Council Struggles With Nuances of Nuclear Weapons’ Immorality

The key question the Church must decide regarding the morality of nuclear weapons, according to an ecumenical council expert, is whether it is possible to declare the possession of those weapons immoral, without adequate safeguards to assure peaceful nations that the weapons will not be produced by others.

In a world as imperfect as ours, said Msgr. George G. Higgins, director of the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, this is a real problem. “If it can be resolved by the members of the commission revising the schema on the Church in the modern world, they could rewrite chapter five in five minutes.”

Msgr. Higgins was speaking at the U.S. bishops’ press panel following the council meeting at which debate was concluded on the schema. The document was sent back to commission for revision. The final debate centered on chapter five’s treatment of peace and war, including the problem of nuclear weapons.

Msgr. Higgins said he disagreed with rumors that the council would drop the schema or remand it to the newly announced Synod of Bishops. He pointed out that the schema had been accepted by an overwhelming vote of the council Fathers as a basis for discussion, which indicated that the Fathers wanted such a document.

“The commission at least is going through the motions of revising the document,” he said, “calling for suggestions from the council Fathers and planning meetings. I know of no move as of now to drop it or turn it over to the synod.”

Another question from the press turned on the significance of the Pope’s address to the United Nations, in which he referred to its role as representing all peoples of the earth. Could this be interpreted indirectly as asking for the admission of communist China?

Msgr. Higgins said it could, since it seemed to be a clear call for the UN to be “universally representative.”

Father Eugene H. Maly agreed, but he said the Pope “clearly referred to certain conditions for membership which a nation must fulfill.” This, he said, might leave the question of Red China’s admission up in the air unless it could qualify under conditions the Pope indicated.

Msgr. Mark J. Hurley, vice chancellor of the San Francisco archdiocese, supported this interpretation, pointing out that Pope Paul specifically recognized the role of the UN in “qualifying various states for membership.”

To the further question of whether Pope Paul was calling for unilateral disarmament, Msgr. Higgins said: “I did not read that into his statement at all. It seems to me he called for the same thing Pope John did — mutual disarmament. I can’t imagine any Pope naive enough to advocate unilateral disarmament.”

On the question of patriotism and the problem of conscientious objection, either to or within military service, Father Francis J. Connell, C.SS.R., former dean of the theology school at the Catholic University of America, Washington, noted that the Church considers patriotism to be a virtue.

Father Maly said the Epistles of the New Testament “apply to specific political situations” which would not be universalized. The Gospel dictum “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” might apply, he said, “but it could hardly include all the implications of our virtue of patriotism.”

Father Francis J. McCool, S.J., Scripture professor at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute, said however that Christ gave an example of patriotism. “Although He loved all men, He wept over Jerusalem, which was His own land.”

Msgr. Higgins said he “hoped there would be men in military life who would refuse orders because of the implications of modern war.” He explained such a refusal could be justified in cases such as the indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations.

While admitting that military orders presume the superior has made a proper judgment, he said there could be cases in which the individual conscience clearly considers the orders immoral. In such a case, he said, the pilot would be obliged to disobey them.

Father John J. King, O.M.I., superior of the Oblate house of studies in Rome, pointed out that military service “does not put the primacy of individual conscience in abeyance. No country has the right to wage even a defensive war while ignoring every human canon of conduct. Moral means must be used.”

Father Connell noted: “We even put to death men who used the excuse they were following military orders in immoral acts during war,” referring to the Nuremburg trials.

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