Volume > Issue > “Americanist” Permissivism

“Americanist” Permissivism

Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age

By Michael Novak

Publisher: Thomas Nelson

Pages: 144

Price: $3.95

Review Author: Juli Loesch

Juli Loesch, a freelance writer living in Berkeley, is a Contributing Editor of the NOR. Her writings have appeared in numerous periodicals, including America, The Other Side, and In These Times.

Also reviewed:

Who Is For Peace?
By Francis Schaeffer, Vladimir Bukovsky, & James Hitchcock
Thomas Nelson
112 pages, $3.95


If, as T.S. Eliot suggested, the greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason, then orthodox Christian defenders of nuclear deterrence should be more exasperated with Michael Novak than I am. Because if nuclear deterrence turns out to be moral in some form, it cannot be so for the reasons given in Novak’s Moral Clarity in the Nu­clear Age; its arguments are, for believers in tradi­tional morality, not a rallying cry but rather an embarrassment.

We know that Novak is an American Roman Catholic lay theologian — because he says he is. However, in this work, his Catholicism is at every point dominated by his Americanism, rather than the reverse. In the first two of the book’s four chapters, the central allegiances which quickly emerge are to the institutions of the liberal-pluralist West (his highest goods) and to utilitarianism (by which he judges what we may do to defend those goods).

The astonishing thing is to see how Novak re­acts to the specific charges or inordinate social “liberalism,” and consequentialism. First, he makes as if he’s going to refute them; then he throws up his hands and concedes everything. He lists “liber­al” institutions as the “only” means “which truly liberate the human soul”; he posits that public pol­icy is “bound primarily by the ethic of conse­quences”; and then he retorts, as it were, “What of it?”

After all, he scoffs, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The last time I saw that slo­gan it was on a box of Celestial Seasons tea. Does this pass for Catholic moral philosophy?

Parliaments, opposition parties, checks and balances, a free press, private property, and a limit­ed state — surely they are all high on the list of temporal goods. Novak, however, holds that the “spiritual values of the West” (does he mean Chris­tianity?) are incarnated (!) in these secular institu­tions.

If “only” these institutions “liberate the hu­man soul,” we are left to assume that human be­ings never experienced dignity or — check this out — “spiritual fulfillment,” except after the 17th century in libertarian, pluralist societies in Europe and North America. Are we, of the North Atlantic community, because of regularly scheduled elec­tions and commercial TV, more “fulfilled spiritual­ly” than the saints of the 6th or 11th or 14th centuries, nourished by prayer and the sacraments and ruled by abbot or guild or prince?

Is Western pluralism really the only thing that makes life worth living? Must material austerity and the vacuum of public choice in a Marxist soci­ety be more debilitating, spiritually, than material seduction and the vacuum of public values in a consumerist society? Germain Grisez, for one, sug­gests that “the environment for holiness, for pur­suit of truth, for friendship in intimate relation­ships, for faithfulness in marriage and family life, might well not be worse than it is in the Western world at present.”

We must worship God, not our culture.

It’s not surprising that, with a market-orient­ed, “free” social milieu as his central value, Novak must rely on flat-out utilitarianism in evaluating “moral” means of defense.

This is how he does it:

From the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, he quotes that famous line that we must now “undertake an evaluation of war with an entirely new attitude.” In a way that might make many a modernist gasp in appreciation, No­vak takes this to mean that we must relativize the objective criteria for a Just War, and modify the meanings of key terms. Specifically, his “entirely new attitude” involves a much more permissive way of thinking about “intention, threat, use, means and ends, and lesser evils.”

According to traditional morality, acts of vio­lence, whether physical or psychological, must not be directed against innocent parties: noncombat-ants must be immune from direct threats of harm. Furthermore, the innocent must be spared all (col­lateral) damage, unless that damage is incurred un­intentionally, indirectly, and to only a very limited extent. Acts of war that are indiscriminate or not proportionate or that escape rational control are judged immoral.

So, the older, traditional demand is that such acts must never fall within the scope of intention, even if that intention is reluctant and conditional. Willingness (under stated conditions) to sin is sin: because to sin is to set conditions upon one’s obe­dience to God. It is to deny God one’s whole will.

So, the will — the intention — is crucial. Some supporters of nuclear deterrence have argued, how­ever, that said deterrence does not necessarily in­clude an intention, even in extremis, to carry out the threat. They claim that the deterrent might be a successful bluff.

Novak brilliantly repudiates that argument. He explains in plain language that the deterrent is not, and cannot be, a bluff. Though one’s “funda­mental” intention is never to “have” to explode thermonuclear weapons, still there must be a “sec­ondary” intention to reserve that as an option. There is also, Novak continues, an objective or “architectonic” intention that, apart from subjective dispositions, the Catholic moral tradition must re­pudiate as immoral.

But still he insists that the deterrent is moral: not because its intention is innocent (he analyzes in detail why it is not) but because it is successful.

Novak argues that the necessary means to a moral end is moral: and the more successful it is, the more moral it is. Since “the engagement of the intellect and will” is a constitutive part of a suc­cessful deterrent, anything that even creates an un­certainty as to whether our intention is genuine is immoral.

Therefore: public declarations that we would never use immoral means are immoral. Public preaching of moral limits on military options is im­moral. The stronger and more certain our willing­ness to exercise the deterrent, the less likely that we would ever actually have to do so. Therefore, the more intentional (immoral) it is, the more suc­cessful (moral) it is.

There you have it: moral clarity through mor­al catatonia.

In all this, Novak never attempts to make the only possible moral case for the use or possession of nuclear weapons (keeping in mind that posses­sion is a use, and entails morally relevant inten­tions). One would have to prove that, if push comes to shove, these weapons are clean enough, accurate enough, controllable enough, and discrim­inate enough to be used against military targets without devastating the civilian populations.

That might possibly be true for certain novel tactical uses (e.g., a war fought exclusively in outer space, or by using only small numbers of undersea nuclear depth charges, etc.). But nobody denies that if we exercised our strategic deterrent (i.e., if we detonated even five percent of our strategic nu­clear arsenal in the atmosphere or on the ground) we would devastate millions of noncombatant hu­man beings indiscriminately.

We have not yet tamed the circulating atmo­sphere to keep the fallout off the babies and deliv­er it to the party bureaucrats instead!

Since Novak insists that the absolute moral imperative is to prevent the use of nuclear weapons under any conditions, we are morally obliged, he says, to deter effectively. But, I say, effectiveness itself can never be an imperative, since it is never entirely in our hands. Only our choices — and not their results, which we can never completely fore­see or control — are our responsibility. So the abso­lute moral obligation must be, not to deter effectively, but absolutely to renounce immoral op­tions.

There is no earthly prize worth the radiation death of every child from conception to two years old in the entire Northern Hemisphere. Since that must be excluded from our will, it must not remain open as an option: it must be excised from our de­terrent. If that renders the deterrent less effective, and thus exposes us to suffering other great evils (such as Soviet blackmail), then we must deal with that later as best we can. But sin must never be tol­erated — not our sin — as the “lesser of two evils.”

The third and fourth chapters save this slim volume from being only a “liberal” consequentialist manifesto with a top-dressing of God-talk. Chapter Three details the Vatican’s intervention in the final draft of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ peace pastoral. It warns about errors emanating from those other liberals on the pacifist side of the de­bate.

Considering Novak’s swift exploitation of the “new attitude” to elasticize the just war theory, stretching its criteria further than they’ve ever been stretched before in Catholic thought, to their breaking point and beyond, I can only smile when he criticizes the Currans and other pacifist periti for their “new moment” theology: “One can only imagine what some ‘new moment’ will justify next,” Novak sniffs; yes: perhaps artificial contra­ception? or laissez-faire capitalism? or total war, if push comes to shove?

Chapter Four raises tough questions about the pursuit of peace which is not the peace of right re­lationships, but the “peace” of the opium dream, of the prison camp, of the graveyard. But without minimizing Novak’s good insights, I found the re­flections of Schaeffer, Bukovsky, and Hitchcock in Who Is for Peace? more fruitful on these ques­tions.

Who Is for Peace? lines up three provocative essays by a Swiss evangelical Protestant theologian, a Russian human-rights dissident, and an American Catholic historian and critic. They explore the viti­ating effects of apathy, loss of faith, and naïveté, not only upon the peace movement but upon the sick West as a whole.

Francis Schaeffer, in his analysis of the secu­lar humanist worldview, makes many telling points against a kind of corrupt “pacificism” based upon selfishness (“Why should I sacrifice to defend any­body else?”) and the values-vacuum (“There’s nothing worth fighting for”).

But he scarcely addresses the particular prob­lems raised by nuclear, biological, or chemical weaponry; nor does he suggest what might consti­tute an unjust war. Yet his eloquent warning against an unjust peace is worth the price of the book.

I can’t help but feel a shy kind of proprietary interest in exiled Russian author Vladimir Bukov­sky. I was one of the many who, in conjunction with Amnesty International and the Helsinki Watch group, wrote and petitioned for his release from a Soviet prison in the mid-1970s. He writes with sure knowledge (and a justifiable sarcasm) about the Soviet campaign to control the world­wide peace movement.

Bukovsky’s contacts are apparently mostly European. He writes quite a bit about the German Green Party and the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) — but, disappointingly, not about the American Nuclear Freeze movement or Mobilization for Survival — yet for many in the American as well as the European peace movements, his expose will be relevant and distressing.

As a peace activist myself, not only since the initiation of the current Soviet “peace offensive” in September 1979, but starting a dozen years be­fore that, I had already known that the World Peace Council and its affiliates (e.g., the U.S. Peace Council) are communist-front organizations. But I also know that the non- and anti-communist ele­ments of the American peace movement (the War Resisters League [WRL], the American Friends Service Committee, the Fellowship of Reconcilia­tion [FOR], Pax Christi, the Catholic Worker Movement, Sojourners) have pointedly distanced themselves from communist-led efforts. But I wish they would share with the public — and with Bukovsky! — the story of their ongoing struggle for integrity.

Bukovsky himself is aware that elements in the German Greens and the British CND have be­come more outspoken against Soviet crimes against peace and freedom. I could supply more examples from people like Joan Baez and Fr. Daniel Berri­gan, and organizations like WRL and FOR, but there are still too few. We can hope that under the goad of Bukovsky’s smarting criticism, there will be many more.

Hitchcock’s report about the partisan wheeling-and-dealing behind the peace pastoral is similar to Novak’s chapter on the same subject, and re­quires no comment here.

Let me end by commenting on one intriguing possibility mentioned glancingly by both Novak and Hitchcock: the suggestion that at some point, strategic nuclear weapons may be rendered obso­lete by space-based systems known as Global Bal­listic Missile Defenses (GBMDs) or the High Fron­tier program.

I personally believe that a non-nuclear, strict­ly defensive system might make it easier for us to escape some of the more ghastly moral problems intrinsic to both mutually assured destruction and to deterrence itself as we know it, based upon offensive weapons. In principle, swatting down missiles before they explode and hurt somebody is morally permissible — in fact, darn near morally obligatory, I would say — if it can be done without violating moral norms.

I would like to see detailed and wide-ranging discussions on the moral, technical, and strategic aspects of GBMDs, civilian-based defense, and other non-nuclear alternatives. If Novak and Hitch­cock would devote some of their skills to this task, I would be grateful. For we certainly have not only a right, but a duty, to defend one another by means not forbidden by Christ and the Church.


©1984 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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