Limited Possibility of Error
The Church is indefectible; therefore, the body of Bishops, by the prevenient grace of the Holy Spirit, can never defect by accepted as Roman Pontiff an invalid pope or antipope. Pope Francis has been accepted by the body of Bishops as Pope, and they continue to follow him. They also continue to ignore and reject calls to oppose the Pope. Thus, it is a dogmatic fact that Pope Francis is the valid Roman Pontiff.
According to the dogma of the First Vatican Council — as I’ve explained many times and as Cardinal Manning (one of the Fathers of the Vatican Council) explains in The Vatican Council and Its Definitions: A Pastoral Letter to the Clergy — every Roman Pontiff has the gift of truth and a never-failing faith. Therefore, no Pope can err gravely on doctrine or discipline, and no Pope can commit apostasy, heresy, schism, idolatry, sacrilege, or blasphemy.
However, Popes can err to a limited extent in their non-infallible (and so non-irreformable) ordinary Papal Magisterium, as explained by Cardinal Ratzinger in Donum Veritatis and by Pope Saint John Paul II in this address to the U.S. Bishops. Such errors can never reach to a grave extent, and certainly can never lead the faithful away from the path of salvation.
Since the Pope can err, to a limited extent, the faithful can disagree to a limited extent, as explained by the U.S. Bishops in Human Life in Our Day (n. 49ff). For such dissent to be licit, certain criteria must be met, as explained at length in Donum Veritatis.
My opinion is that the non-infallible teaching of Pope Francis on nuclear weapons, specifically the illicitness of their possession and use in war, is such a limited error. It does not harm the path of salvation of the faithful, if they should decline to possess or use nuclear weapons, nor if they should vote according to the Pope’s teaching. And if the world were to follow his teaching and disarm, that clearly would be highly beneficial, not harmful. Then there is no real possibility that the U.S. would disarm (under the current political circumstances) and be vulnerable to a nuclear attack.
Pope Francis’ Teaching
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has not yet been amended to teach the position of the Pope, so we do not have the exact text of that planned emendation. However, this article assumes that the CCC will be changed according to the Pope’s public remarks. There is, of course, a real possibility that the final wording will differ from the Pope’s remarks and speeches, as the Holy Spirit firmly guides the Roman Pontiff when he teaches non-infallibly, and unerringly guides him when he teaches infallibly. The teaching of the CCC, absent an infallible definition elsewhere, is non-infallible (except for texts which are observational or of prudential judgment), and therefore subject to the possibility of licit theological dissent.
In this document, Address Of The Holy Father On Nuclear Weapons, Pope Francis states that fear of mutual destruction is not the path to peace:
“Peace and international stability are incompatible with attempts to build upon the fear of mutual destruction or the threat of total annihilation. They can be achieved only on the basis of a global ethic of solidarity and cooperation in the service of a future shaped by interdependence and shared responsibility in the whole human family of today and tomorrow…. A world of peace, free from nuclear weapons, is the aspiration of millions of men and women everywhere.”
This proposed solidarity, cooperation, and shared responsibility could be applied to his teaching on nuclear weapons, such that the nations ought to work toward global disarmament. Such a goal is not only laudable, but obviously the will of God. Weapons of mass destruction ought not to exist. But in the case where more than a few nations have nuclear weapons, and some rogue nations are seeking (or may already possess) nuclear weapons, can a nation of good will possess or use them?
“Convinced as I am that a world without nuclear weapons is possible and necessary, I ask political leaders not to forget that these weapons cannot protect us from current threats to national and international security.”
Here, the Pope places his teaching on nuclear weapons at least partially upon his assessment of the prudential circumstances (just as he does for his position on the death penalty). He judges that nuclear disarmament is “possible and necessary”; it is something of which he is convinced by considering the “current state of our planet”.
In the Address, however, the Roman Pontiff does not state that the possession or use of such weapons is always illicit. The closest he comes to stating such a position there is in this assertion:
“One of the deepest longings of the human heart is for security, peace and stability. The possession of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction is not the answer to this desire; indeed they seem always to thwart it.”
The Pope states only that the possession of nuclear weapons is “not the answer to this desire” and that it may “seem always to thwart it”. These are clearly statements of prudential judgment, not of an intrinsic evil.
Recall the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium on morality: there are three fonts of morality, and any one bad font (intention, object, circumstances) makes the act always immoral. It is always a sin (morally illicit) to act with a bad intention, or if the act is intrinsically evil (a bad moral object), or when the circumstances is bad (as we say). So if the Roman Pontiff states that an act is always illicit, this does not imply that the act is intrinsically evil due to an evil moral object. It may be his judgment that the act, in the present circumstances, always does more harm than good. Such a prudential conclusion would be easy to reach on nuclear weapons, as these devices are designed to cause massive destruction and have in the past been used to destroy entire cities.
“In Nagasaki, there was the martyrdom: I saw part of the museum of the martyrs — in passing — but Hiroshima was very touching. And there I reaffirmed that the use of nuclear weapons is immoral —this must also be included in the Catechism of the Catholic Church —, and not only its use, but also its possession because an accident [due to] possession, or the madness of some government leader, a person’s madness can destroy humanity. Let us think about that quote from Einstein: ‘World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones’.” [Address]
Whether Albert Einstein actually made that statement or not is irrelevant. The idea is that World War 3 might so destroy the infrastructure of society that people would be reduced to fighting with sticks and stones. And, of course, the statement is not literal. It speaks of the extreme destruction of this type of weapon.
Notice the basis for the assertion of the Roman Pontiff that not only the use of nuclear weapons, but also their possession is immoral: due to the consequences of such choices (to possess or to use). A judgment that an act is morally illicit due to the consequences is in the font of circumstances, and so does not speak of an intrinsically evil act. Perhaps the Roman Pontiff’s judgment of the circumstances is incorrect; or perhaps the circumstances may change.
The Pope was asked a question: “You said that true peace can only be disarmed peace. But what about legitimate defence when one country is attacked by another? In such cases, is there still the possibility of a just war?” This seems to imply the question: Can nuclear weapons be used in defense of a nation? But the Pontiff answered it more generally, without specifying whether nuclear weapons can be used in defense of a nation: “The idea of legitimate defence always stands.”
The wording used in his proposed change to the CCC does not say “always immoral” but simply “immoral”. And his comment that the defense of a nation is always legitimate (presuming, of course, it is a just war) suggests that perhaps nuclear weapons could be used in such a case.
At Hiroshima, Pope Francis again spoke on nuclear weapons:
“With deep conviction I wish once more to declare that the use of atomic energy for purposes of war is today, more than ever, a crime not only against the dignity of human beings but against any possible future for our common home. The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possessing of nuclear weapons is immoral, as I already said two years ago.”
Notice the wording: “today, more than ever”, which is clearly a reference to the changing circumstances. And the reason is the prudential judgment about the dangers to our future.
The Pope closed these remarks by saying, in part: “Never again war, never again the clash of arms, never again so much suffering!” And yet he also has stated that the legitimate defense of a nation by a just war is always morally legitimate. So he hopes that war and the clash of arms will never occur again, but he does not exclude the use of arms in a just war.
I do not propose my position as dogmatic, nor as certain, but only as my considered theological opinion, with faith in the work of the Holy Spirit guiding the Magisterium.
The teaching of Pope Francis on this topic may be understood as a prudential judgment of the circumstances. He does not say that the possession or use of nuclear weapons is always immoral, but only “immoral”. He cites the circumstances repeatedly, especially the consequences. Supposing (a worst case scenario for my theological position) that the future emendation of the CCC does say “always immoral”, this could be understood as always immoral due to the circumstances. An act is always immoral when one or more fonts is bad — any font, not only the font of object.
So in order to refute the idea that the possession and use of nuclear weapons is always immoral regardless of circumstances, i.e. that it is intrinsically evil, I will propose a number of circumstances where their possession or their use would be clearly moral.
When Pakistan first developed nuclear weapons, it was reported in the press that U.S. forces in Pakistan had a plan to seize those weapons in a special forces raid, if the nation was ever taken over by extremists, such as the Taliban. It is obvious that, in such a case, the possession of theses seized weapons would be not only morally permissible, but virtuous, much like the act of taking a firearm away from a criminal or mentally ill person.
What if a terrorist group obtains a nuclear weapon? Is it not moral to seize such weapons, thereby giving the U.S. or another nation of good will possession? Such possession is not intrinsically evil because there is no evil moral object. The object of possession is safety, not destruction.
Similarly, the object of the possession of nuclear weapons by the U.S. is to make a nuclear war or a nuclear attack on the U.S. much less likely. Although this is not the path to a true and lasting peace, it is not intrinsically illicit, as the object is peace and safety. Similarly, if a robber breaks into your house, while you are at home, you may brandish a firearm in order to prevent the criminal use of a firearm by the robber against you and your family. Your possession of the firearm differs, morally, from his, as your object is safety and the prevention of destruction.
But is the use of nuclear weapons ever a moral part of a just war? Not against a city or center of mass population, as this would represent mass murder, the direct and voluntary killing of many innocent human persons. Suppose, instead, that a massive armada of ships approaches the U.S., in order to destroy our coastal cities by bombardment. One nuclear blast above the armada would destroy the ships and save countless innocent lives. Such an act would prevent the destruction of cities. This use of nuclear weapons has the good moral object of saving many lives (and no other moral object that would be evil), making the act not intrinsically evil.
Finally, in my eschatology, which is fallible and highly speculative, I explain my interpretation of the events in the book of Daniel. In World War 3, the Arab Muslim nations of the Middle East and northern Africa, led by extremists, will conquer Europe. After obtaining control and occupying a vast territory for more than a few years, a new leader comes to power over that group of nations, one who seeks to subdue the entire world on behalf of his extremist version of Islam — forcing all Christians, Jews, and others to abandon their own beliefs and accept extremist Islam or die. He threatens nations which refuse to submit to his pretended authority with nuclear annihilation via nuclear ICBMs.
And my speculative conclusion is that the U.S. and Allies respond with a nuclear first strike, against military targets only (especially the launch points of the ICBMs), using pure fusion weapons. This type of weapon does not yet exist. It is a nuclear bomb without uranium or plutonium, without any radioactive material. Such a weapon would have little or no radioactive fallout, and could be designed at a low level of power for pinpoint strikes on hardened targets. The aim of such a use of nuclear weapons would be the prevention of nuclear annihilation and the protection of the Christian and Jewish faiths from forced conversion to extremist Islam. I expect that the Pope of that future time would approve of such a use (in advance).
If you don’t believe my prediction (of which I am personally convinced), the above speculative eschatology may be taken as a hypothetical. What if the world faced nuclear annihilation, with the only alternatives being use of nuclear weapons in a just war, or slavery of body and soul to a religious dictator? Such a use is a defense of nations in just war, which Pope Francis asserted to be legitimate. And the weapons would be used only against military targets. Moreover, if the weapons were of a new design, without fission and without substantial radioactive fallout, the consequences would be lessened by a vast extent. Therefore, I must conclude that both the use and possession of nuclear weapons may be morally licit in some circumstances.
Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.