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Nuclear arms: Will they deter or destruct?

LOS ANGELES, Calif. (The Tidings) - Since 9/11 the possibility of nuclear material being utilized by terrorists, in a way similar to strategies employed in plane hijackings and suicide bombs in recent decades, is spoken and written about daily in the media all around the globe.

Catholics, as are others, are confronted with a moral challenge. While it is clear that any terrorist act, whether it results in the death of others or not, or includes the use of nuclear material or not, is intrinsically evil, the question remains about whether the development and use of nuclear weaponry by recognized nations and even in an acknowledged “just war” context is moral.

The Church actually has had much to say regarding nuclear warfare in the past half century since the United States became the first and only country to utilize atomic weaponry during wartime. But the moral issue today has grown significantly more complex for the Christian who honestly struggles with the issue of the moral legitimacy or illegitimacy of nuclear weapons.

While a moral analysis would generally start with the rather straightforward question about whether nuclear weapons are a moral option in a just war, the analysis is stretched by those who would suggest that nuclear weaponry can be justified as a legitimate “deterrent.” What begins as a moral question based on jus in bello — what is morally acceptable during a just war (i.e., “Can we ever have a situation that justifies the use of atomic weapons?”) — now evolves into a question involving political strategy (Can a country morally justify a nuclear arsenal using a “legitimate defense” argument?).

Lastly, there are those who would raise a moral question that is even more fundamental than either the jus in bello or the strategic deterrent justification. They ask whether any use or development of nuclear fission or fusion even for peaceful purposes such as energy production can be morally justified in light of environmental concerns and/or potential for abuse. It is precisely this potential for abuse argument that is often raised as a concern about nuclear power plants in some non-Western countries.

These three issues all deserve a response, especially as countries struggle to protect themselves from the possible use of nuclear material by terrorists, let alone nation-states.

A legitimate tradition of pacifism

We begin by noting the fact that while there is a clear legitimate tradition of Christian pacifism in the Church’s history, there is similarly an embrace of the “just war” tradition that is based on a moral right to self defense, both for individuals and for nations: “…governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defense, once every means of peaceful settlement has been exhausted” (Gaudium et Spes, 79). The moral questions before us here will not deal with the meaning of “just war” specifically, but rather with the “nuclear issue.”

FIRST: In the context of a legitimate conflict, would a nation be justified in using a nuclear weapon?

In visiting Hiroshima, Pope John Paul II said, “In the past it was possible to destroy a town, a region, or even a country. Now it is the whole planet that has come under threat.” While the Church never condemns nuclear weapons as instrinsice malum (intrinsically evil) in themselves, magisterial teachings make it clear that they are forbidden for use, either tactically or strategically, during even legitimate conflicts. “The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.” (Catechism, 2312).

Using this principle, the Vatican II Council Fathers, in Gaudium et Spes, teach the church regarding nuclear weapons:

“…acts of war involving these weapons can inflict massive and indiscriminate destruction far exceeding the bounds of legitimate defense.…With these truths in mind, the most holy Synod makes its own the condemnation of total war …and issues the following declaration. Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive area along with their population is a crime against God…It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation” (GS, n. 80).

In its recent Compendium, the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice states:

“The Magisterium condemns ‘the savagery of war and asks that we be considered in a new way. In fact, ‘it is hardly possible to imagine that in an atomic era, war could be used as an instrument of justice’“ (n. 497).

Those Catholics that would hold to a moral justification of the nuclear bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima are reminded that Catholic moral theology can never be reduced to a “utilitarian calculus.” In other words, moral actions can never be evaluated according to a utilitarian relativity, where “the end justifies the means.”

We are reminded that the deliberate targeting of civilians cannot be dismissed with a casual reference to either the principle of double effect or that of the “lesser of two evils.” Our Catechism reminds us that “non-combatants must be respected and treated humanely. Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders of that command such crimes” (n. 2313).

There are no nuclear weapons which can be used with the guarantee that they will not harm and kill non-combatants. At Nagasaki, the Catholic Cathedral (rebuilt in its original location) was at ground zero for the atomic blast.

A nation’s right to defense

Second: Is the development of a nuclear arsenal justified as part of a political strategy of “just deterrence?”

Almost 20 years ago (1989), it was estimated that between the United States and the former Soviet Union there were more than 55,000 nuclear warheads and bombs, totaling 98 percent of the world’s total. Did this massive armament morally justify the development of these weapons?

The Church certainly recognizes the rights of recognized nations to build and maintain an army: “Those who defend the security and freedom of a country make an authentic contribution to peace” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 79; Catechism, n. 2310).

Once again, we find, in the new Compendium from the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, a direct response to this issue: “Policies of nuclear deterrence, typical of the Cold War period, must be replaced with concrete measures of disarmament based on dialogue and multilateral negotiations” (n. 508).

This position is strengthened in the Catechism:

“The accumulation of arms strikes many as a paradoxically suitable way of deterring potential adversaries from war. They see it as the most effective means of ensuring peace among nations. This method of deterrence gives rise to strong moral reservations” (n. 2315).

Nuclear power for peace?

Third, does the Church have anything to say about the morality of nuclear power plants?

For some this question may be the first time they have seen it raised as a moral issue. Indeed there are at least two common moral concerns that surround nuclear power plants; safety/security and waste management. Both of these are important issues.

The Church does not offer a direct moral assessment concerning the legitimacy of using nuclear power for peaceful purposes. But it does address both issues raised above when discussing moral concerns about the environment in the light of the globalization of the economy.

Regarding the environment and waste management, a serious issue arises:

A nuclear reactor generates about 22 tons of deadly high-level radioactive waste each year. There is no known way to safely dispose of this waste, which remains dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years. U.S. nuclear power plants have already produced nearly 50,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste. Managing this mounting stockpile is increasingly complex and presents many scientific, environmental and safety problems.

By 2010, the volume of nuclear waste in the U.S. is expected to exceed capacity at the controversial Yucca Mountain repository. The government has no viable plan for coping with the additional waste that new nuclear reactors would produce (Public Citizen Website,

The moral question is clear: Does contemporary society have the moral right to generate tons of deadly waste that it can neither deactivate nor safely deposit for the length of its deadly life?

An obligation to the future

In 2002, Pope John Paul II, addressing the Italian Christian Workers Associations gave the Church some direction regarding this dilemma:

“Solidarity between generations requires that global planning take place according to the principle of the universal destination of goods, which makes it morally illicit and economically counterproductive to burden future generations with the costs involved: morally illicit because it would mean avoiding one’s own responsibilities; economically counterproductive because correcting failures is more expensive that preventing them.

“This principle is to be applied above all --- although not only --- to the earth’s resources and to safeguarding creation, the latter which becomes a particularly delicate issue because of globalization, involving as it does the entire planet understood as a single ecosystem” (L’Osservatore Romano, June 12, 2002, p. 11).

Contemporary society cannot legitimately mortgage the future of the planet by producing deadly products it cannot safely dispose of. The legitimate needs of all nations for increased access to power to fuel economic engines must be met with responses that do not entail burdens to the environment that cannot be immediately ameliorated. We can conclude with the words of Pope John Paul II, from his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus:

“Equally worrying is the ecological question which accompanies the problem of consumerism.… In a desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, society consumes the resources of the earth in an excessive and disordered way. Society thinks it can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to its will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which society can indeed develop but must not betray. Instead, society sets itself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature….

“In all this, one notes first the poverty or narrowness of humanity’s outlook, motivated by a desire to posses things…. In this regard, humanity today must be conscious of its duties and obligations toward future generations” (CA, n. 37).

The moral conclusions

Based on the multiple concerns for the earth and its people as articulated by the Magisterium, the Church does not admit that there is any logical argument that can morally defend the use of nuclear weapons, either in a war or for long term deterrence.

Stewardship of the earth suggests that the use of even nuclear energy plants is morally problematic at least until there is proven technology that can safely and quickly process, neutralize and dispose of the deadly waste and by products that result.

Vincentian Father Richard Benson is academic dean and professor of moral theology at St. John’s Seminary, Camarillo. His column appears monthly in The Tidings.


This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Tidings (, official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.



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