Nuclear Arms Possession Questioned at Council

143rd General Congregation
October 6, 1965

Three British Fathers of the ecumenical council joined forces at its 143rd general meeting to attack schema 13’s defense of the right to possess nuclear arms.

Two of them — Abbot Christopher Butler, O.S.B., president of the English Benedictines, and Coadjutor Bishop Gordon Wheeler of Middlesbrough — also urged the council to reaffirm the right and duty of conscience to disobey the unjust commands of authority.

At the same sitting, the council Fathers, by a vote of 2,167 to 14, approved the schema on the pastoral duties of bishops. The schema now awaits formal voting by the council in a public meeting and promulgation by Pope Paul VI.

Voting also began on amendments to the schema on the life of Religious. Six votes were taken and all amendments were approved by huge majorities.

Abbot Butler led the British attack on schema 13’s treatment of nuclear weapons.

“According to our text,” he said, “so long as international organizations are inadequate for peace-keeping purposes, it cannot be said to be illegitimate in itself to possess ‘modern arms’ for the sole purpose of deterring an adversary who is similarly equipped. I suggest that this passage be omitted from the document.

“No one thinks the great powers merely possess such arms. The fact is that on both sides of the curtain there is a system of preparation for the use of these arms — and for their illegitimate use in indiscriminate warfare.”

The abbot indicated that if such preparation is legitimate, the council might do better to say so openly rather than “hide behind” a reference to the simple possession of such arms.

But he argued that such a course would have its pitfalls.

“Should we then not have to go on to say clearly that not only would it be illegitimate to put such preparations into effect in actual war, but also that the very intention so to use them, even a ‘conditional intention,’ would be gravely immoral?”

He concluded: “We should do well to avoid such questions. We should not speak about the possession of nuclear arms because the question is unrealistic. And we should also not speak about the legitimacy of preparations for nuclear war. It is obvious enough that the intention of waging war unjustly is itself unjust.”

On the question of obedience to governments and superior officers in war, Abbot Butler said it would be better not to speak in this context of the “legal presumption” (as the text does) in favor of those issuing orders.

“However true in theory, this ‘presumption’ has occasioned many crimes in recent times through the obedience of subjects to sinful commands,” Abbot Butler stated.

On this point, he concluded, “it would be better if we emphasized that duty sometimes compels withholding obedience.”

Abbot Butler also criticized what he called the text’s implication that conscientious objectors “are in some way morally immature.” He declared that “some conscientious objectors may in fact really be prophets of a truly Christian morality.”

Bishop Wheeler asserted that although the schema condemns today’s “balance of terror” as “absolutely monstrous,” it appears to give “a certain sanction to this monstrosity” by saying that the possession of modern arms as a deterrent is not unlawful in itself.

He gave strong support to proposals that the Holy See establish a secretariat for world justice and development.

He also referred to modern abuses of the valid principle, proclaimed in the schema, of the presumption that the commands of those in authority should be obeyed.

While this principle is valid in its own context, Bishop Wheeler argued, it should be reviewed “in relation to the concept of world government, which could shift the weight of [the term] ‘competent authority.’”

In this he followed an argument of Abbot Butler. Also like Abbot Butler, he urged strengthening the passage on conscientious objection.

The third British speaker, Auxiliary Bishop Charles Grant of Northampton, followed the arguments of Abbot Butler and Bishop Wheeler in attacking the schema’s treatment of nuclear arms.

His emphasis was slightly different. It was that however sound the schema might be on this point, it appears contradictory at first glance — “and the first glance in this matter which is of the greatest interest to the whole world and to all men is of the greatest importance.”

He supported the suggestion for creation of a “top level body in the heart of the Church to study all the complicated problems of the war on world hunger and poverty.” And he asked that the passage on conscientious objection be strengthened.

Bishop Grant referred to the financial problem of regulating international accounts — the so-called liquidity problem — which lately has been exercising the minds of finance ministers and has been the occasion of a dispute between France and other Western nations. He said the system of international payments must be revamped to give developing countries full social justice. He cited statistics to the effect that between 1950 and 1961 developing countries lost $13 billion because of the fall in the price of primary products.

Achille Cardinal Lienart of Lille, France, led off debate by asking for further modifications of the text. He said it is not enough to speak of the distinction between just and unjust war; attention must also be paid to the means used in waging war.

If a conflict breaks out, he said, every effort must be made to induce the contending parties to seek a middle course of agreement. If not, he declared, then an unequaled wave of barbarism will sweep over mankind.

Paul Cardinal Leger of Montreal complained of much the same ambiguity later criticized by the British speakers. He said the text gives the impression of wanting to outlaw modern warfare, yet it appears to countenance this same modern warfare under certain circumstances.

He asserted that no discussion of modern warfare can be based on what he termed the technical question of the just war. On the other hand, he said, no such discussion can condemn war or arms purely in the abstract.

He took quite a different tack from the Englishmen on the question of conscientious objection. The text, he said, should be changed to forestall interpretation that conscientious objection is an act of the virtue of mildness.

(Msgr. George G. Higgins, director of the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference in Washington, said at the U.S. bishops’ council press panel that Cardinal Leger was not arguing against the principle of conscientious objection, but simply attempting to forestall what he considered to be a false notion of it.)

Leon Cardinal Duval of Algiers, Algeria, speaking for the bishops of North Africa, asked for a forthright condemnation of total war, whatever weapons are used.

Archbishop Gabriel Garrone of Toulouse, France, asked that the text be made more concrete in its treatment of atomic warfare and specify the immediate, precise and possible situations in which alone atomic warfare can be left to the responsibility of the supreme authorities. Atomic warfare, he said, is not to be condemned unconditionally.

Bishop Francis Simons of Indore, India, then spoke. He argued, from what he termed the undeniable fact of the population explosion, for the need for rethinking the Church’s traditional teaching on the use of sex.

The council’s English-language bulletin summed up his speech as follows:

“The demographic explosion is an undeniable fact. Hence there arises the grave obligation to arrest this growth in population. It is wrong to say that the world’s riches have not yet been completely tapped and that they are inexhaustible. The means used to bring about this check in population growth will depend for their moral aspect upon their effects.

“Laws, even the natural law, are for men, not men for laws. Thus the conclusions of many theologians need to be re-thought. The traditional arguments about birth control, based on the frustration of nature, are not at all convincing. Since the Church does not condemn complete non-use of sex, why should it condemn a partial use? Moralists of previous generations failed to consider the many aspects of the problem. Not even the precepts of the natural law impose an absolute and never-changing obligation. Natural law forbids taking human life, but it is lawful to kill in self-defense, to wage war and to inflict capital punishment.

“Lastly, in the present state of the question, the sense and binding force of the law prohibiting all artificial means of birth control are open to doubt and, according to our basic juridical principles, a law on whose meaning grave doubt exists is not binding.”

Bishop Laureano Castan Lacoma of Siguenza-Guadalajara, Spain, said the text is obscure on nuclear warfare, preserving silence on what could be permitted to a nation which has been a victim of a nuclear attack. Unless this question is cleared up, he said, the world will be at the mercy of unchecked aggression.

He pointed out that the problem of peace and war is perennial, as evidenced by the fact that it was brought before the Council of Trent (1545-63) by Blessed John of Avila.

The Spanish bishop, perhaps referring to the more recent history of his own country, said the text is too lenient in listing the conditions for a lawful civil war.

Bishop Joseph M. Marling of Jefferson City, Mo., speaking on the demographic problem, said its full solution cannot be found simply in aid from richer nations. Such programs, he said, have not until now been sufficiently bold to be effective.

He said the council should urge governments to help the limitation of population growth through moral methods.

Yet this problem cannot be separated from trust in Divine Providence, he said, which is not to be confused with inactivity or passivity. He asserted that the problems cannot be solved if we ignore the words of Christ on God’s Providence for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.

Bishop Paulus Rusch of Innsbruck-Feldkirch, Austria, complained that the text fails to condemn offensive war, which is the least that could be expected of the council.

The Austrian bishop said the Church’s presence in the world would be more effective if it had in its hands some instrument or organ for safeguarding peace.

Bishop Pal Brezanoczy for Eger, Hungary, echoed the repeated suggestions for creation of a Church organ for the protection and promotion of peace. He said this organ would collaborate with similar agencies everywhere.

He declared the council should thunder forth with a solemn, clear and absolute condemnation of nuclear warfare.

Before the council Fathers voted on the schema on the pastoral duties of bishops, the council’s secretary general, Archbishop Pericle Felici, read the beginning and end of both chapters of the schema. This was a gesture of token compliance with the conciliar regulation requiring that a schema be read through before it is voted upon.

(At the U.S. bishops’ press panel, Father Robert Trisco said one word of the schema had been changed by “higher authority” before the schema was submitted to the vote. Where the schema orders a redrawing of diocesan boundaries to conform with the needs of the faithful, the word mandat — or commands — was changed to decernit — or decrees. It was believed this change would forestall the impression that the council was ordering the Pope to do something, although it was also pointed out that the council includes the Pope and no conciliar decree has full conciliar authority unless it is promulgated by him.)

Father Trisco is a professor of Church history at the Catholic University of America and editor of the Catholic Historical Review.

Moderator of the day was Leo Cardinal Suenens of Malines-Brussels, Belgium. The Gospel was enthroned by Bishop John McEleney of Kingston, Jamaica, and Mass was celebrated by Archbishop Joseph Cucherousset of Bangui, Central African Republic.

Bishop Enrico Compagnone of Anagni, Italy, in the name of the conciliar Commission for Religious, read the report on the revised schema on the life of Religious at the day’s meeting.

Bishop Compagnone pointed out that the text now to be submitted to the vote of the council is much more ample, richer in its material, deeper in its presentation of the criteria of present-day adaptation, and animated by a more marked pastoral approach.

The result of the voting on the previous text at the council’s third session in 1964 was that some articles were approved unconditionally, while others provoked a goodly number of reservations. The bishop reported that the total number of reservations was approximately 14,000, but since many Fathers presented the same reservations, the final number was thus reduced to about 500. He said it was felt that the response of the council Fathers as expressed in their voting was an indication of the love and esteem which the Church nurtures for those who have dedicated their lives to God in a special manner through the profession of the evangelical counsels. The bishop said he wished to make it clear that no reservation presented by anyone was ignored or considered lightly.

In the vote taken at the preceding session, the parts of the schema numbered from 1 to 13 were approved with reservations, whereas numbers 14 to 20 were approved by the required two-thirds majority. This enabled the Commission for Religious to have much more leeway in the recasting of numbers 1 to 13, but at the same time greatly limited its freedom of action in touching up the text of numbers 14 to 20. Nevertheless, Bishop Compagnone said, everything possible was done as regards both parts.

Articles 1 to 15 were greatly amplified in content, he reported. Several new texts were introduced to replace texts which were found to be deficient. As requested by many Fathers, a closing article was added in the form of a brief pastoral conclusion. The text has been so phrased as to insure that there will be a thoroughgoing adaptation of certain aspects of Religious life and discipline to the exigencies of modern times, without this adaptation’s resulting in any distortion of the particular nature, purpose or spirit of individual Religious institutes. The point was stressed that this work of adaptation is the responsibility not of individual Religious, but rather of competent superiors who, in turn, will always act under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the guidance of the Church. The role of individual Religious is that of wholehearted cooperation with their superiors, the bishop continued.

It should be remembered, he said, that the council text on the adaptation of Religious life and discipline makes no pretense to be a systematic treatment of Religious life in general or even of these specific points. The material could have been presented in a different fashion, although the present order is sufficiently logical. Future legislation, from which the commission could not in any way rescind, will take up these questions much more extensively and completely, Bishop Compagnone concluded.

Patrick Riley
NCWC News Rome correspondent

* * * *

The Fathers of Vatican Council II gave overwhelming approval in the first six votes on the proposed declaration on Religious. The voting follows:

Vote 1 — on the nature of the Religious life and its place in the Church — yes, 2,163; no, 9; null 4.

Vote 2 — on the general principles of present-day adaptation — yes, 2,113; no, 9; null, 2.

Vote 3 — on the practical criteria of renovation — yes 2,057; no, 5.

Vote 4 — on the underlying reasons for renovation — yes, 2,057; no, 5; null, 2.

Vote 5 — on the elements common to all forms of Religious life and its relationship with the sacrament of Baptism — yes, 2,040; no, 15; null, 2.

Vote 6 — on the primacy of the spiritual life — yes, 2,049; no, 3; null, 3.

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