Volume > Issue > Moving Beyond Nuclear Pro-Choice

Moving Beyond Nuclear Pro-Choice


By Julianne Wiley | September 2021
Julianne Wiley, who has also published as Juli Loesch Wiley, writes from Johnson City, Tennessee. She has not yet been banned from Twitter, though she’s been pushing the limit.

Some arguments against strategic nuclear deterrence (SND) fail because they are based on unsound factual views, are rooted in inadequate ideologies like utopianism, or are morally tainted by the sort of collapsed pacifism that denies the natural-law right — even duty — to use force to secure the safety of a community or a nation. However, the fact that some arguments against SND are faulty does not permit the conclusion that there are no compelling moral arguments against SND. I am convinced, and I will argue, that SND is morally unacceptable in its very foundation and must be replaced by a different system to protect our nation and the world from threats and acts of military aggression.

Andrew Latham discusses the morality of strategic nuclear weapons without laying the groundwork of why they and other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) are morally problematic in the first place, and without analyzing what kinds of actions either lead us away from moral offenses or further implicate us in them. Perhaps this is because Latham skips over the true deontological judgment against intentionally indiscriminate killing as being intrinsically evil in all cases. He also neglects the underlying principle that it is never “prudential” to choose something that is prohibited by an exceptionless norm, and that there is always a duty to refuse formal cooperation with intrinsic evil.

That said, Latham’s rebuttal of a variety of faulty anti-deterrence arguments is correct. But his failure to take seriously the moral argument against nuclear arms undermines his whole project. Nuclear deterrence is wrong, but not for the reasons the integral disarmers, the utopians, and the pacifists say it is.

Prudential arguments, by definition, involve choices between options that are, in themselves, either morally good or at least morally neutral (i.e., not prohibited). Many choices that involve lethal actions, including in policing and military defense, are prudential in nature. Using lethal force against a lethal aggressor is permitted as long as less-than-lethal or non-lethal means are impracticable, and all non-force options (e.g., negotiation) have proven insufficient. Many such decisions rightly involve proportionality: for instance, a good-faith assessment that even proportionate collateral loss of life does not negate the moral propriety of protecting even more lives or human values by the just use of force.

However — and this is a crucial distinction — proportionalism is not the same as consequentialism, the theory that the consequences of an act are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that act.

The term consequentialism was coined by G.E.M. Anscombe (in “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy, Jan. 1958) to denote the morally defective proposition that a choice is good if it attains a good end or staves off an evil end. An allegedly good choice might include doing evil that good may come of it. According to consequentialists, there is no real evil in any act, only in whether it produces a sufficiently good result. To use Catholic terms, consequentialists say there is no absolute “Thou shalt not”; there is only a calculation of “Does it work?”

Without making a prior determination of “Is this act intrinsically evil and therefore prohibited?” all the practical, real-world arguments for nuclear deterrence break down finally into consequentialism. Latham’s seemingly proportional or prudential arguments in favor of nuclear deterrence avoid the prior question of “Does this act violate an exceptionless norm?” and thus are all built on consequentialism, a fundamentally inadequate moral theory that denies the existence of such moral norms.

The Magisterium of the Catholic Church has never directly ruled in an authoritative way, either pro or con, on the question of the possession of strategic nuclear weapons (I am putting aside the question of tactical or theater nuclear weapons, precisely targeted undersea depth charges, satellite-vs.-satellite space war, and the like). However, the Magisterium, since it recognizes the existence of intrinsic evils, has authoritatively ruled against the use of strategic nuclear weapons (or, better to say, indiscriminate WMDs), especially in a target-city scenario. Consider the language with which the Second Vatican Council, in Gaudium et Spes, framed its verdict against target-city bombing:

This most Holy Synod makes its own the condemnations of total war already pronounced by recent popes, and issues the following declaration. Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation. (no. 80)

This formal and solemn condemnation reinforces its legitimacy with reference to previous papal authority, footnoted as follows:

  1. Cf. John XXIII, encyclical letter Pacem in Terris, April 11, 1963: AAS 55 (1963), p. 291; “Therefore in this age of ours which prides itself on its atomic power, it is irrational to believe that war is still an apt means of vindicating violated rights.”

  2. Cf. Pius XII, Allocution of Sept. 30, 1954: AAS 46 (1954) p. 589; Radio message of Dec. 24, 1954: AAS 47 (1955), pp. 15ff, John XXIII, encyclical letter Pacem in Terris: AAS 55 (1963), pp. 286-291; Paul VI, Allocution to the United Nations, Oct. 4, 1965.

This condemnation is on the same footing as the declaration in the very same conciliar document:

God, the Lord of life, has conferred on men the surpassing ministry of safeguarding life in a manner which is worthy of man. Therefore from the moment of its conception, life must be guarded with the greatest care while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes. (no. 51)

Moreover, these two judgments are based on the same moral reasoning, namely, that the deliberate destruction of innocent human life is the crime of murder and cannot be justified by any calculus of utility or benefit, however pressing.

Significantly, the Council Fathers who pushed for the strongest condemnation of target-city bombing were traditionalists like Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, who likewise argued for a condemnation of the possession and use of nuclear weapons. He and his closest colleagues were considered, by some, the anti-novelty “regressives” of the Council, and they were the ones who wanted the Council to condemn the acquisition or maintenance of a strategic nuclear arsenal.

At the same time, those of a more liberal frame of mind, like Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J., argued for a policy of nuclear deterrence and even for the moral possibility of limited nuclear war. He was joined by the still more elastic “situational ethics” advocates who denied in principle the existence of intrinsically evil acts.

It is true that, as Latham says, deterrence per se can be a means of preventing wars of aggression, not of preparing to launch them. As such, it is broadly consistent with the Church’s desire to promote peace. But this is only true if the deterrent itself is limited, precise, and just. Saying, “If you initiate an act of war against us, we will destroy every one of your military installations,” means focusing on military targets and thus is limited, precise, and just, as well as massive enough to be an effective deterrent. Saying, “If you initiate an act of war against us, we will bring annihilating force against your whole country, or against any city, region, or geographical area we choose,” is, in contrast, unlimited, imprecise, and lacking just discrimination. When carried out, it is not even an act of war but an act of reprisal via mass homicide, which actually protects no one, neither the enemy’s civil society nor one’s own.

Latham concedes that such an act would be “catastrophic, perhaps even apocalyptic,” but he asserts — without proof — that “in a moral sense, so too are all wars.”

This is not true. It is possible, even necessary, to make a distinction between the devastation of the enemy’s massed armed forces (as was done many times throughout history, for instance, on many high-casualty American Civil War battlefields) and a policy that makes its civilian population the bullseye. It is one thing — a sad, horrible, and heart-wrenching thing — to gut a soldier with high-caliber ordnance. But it is something quite different to intentionally or indiscriminately do the same to his unoffending grandmother — not just different in feeling but different in moral fact.

According to traditional Catholic morality, acts of justifiable vio­lence must not be directed against innocent parties: Noncombatants must be immune from direct threats of harm. Furthermore, the innocent must be spared even indirect (col­lateral) damage, unless that damage is not intended, and only when the collateral damage is not greater than the intended lifesaving effect.

Traditional Catholic morality judges as immoral acts of war that are indiscriminate or not proportionate or that escape rational control. So, the moral 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 (but not, I think, Latham) 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.

Michael Novak, from his vantage point in the deterrence camp, brilliantly repudiated this argument. In Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age (1983), he explains 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. This is, one could say, the “pro-choice” position. There is also, Novak continues, an objective or “architectonic” intention that, apart from subjective dispositions, the Catholic moral tradition must repudiate as immoral. He explains this, and yet 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 we are truly ready, willing, and able to do this catastrophically evil thing is immoral, because it weakens the credibility of the deterrent. Therefore, per Novak, a public declaration that we would never use immoral means is immoral. Also, public preaching and publishing of moral limits on military options is immoral. The stronger and more certain our willing­ness to exercise the deterrent, the less likely we would 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, neither Novak nor Latham ever 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 accurate enough, controllable enough, and discrim­inate enough to be used against military targets without devastating civilian populations.

It is strange that Latham at first claims that SND is a kind of ad-hoc “interim ethic” and at the same time “settled teaching.” It could be one or it could be the other, but it cannot be both. It seems clear, though, that even as an interim ethic, it has relinquished its “right to exist” by violating the limits set forth in its temporary lease, its “metaphorical nihil obstat,” particularly the third one Latham mentions: that nuclear deterrence must be treated as a stepping stone on the path to comprehensive nuclear disarmament.

Realistically, I doubt that our nuclear armamentarium could be dismantled instantaneously. But one could renounce the use of this deterrent without delay and devise a definite, do-able dismantling plan and embark upon that plan without delay.

Suppose there were a legitimate law that said, “Nobody may set foot on Exceptionless Bridge.” And here we have a party who has been indisputably caught in the middle of the bridge between Point A and Point B, with a raging, rocky torrent 200 feet below. This bridge-trespasser cannot reasonably be expected to instantly pitch himself over the rail. However, he is permitted to take further steps by making steady, planned progress toward either A or B (until he has quit the bridge entirely), while simultaneously actively planning a means of crossing the chasm that does not involve traversing the Exceptionless Bridge.

This intriguing possibility was mentioned by Catholic commentators like Novak and James Hitchcock in the 1980s when discussing how to ditch SND: the suggestion that, at some point, strategic nuclear weapons may be rendered obso­lete by space-based systems known at the time as Global Ballistic Missile Defenses, or the High Fron­tier program, promoted by President Ronald Reagan as early as 1983 as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The main point of SDI was to build a space-based “shield,” so to speak, that could detect and destroy incipient nuclear attacks, specifically an onslaught of intercontinental ballistic missiles from the Soviet Union.

While derided by its opponents as “Star Wars,” nobody (to my knowledge) ever found a moral problem with a high-tech, non-nuclear, strict­ly defensive system that would bypass both mutually assured destruction (MAD) and deterrence based on 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 — and can be done without violating moral norms. (The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 changed the conditions of such defense, but over the past 30 years, SDI-related components have continued to be developed and tested.)

Both the use of indiscriminate WMDs and the intention to use them under stated conditions as part of a program of strategic deterrence violate the divine and natural law. It is prohibited by Catholic faith and morals. It must be rejected and replaced by something else. But if, as T.S. Eliot suggested, the greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason, then orthodox Christian opponents of nuclear deterrence should be more exasperated by utopians and pacifists than Latham is. Because if nuclear deterrence turns out to have inescapably, intrinsically immoral features, it cannot be so for the reasons given by many “integral disarmament” theorists, nor by utopians and pacifists, whose arguments are, for believers in tradi­tional morality, not a rallying cry but an embarrassment.

Latham claims that the push to end SND displaces the moral and philosophical foundations of the Church’s “once-settled” position regarding nuclear weapons. (That this is now a settled position rather than an untraditional, temporary stop-gap is suddenly assumed.) Undermining his own position, Latham obligingly lists how unsettled this “settled” position was during the peak and after the close of the Cold War. He mentions challenges to it by three popes (in encyclicals, addresses, and messages), by conciliar documents, by Vatican dicasteries, and by the U.S. bishops (individually and as a body).

On the other hand, the concept of integral disarmament is, as Latham says, dependent on highly dubious assumptions of “how the world is,” and the Church should resist its underlying assumptions. I agree with Latham that integral disarmament is “derived not from the 1,500-year tradition of Catholic thought, but the half-century-old academic field of ‘disarmament studies,’” a “repackaged congeries of progressive bromides and shibboleths from the 1980s.” The principal errors are, following Latham, as follows.

The Cold War Is Over

This is a misreading of the signs of the times. Cold War I ended with the (I daresay miraculous) fall of Soviet communism, a fall linked more to Fatima and SDI than to the efficacy of the nuclear threat of MAD. But Cold War II (U.S. vs. China) becomes more salient with every passing day. The United States is still in a complex, multi-level, and multilateral global contest with a nuclear-armed, implacable adversary. Therefore, the 40-year-old arguments concerning nuclear weapons, rooted in Cold War I logic, are still urgent.

War Is a Product of Structural Violence

This is likewise a misreading of the signs of the times and the causes of war. Evidence simply cannot be marshalled to show that war springs from “oppressor rich vs. oppressed poor” tensions. Instead, it springs from fragile political structures (like the instabilities of medieval feudal networks or the interlocking traps of early 20th-century European alliances), the inherent bellicosity of explicitly militaristic or imperialistic states, and, of course, sin. A blinkered focus on, for instance, underdevelopment, resulting in blindness to many other more pressing factors, has caused the integral-disarmament movement to insist on “solutions” to the threat of war that are not historically or scientifically grounded and are, therefore, sadly futile.

War Shall Be Abolished by a New Fraternal Humanism

Human nature is indisputably flawed, as we see in every newspaper headline and online forum. That is why the doctrine of Original Sin does not require supernatural revelation. We see it in all movements, all leaders, and all followers great and small; it is what spills out of each of us in the confessions of the repentant and the hardheaded obstinacy of the unrepentant. Catholic moral realism sees that the sinful drives toward armed conflict are ever-present and will be until Christ comes again. War cannot be banned by good will, by an unbaptized Fratelli Tutti based on unspecified spirituality, unaided human benevolence, or even by enlightened self-interest, as sin both darkens the intellect and perverts the will.

This does not, however, absolve us of the ongoing task of mitigating the awful horrors of war or of striving for global justice, rightly understood. But Gaudium et Spes warns us that “insofar as men are sinful, the threat of war hangs over them, and hang over them it will until the return of Christ” (no. 78). Beyond this, the tradition also holds that the possession of nuclear weapons is not itself unblemished by evil. We also have, as the U.S. bishops said in “The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace” (1983), the duty of “evaluating the continued moral status of nuclear weapons,” a duty which, if carried through conscientiously, would result in a repudiation of nuclear deterrence. This is not because we have “immanentized the eschaton” and brought about, by our efforts, the permanent Kingship of Christ on earth, but because we have acknowledged our sinfulness and resolved to rid ourselves of the error of nuclear pro-choice. We should reject not only a try-harder, be-nicer pacifist Pelagianism but the fallacious “interim ethic” that nuclear weapons are a “necessary evil” in an always imperfect world. These steps represent Catholic moral realism in our day.

Liberal Bromides Are the New Beatitudes

Are the platitudes drawn from “just peace,” “integral development,” and “disarmament studies” really a substitute for either clear-eyed realism or the grace of God? Can we really be morally obliged to do what has heretofore been impossible and achieve a lasting positive peace, defined, as Latham accurately says, not as the mere absence of war but as the total abolition of structural violence?

Yes, I think “we” could probably do that.

But it would come at a profound, even self-annihilating price. We would need to buy into the new globalism; abolish nation-states; extirpate all national sovereignty and most human liberty; build total surveillance societies; submit to command economies; accept the homogenization of religions, customs, and cultures; and subsume all under a dictatorship of health and safety. Hail the Great Reset!

If we wish to preserve what we can of our God-given human liberty (families, churches, independent schools, local governments, independence from social-credit or total-surveillance systems), we will have to accept that, in an imperfect but free world, the struggle for liberty plus virtue will be permanently necessary: necessary because of the nature of liberty.

Liberty is not a necessary evil in the moral sense — because nothing is a necessary evil in the moral sense — but it does set us up for ongoing struggle in the physical and political sense. It sets up ongoing struggle, not the tranquility of a humanistic world order.

In a real, imperfect world, we need to develop forceful yet moral alternatives to strategic nuclear pro-choice. I would like to see detailed and wide-ranging discussions on the moral, technical, and strategic aspects of SDIs, civilian-based defense, and other non-nuclear alternatives. If Latham and others 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 His Church.


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