Nuclear Weapons and Catholic Ethics

The recent Popes have spoken against nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation. They have repeatedly called for total disarmament worldwide. They have also condemned the use and even the possession of these weapons.

Second Vatican Council: “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation”. [Gaudium et Spes]

Pope John 23: “Moreover, even though the monstrous power of modern weapons does indeed act as a deterrent, there is reason to fear that the very testing of nuclear devices for war purposes can, if continued, lead to serious danger for various forms of life on earth. Hence justice, right reason, and the recognition of man’s dignity cry out insistently for a cessation to the arms race. The stock-piles of armaments which have been built up in various countries must be reduced all round and simultaneously by the parties concerned. Nuclear weapons must be banned.” [Pacem in Terris]

Pope Francis: “Nor can we fail to be genuinely concerned by the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental effects of any employment of nuclear devices. If we also take into account the risk of an accidental detonation as a result of error of any kind, the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned. For they exist in the service of a mentality of fear that affects not only the parties in conflict but the entire human race. International relations cannot be held captive to military force, mutual intimidation, and the parading of stockpiles of arms. Weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, create nothing but a false sense of security.” [Address 2017]

The destruction of population centers as the targets for a weapon of mass destruction is intrinsically evil, as it is a form of mass murder. As discussed on this blog previously, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were grave crimes against humanity.

However, the possession of nuclear weapons has not been condemned by the Magisterium definitively. The above assertion by Pope Francis does not meet the conditions for an infallible teaching, and there seems to be no support for a claim of infallibility under the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Possession remains an open question. As for the use of nuclear weapons in warfare, the above quote from the Second Vatican Council does not condemn all use, but only a use which would directly kill large numbers of civilians.

Suppose a large armada of warships is headed for the United States coastline, to attack our cities. If they could be stopped by a nuclear missile, with limited civilian casualties, saving many lives, the use of these weapons might be justified. Such a use would not be intrinsically evil, as the target is military and the purpose is defending millions of innocents.

Contrary to the position of Pope Francis, John 23 stated that the possession of nuclear weapons does function as a deterrent. And though all the Popes agree what nuclear disarmament is a necessary goal for the benefit of humanity, possession in the interim would not be intrinsically evil.

Suppose that the U.S. unilaterally disarms. Will Russia or China attack us? Probably not. But the mere possibility of such an attack, against which we could offer no substantial retaliation, would disadvantage the U.S. in international relations, allowing both those nations to possibly expand by conquering their neighbors. The harm done to innocent must be given its proper moral weight, in such a case.

Suppose that the U.S. and other superpowers disarm. What will happen if a nation led by unreasonable persons, such as North Korea or Iran, obtains nuclear missiles? North Korea presently has nuclear bombs. Their alleged intention to negotiate a disarmament has not yet reached its goal (and might never). A disarmed U.S. and/or disarmed Russia and China would allow small rogue nations to make grave threats, thereby putting much of the world under their control. Do what the dictator in nation X says, or he will nuke one of your cities. We would be subject to nuclear blackmail, and would lose our freedoms if not our lives.

My work in eschatology gives me some additional perspective on this topic. I believe that Iran will obtain nuclear bombs, and subsequently nuclear missiles. I also believe that the Arab Muslim nations of the Middle East and northern Africa will unite under the leadership of Iran and ISIS (in Iraq) with the goal of conquering the West. They will use nuclear weapons in World War 3. They will succeed in conquering Europe partly because the West is not willing to use nuclear weapons, and they are willing.

Then, after World War 3, during the occupation of Europe, a new leader will take control of that vast territory (Europe, the Middle East, northern Africa, excluding Israel) and will gain control of many ICBMs. He will threaten the free nations with nuclear annihilation if we do not convert to his extremist version of Islam and submit to his authority. The U.S. and our Allies will not submit to this threat, leading to World War 4, an all-out nuclear war. We defeat this enemy, but at great cost. However, without nuclear weapons, we would be conquered by that dictator, forced to submit to Islam and be subjugated to a maniacal dictator.

The use of nuclear weapons in war can be justified, against military targets, in an extreme situation. And therefore the possession of said weapons is also possibly justified.

Can a Catholic take the opposite position, that the use and possession of nuclear weapons is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral? I think that position is tenable, given the current state of magisterial teaching. But I don’t think that Church teaching, at present, requires it.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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12 Responses to Nuclear Weapons and Catholic Ethics

  1. matthieu says:

    how can u link ISIS and Iran in your eschatology ? this is contrary to common sense and all the positions, supports and actions of the Islamic republic of Iran.

    • Ron Conte says:

      The extremist theology of ISIS and the Iranian leaders is very similar. They are all Twelvers. They all seek to start a war with the West that they think will usher in the end times and lead to a worldwide Islamic kingdom.

  2. matthieu says:

    I don’t know where u are sourcing ISIS as Twelvers, in my town in south of France all the radicals who joined Isis are clearly Sunnis and more than being religious are the product of “western” judeo-secularism who felt for a form of identitarianism. On the other side we see many “Christians” who pretend being westerner and who believe in a earthly non-catholic millenarism and will use any means necessary to get there. What is these people part in your eschatology ?

    • Ron Conte says:

      There are Sunnis who are twelvers. I don’t have the references off-hand on ISIS as Twelvers, but it has been reported in the press.

  3. Tom Mazanec says:

    I believe North Korea has also successfully tested ICBMs, as well as nukes.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I don’t think their missiles are ICBMs. They don’t have the full range of an ICBM. And their nukes don’t fit on a missile, yet.

  4. Mark P. says:

    I saw your post in Catholic Answers forums.
    Did St. John Paul II say anything about possessing nuclear weapons? He may have had a different opinion due to the situation of Poland during and post-WWII.

  5. Marco says:

    “Can a Catholic take the opposite position, that the use and possession of nuclear weapons is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral? I think that position is tenable, given the current state of magisterial teaching. “

    But i don’t think that said position makes sense. The possession of nuclear weapons can act as a deterrent which benefits states which otherwise would easily be overwhelmed by a bigger military force. The perspective of mutual destruction is indeed a powerful deterrent.

    It’s like having a gun: if someone like Mike Tyson attacks a normal person, and said person is barehanded, he doesn’t stand the ghost of a chance. If he has a gun though he has the advantage despite Tyson’s overwhelming physical superiority, and if they both have guns they are on equal footing, again despite Tyson’s overwhelmingly strenght.

    Without nuclear weapons it’s much more likely that the Cold War would have turned into a bloodshed so bad that WWII would have looked like a kindergarten scuffle by comparison.

    WWII and the Holocaust would have never happened if both the nazis and the allied forces had had nuclear weapons, i firmly believe that. Hitler started WWII because he truly believed that he could have won, with nuclear weapons the most he could have accomplished would have been mutual destruction.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I agree that it is moral to possess nuclear weapons. However, that position is not the only tenable one, given the state of magisterial teaching at the present time.

    • Marco says:

      “that position is not the only tenable one, given the state of magisterial teaching at the present time.”

      I understand that, i don’t understand in which sense the other position can be tenable.

      For sure, in a perfect world there would be no need for nuclear weapons, but in this fallen world there is always someone who would want to kill and subdue other nations, if he has the chance. Therefore, we need something that makes the attempt of destroying and subduing us inherently counterproductive.

      Thinking that we will be able to live in peace without a threat that makes sure that the bad consequences of waging war against the west outweigh the positive ones is naivety at its finest.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I think it is tenable only in the sense that we don’t have enough clear statements from the Magisterium on that point, and we have the recent remarks by Pope Francis condemning even the possession of nukes.

  6. Marco says:

    “They will succeed in conquering Europe partly because the West is not willing to use nuclear weapons, and they are willing.”

    It doesn’t make sense. It’s like not having nuclear weapons at all. If those extremists will obtain said weapons we will have to make clear that the most the would be able to accomplish would be mutual destruction in the best (for them ) case scenario.

    Otherwise it’s like being sheeps against wolves.

    If that ever happens (God forbid) we will have to make damn sure they understand that their dream of a worldwide Islamic kingdom is doomed from the start.

    No compromise whatsoever with those Satan’s spawns.

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