuclear deterrence and the urgency of the Catholic [ethic] demand that the nuclear arms race be reversed.”

The bishops’ most developed reflections on deterrence are made in their Pastoral Letter The Challenge of Peace. They stated that, “although we acknowledge the need for deterrence, not all forms of deterrence are morally acceptable.” In particular they rejected policies that violate the principle of noncombatant immunity: “It is not morally acceptable to intend to kill the innocent as part of a strategy of deterring nuclear war” (no. 178). In light of the principle, they question the legitimacy of U.S. deterrent policy. Accepting uncritically the reply of “government officials” that U.S. policy does not target civilian populations as such, and conditioning their response on the grounds that the deterrent policy is practically consistent with the principle of proportionality, the bishops concluded: “These considerations of concrete elements of nuclear deterrence policy … lead us to a strictly conditioned moral acceptance of nuclear deterrence.” They followed their statement with a caveat: “We cannot consider it adequate as a long-term basis for peace” (no. 186; see also note 81).

In November 1993, on the tenth anniversary of The Challenge of Peace, the U.S. bishops wrote: “We must continue to say No to the very idea of nuclear war. A minimal nuclear deterrent may be justified only to deter the use of nuclear weapons” (November 17, 1993; no. E, 9, a, 1). Nearly five years later, in June 1998, seventy-five U.S. bishops, speaking for themselves and not for the conference, published a statement flatly rejecting U.S. deterrent policy:

This [present deterrent policy] is clearly not the interim policy to which we grudgingly gave our moral approval in 1983…. We cannot delay any longer. Nuclear deterrence as a national policy must be condemned as morally abhorrent because it is the excuse and justification for the continued possession and further development of these horrendous weapons (June 1998).

Although this unconditional judgment was never explicitly adopted by the bishops’ conference, some have argued that the logic in their statement in To Live in Christ Jesus, that “not only is it wrong to attack civilian populations, but it is also wrong to threaten to attack them as part of a strategy of deterrence” (p. 34, quote from Weigel, Tranquillitas Ordinis, 258), implies as much for the effective U.S. deterrent policy of the past several decades.

As recently as July 2009, the Archbishop of Baltimore, Edwin O’Brien, publicly reaffirmed the now twenty-six-year-old judgment of The Challenge of Peace on the limited acceptability of nuclear deterrent strategy: “[D]eterrence only has moral meaning in light of the goal of deterring the use of nuclear weapons as we work for a world without nuclear weapons” (July 29, 2009).

In The Challenge of Peace, the bishops referred to what they called the “political paradox of deterrence.” They rhetorically asked: “May a nation threaten what it may never do? May it possess what it may never use?” (no. 137) Some have argued that had they pressed the moral logic of these questions, they might have been stricter in their opposition to the deterrent. One threatens what one wants another to believe one will do if the other does what one uses threats to avoid. Unless one is bluffing, one is ready to do what one threatens. But if doing something is immoral, then threatening to do it is immoral if one is prepared to act on the threat. Since U.S. deterrent policy is clearly no elaborate bluff, the United States is ready to obliterate extensively populated regions of the enemy’s territory, which is never legitimate to do. How, then, can threatening to do this be legitimate, even as a stage toward nuclear disarmament? The French bishops responded elliptically in 1983 that “threat is not use,” and the German bishops in the same year that an “emergency set of ethics” might justify temporarily tolerating a threat that would be immoral to carry out (Hollenbach 1989, pp. 59-60).

Moral Theology

Catholic theology too has analyzed the problem of nuclear war from the principle of noncombatant immunity. The influential Jesuit moral theologian John C. Ford, S.J., in an important essay published in 1944 in Theological Studies, set forth a practical conclusion central to any ethical deliberation over the legitimacy of military intervention: “the obliteration of great sections of cities … means the abandonment of that distinction [between combatants and noncombatants]” (Ford 1970, p. 39); Ford, consequently, condemned the allied decision in World War II to carpet-bomb civilian German cities. Following a similar logic, Ford’s predecessor in moral theology at The Catholic University of America, Redemptorist theologian Francis J. Connell, C.Ss.R., harshly condemned the bombing of Hiroshima: “The destruction or maiming of hundreds of thousands of innocent persons,” he wrote, “has inflicted a permanent blot of shame on the United States” (pp. 47-48). David Hollenbach has argued that the allied decision in World War II to subject civilian centers to obliteration bombing “provided a precedent for the development of strategies of counter-population nuclear warfare” (Hollenbach 1989, p. 63).

In 1961 the eminent Protestant ethicist Paul Ramsey likewise argued that intent to kill innocents was at the center of the moral analysis of nuclear war: “all-out nuclear war [Pius’s “total war”] would be both directly willed and directly done as a means”; this, Ramsey maintained, “is murder” (Ramsey 1961, p. 51). John Courtney MURRAY in the same year agreed that if war includes an “unlimited use of nuclear force,” as would be the case in a policy of final retaliation, then its use “is immoral” (Murray 1961, p. 14); but he was still confident at the time that skillful statesmen could craft a policy of genuinely “limited war” using nuclear weapons (Murray 1961, p. 15). In his 1985 book, The Logic of Deterrence, the Oxford moral philosopher Anthony Kenny argued that some use of nuclear weapons might be consistent with the principle of noncombatant immunity. Nevertheless, the risk of escalation posed by every use is too high to justify any use.

The American theologian who exercised most influence over the views on nuclear weapons expressed in The Challenge of Peace (COP) was Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, the associate secretary of the United States Catholic Conference’s Office of International Justice and Peace from 1973 to 1984. Hehir supported a rejection of the use of nuclear weapons against civilian populations, as well as any national nuclear first-strike policy. He also shared the bishops’ “extreme skepticism” that, given the danger of imminent escalation, even the use of small yield nuclear weapons could ever be morally legitimate; but, with the bishops, he drew short of nuclear pacifism. In the view of George Weigel, Hehir’s influence over the COP epitomized in the bishops’ statement: “We believe it is necessary, for the sake of prevention, to build a barrier against the concept of nuclear war as a viable strategy for defense” (no. 140), in other words, prevention is the first imperative.

Weigel, who has shifted the center of moral analysis over the permissibility of nuclear weapons from the principle of noncombatant immunity to the “larger context” of what he has referred to as “the interpenetration of morality and politics,” harshly criticized Hehir’s influence over the bishops’ views on nuclear war. In his 1987 book Tranquillitas Ordinis, Weigel argued that their pastoral letter:

represented a continuation of the abandonment of the classic Catholic heritage [on just war theory]…. “The Challenge of Peace” was a decisive moment in that process, because it involved the adoption, by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, of key themes of abandonment that had become pervasive in American Catholicism in the years following the Second Vatican Council. (p. 280)

A most grievous offense against the Catholic heritage, as conceived by Weigel, was Hehir’s and the bishops’ altering of the primary locus of moral consideration over the legitimacy of nuclear weapons: from a discussion of the duties of public authority to maintain the “tranquility of order” within the community of sinful men and women whose common good it is charged with upholding, to a “survivalist” approach that begins with the destructive capacity of the weapons themselves. The idea that physical human survival is the highest good to be pursued—the view that Weigel has charged the bishops, influenced by Hehir, with holding—“is not a theme compatible with Catholic ethics” (p. 281); he refered to it as “a survivalist antiethic” (p. 282), which leads to a naively “unilinear approach” to resolving complex problems of international conflict. According to Weigel, “Given Hehir’s influence on the American hierarchy, his thought and work have been the crucial vessel through which the abandonment of the heritage was completed, not by activists or intellectuals or journalists, but by the Catholic bishops of the United States and their public policy agency, the United States Catholic Conference” (p. 324).

Michael Novak made similar criticisms of COP in his 1983 essay Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age. According to Novak, the bishops presented a naively optimistic view of the international situation, failed to incorporate a frank assessment of the communist threat, and were unwilling to see that given real world conditions, the use of nuclear weapons might sometimes be justifiable. Additionally, their vocal call to public authorities for immediate bilateral agreements to “halt the testing, production, and deployment of new nuclear-weapons systems” (COP, no. 191, §1), pertained to prudential matters beyond their authoritative competency to teach, which is limited to matters of faith and morals: “[I]f the bishops voted for halt, they did so precisely not as bishops but as U.S. citizens.” Consequently, Novak asserted that U.S. Catholics “are fully entitled to dissent” (p. 110). He believed that acting upon the bishops’ admonition would be tantamount to abandoning the duty to the innocent and to the U.S. Constitution.

Perhaps the most systematic philosophical treatise on the problem of nuclear war was proposed by John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, and Germain Grisez (hereafter FBG) in their 1987 volume, Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism. Here the central moral question considered is whether U.S. and U.K. deterrent policies are consistent with the exceptionless moral norm that it is never morally legitimate to intentionally kill the innocent: Do the U.S. and U.K. nuclear threats entail an intent to kill the innocent? “Innocent,” they said, is not construed as morally “guiltless,” but rather as pertaining to noncombatants. Combatants are those whose behavior, because involved in a gravely unjust threat to a just social order, Western common morality assimilates “to the behavior of those guilty of capital crimes.” Innocents, therefore, are those who, on account of their behavior, are not subject to capital retribution:

During warfare, members of the enemy society are engaged in many and diverse behaviors. Some of those could not be used to help verify the proposition, ‘That society is at war with us’. Those engaged only in such performances are clearly non-combatants. Combatants are part of the remaining members of the enemy society. (p. 89)

FBG have argued that the Western deterrent, on account of its integral threats of “city swapping” and “final retaliation,” includes necessarily a wrongful conditional intention to kill innocents:

In any case where those who threaten … are not bluffing, what they intend to do is what they threaten to do, and what they threaten to do is what they desire the other to fear from the actions they are threatening to carry out. Massive destruction of people including non-combatants is part of Western leaders desire the Soviet leadership to fear and take steps to make it fear. Since what they desire the other side to fear is what they threaten, and (unless they are bluffing) what they threaten is what they intend, they intend the killing of innocents. (p. 92)

Reflecting realistically on the consequences of the alternative, FBG have argued that because maintaining the deterrent entails maintaining the immoral intent to kill innocents, the United States (and the United Kingdom) “ought to renounce nuclear deterrence. They should do so at once. They should do so even though their unilaterally initiated renunciation would almost certainly go unreciprocated by the Soviets” (p. 329). In this they have followed the moral judgment against population targeting articulated by G.E.M. Anscombe in “Christians and Nuclear Weapons” (p. 238). Confronting the commonsense objection that their argument is perverse and unrealistic and makes the norm against killing innocents “a blackmailer’s charter” (pp. 329-330), FBG have replied:

The objections … mistake the human significance of strict negative precepts. These are grounded in the dignity of the human person, for they protect the well-being—for example, the lives, the fidelity to basic commitments, and other goods—of real people. They do so … by requiring unconditional respect for it on the part of anyone whose chosen act might directly destroy or harm that well-being in some basic aspect. Those who have adhered to these precepts have always been liable to destruction by the ruthless and unscrupulous who could be resisted or appeased only by atrocities. (330)

Although this conclusion seems harsh, it can be argued that this is no more than an implication of the moral truth, taught by St. Paul (e.g., Rom 3:8) and the whole Catholic moral tradition (until the advent of proportionalism), that evil should never be done so that good may come of it (see Rom 3:8). As John Courtney has written in his 1961 essay “Morality and Modern War”: “a general annihilation, even of the enemy… would be worse than injustice; it would be sheer folly…. If it means an honorable defeat, surrender may be morally tolerable … In contrast, annihilation is on every count morally intolerable.” (p. 13)