The Dispatch: More from CWR...

Why we need to have a debate over nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence

Surely nuclear deterrence is the only realistic response to the current cauldron of mutual antipathies and suspicions. But there’s a problem.

"A-Day" First atomic bomb explosion at Bikini in the Marshall Islands 1 July 1946. (Science in HD |

Unrealistic. That, no doubt, was the not uncommon reaction to Pope Francis’s November plea for nuclear disarmament, including an end to nuclear deterrence. So let us consider who comes out on top in this argument—the self-proclaimed realists or idealists who agree with the Pope.

Francis had said these things before, but this time, during his visit to Japan, he chose two particularly poignant sites for saying them—Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the cities devastated by American atomic bombs in 1945.

“The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possessing of nuclear weapons is immoral….We will be judged on this,” the Pope declared. And on the plane home to Rome, he told reporters the condemnation of nuclear weapons would be added to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Church has been wrestling with these matters a long time.

In his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, published barely six months after the Cuban Missile Crisis had brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war, Pope St. John XXIII said this: “The stockpiles of armaments…must be reduced all around and simultaneously by the parties concerned. Nuclear weapons must be banned. A general agreement must be reached on a suitable disarmament program, with an effective system of mutual control.”

And the Second Vatican Council in 1965, calling for a “completely fresh reappraisal of war,” expressed “firm and unequivocal condemnation” of “every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants” which it called “a crime against God and man.”

But some were disappointed then that the council nevertheless had stopped short of condemning nuclear deterrence. In a contemporary account, Father Joseph Ratzinger, later known to the world as Pope Benedict XVI, said this reflected an “emergency morality” in response to the “radical unrighteousness” so tragically characteristic of modern times.

The U.S. bishops in their 1983 pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace took a similar approach, citing Pope St. John Paul II to the effect that deterrence was tolerable as a step on the way to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

That was 37 years ago, and there is no sign of anything of the sort now happening. On the contrary, things appear to be headed in the opposite direction, as the U.S. and Russia push ahead with modernization of their nuclear forces and old nuclear arms control agreements are allowed to wither and die.

As matters stand, who can imagine India and Pakistan trusting each other enough to give up their nukes, the U.S. developing a similar degree of trust in Russia and China—or vice versa, Israel abandoning its deterrent and counting on the good will of Arab countries that have vowed its destruction, North Korea surrendering its new membership in the nuclear club? The mind reels. Surely nuclear deterrence is the only realistic response to this cauldron of mutual antipathies and suspicions.

But there’s a problem. If, God forbid, large scale nuclear war ever does occur—perhaps as a result of miscalculation arising from by a technological glitch in somebody’s warning system—the survivors, if any, will bitterly conclude that those who rationalized nuclear deterrence as a cornerstone of peace were the most disastrously unrealistic of all.

A final thought. The killing of an Iranian general by a U.S. drone strike has reignited criticism of assassination via drone. Perhaps it should. But where is the debate over the vastly larger moral issues raised by nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence?

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Russell Shaw 263 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. Not new is the difficulty is in CONFLATING the (1) deterrent (?) “possession” of nuclear weapons with (2) the actual use of (now very different kinds of) such weapons.

    In 1965, while condemning the indiscriminate targeting of populations (references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki), the Second Vatican Council also ACCEPTED “deterrence” if this was a step toward nuclear disarmament. The Council stopped short of demanding a “freeze” (Gaudium et Spes, 78-82). Ever on mind were the overwhelming risks of collateral damage and of escalation into nuclear Armageddon.

    Tactical and mobile battlefield-level missiles (offensive/defensive?) with targeting precision, were deployed by the West to offset the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact’s massive superiority in conventional armaments (tanks) and new ground-based missiles.

    THREE national episcopal conferences (today’s synods?) produced non-identical [!!!] and non-doctrinal pastoral letters (all 1983) on the mix of moral imperatives and prudential judgments regarding nuclear weapons.

    In addition to (1) the AMERICAN The Challenge to Peace (which highlighted the slippery slope into Armageddon) noted by Shaw, there were also (2) the GERMAN Out of Justice, Peace (which highlighted the imbalance in battlefield weaponry in Eastern Europe), and (3) the FRENCH Winning the Peace (which highlighted the overall threat to humanity of international Marxism). (The latter two pastorals were combined and edited by Fr. James Schall, S.J., and PUBLISHED by Ignatius Press, 1984).

    But, PRIOR to all three conference reflections, in 1982, Pope John Paul II already had delivered a well-crafted papal address to the Second Special Session of the United Nations dedicated to disarmament (Negotiation: The Only Realistic Solution to the Continuing Threat of War, Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1982). At that time the pope CONCLUDED that: “In current conditions ‘deterrence’ based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable” (p. 10).

    So, today—-regarding “possession” versus potential use—-FIRST, what has been and is the morally-required progress toward disarmament; and SECOND, globally, what is the “current condition” in 2020? The above and somewhat dated documents might still make good background reading for renewed discernment by a (now synodal?) Church.

  2. Here is the Zmirak article on the secret pact between the Pontiff Francis and the Communist Party of China:

    Note that “His Excellency” Bishop Sorondo (of Argentina) is the man directed by the Pontiff Francis to declare 1-2 years ago that China is the exemplar of “katholik social justice.”

    The post-Christian fraud “His Excellency” Sorondo was speaking while attending Chinese organ “donation” Conference (which in China means organ harvesting from political prisoners), has now made the newest declaration for the Pontiff Francis, that “China trusts Francis, and Francis trusts China.”

    But, what do we expect, from the Pontiff hand-picked by the sociopath sex abuser fraud McCarrick, who was “liberated” by Francis to negotiate the secret China accord.

    These men are all frauds, and their lives are a betrayal of Our Lord Jesus.

  3. We are like some stupid kid who is trying to climb a cliff on a dare. Halfway up, he realizes he should not be there. Once he accepts that, yelling to him to come down does not actually help him get down safely. Yelling for him to JUMP is worse than useless. Again, we as a society are like the stupid kid, but too many priests and bishops are like the people yelling for him to jump.

  4. We had the golden opportunity to move beyond all of this in the 1980’s with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). There is no better way to bring this entire debate to an end than to make nuclear weapons obsolete by developing the means to intercept and neutralize them before they reach their targets.

  5. A good Western axiom: “Never take a knife to a gun fight.” Knowing a sworn enemy has a weapon and you have no deterrent is a sure formula for disaster.

  6. Popes and bishops need to stop imagining that they have the answer to every moral question. They do not. A little silence now and then would be golden.

  7. Desire to kill is embedded in the human psyche ever since Cain slaughtered his brother over a blessing. It’s Satanic by inspiration. Although God permitted even commanded Jews not only use deadly force against Canaanites dwelling in the Promised Land. He issued the total Ban meant to slaughter all from warrior to woman to child to grandmother to little girl even their pet dogs, their cattle. Nothing left alive. Except Saul disobeyed and eventually lost his kingship to David because of that disobedience. Saint John Paul II questioned whether God actually proposed the infamous ban on Jericho and other cities. That is highly questionable. God has suzerainty over life and death and answers to no one. The answer came later when Jews intermingled with Canaanites married them adopted their customs began immolating their own children to Baal. God is incomprehensible his Justice as revealed historically has efficacy. To save Mankind destruction of a morally aberrant people was the price. Who am I to judge God? [but our judgment can also affirm]. Christ who later reveals who the Father is commended peace, even willing acceptance of abuse. Then the anomaly at the seizure in Gethsemane to turn to purchasing swords. A premonition of the Crusades in defense of Christianity? Or Sobieski’s route of Ottoman Turks at Vienna? The Battle of Lepanto? Annihilation of ISIS? The human condition as is since the Fall realistically requires the means of just nations to defend themselves from the unjust. The only difference since Cain and Abel is weaponry. Nuclear fission Enrico Fermi’s scientific achievement gave us the means not only to defeat the enemy but destroy the planet. It’s realistic to assume we shouldn’t unilaterally give up our nuclear armaments. It’s just as realistic to work diligently at halting proliferation as in Iran and N Korea and engage in international treaties agreements to refrain from their use.

    • We read: “He [God] issued the total Ban meant to slaughter all from warrior to woman to child to grandmother to little girl even their pet dogs, their cattle.” (See Josh. 6:21).

      Not merely for conquest, the early Israelites gave as justification their hatred for the Canaanite practice of child sacrifice (Deut. 12:31). And more broadly, not only human immolations, but also fortune-tellers, soothsayers, charmers, diviners and the like—“because of such abominations the Lord, your God, is driving these nations out of your way” (Deut 18:12).

      One school of thought holds that during a prolonged immigrationse (St. John Paul II’s proposition regarding Jericho?) or even a more rapid siege, those who recognized their dire situation and wanted to emigrate were first allowed to do so. The overall culture was to concede that the god (or, uniquely, the one true God of the Israelites) of the newly dominant tribe was now in charge.

      Those warriors then remaining behind the walls during an actual siege would be legitimately feared as a future underground resistance and, therefore, would have to be annihilated.

      As for the others remaining, and now on their own, once the warriors were dead the women and children would be at great risk in the open as likely victims of starvation or lions and dog packs in the wild. So, it was a mercy of sorts (according to this school of thought) to simply bring an early end to them too. And as for whatever dogs or cattle that were still standing after the siege, perhaps by now these were emaciated or simply regarded by the victors as alien and tainted and therefore not to be interbred.

      The overriding factor for the Israelites, as Fr. Peter Morello notes: was the problem of intermarriage and then reverse assimilation: “when Jews intermingled with Canaanites, married them, adopted their customs [and] began immolating their own children to Baal.” Going native, the Israelites more than once became what they and their God had detested. Modern parallels are not wanting.

  8. One question that arises is whether nations go to war or just armies? In the Middle Ages, it was relatively easy to separate armies from the civilian population though massacres of civilians did occur from time to time. Today, it seems there is little distinction by the better known and armed adversaries of what can loosely described democratic governments. Also contested in moral circles, is the idea that hindsight offers some enlightenment on the subject i.e. bombing of the Japanese. Seven decades later, we are no closer to resolving the issue.

  9. The author asks, “But where is the debate over the vastly larger moral issues raised by nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence?”

    May I respectfully suggest that instead of moral debate our focus be placed on some specific bold positive action plan that can unite the Catholic community. The relevant question is not so much what do we think, say or believe, but what are we going to do? What we do, or don’t do, is the most credible expression of our beliefs.

    Here’s one example suggestion to illustrate the point. A billion Catholics should be able to raise a billion dollars a year to fund a professional marketing campaign to amplify the Pope’s teachings on nuclear weapons. The establishment of such a fund would be a concrete action which would credibly communicate to the world that Catholics are serious about the threat to humanity posed by nuclear weapons.

    Here’s another example. Would we take a politician seriously if they made some nice speeches but couldn’t be bothered to raise money to spread their message? That’s who we are on the subject of nuclear weapons. We make some great speeches, but we don’t take our own speeches seriously enough to back them up with a professional marketing campaign. And so the world does not take our speeches seriously, because we don’t take them seriously.

    I’ve been writing about this on my site would welcome input from anyone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.