Text of Liverpool Archbishop on Threats to World Peace

This is a translation of the speech on the Church in the modern world, given by Archbishop George A. Beck of Liverpool on Oct. 7.

Chapter V is the most important in the schema. All the other proposals, economic, social, cultural, political, depend on the way the ideas expressed in this chapter are put into effect. Until men are able to “beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks” sufficient economic resources for these ambitious schemes of help and development will not be available. They can only be made so if the insanity of the armaments race is brought to an end. Indeed, if this is not done, war on a massive scale can scarcely fail to come.

In Sections I and II, the schema insists that the community of nations must organize itself in accordance with its present responsibilities. It must establish effective international institutions for the preservation of justice and peace. The document does not emphasize sufficiently, however, that one of the biggest obstacles to the setting up of international institutions which will be truly effective, is what has been called the “fragmentation of society” into now more than 120 sovereign states, which will admit no limitation of their independence of action except by treaties which in the final analysis they may revoke.

The greatest menace to peace at the present time is the power of sectional interests which are, in most cases, the fruit of the history of the past 200 years. National sovereignty, imperialism, class war, race war, political or economic exploitation must give way to a wider acceptance of human solidarity. And this can be done effectively only if the governments of those nations play their part.

On this point we require a serious review of our teaching of history. All over the world national pride and native prejudice persuade us that we must understand and teach history as a matter of national glorification and justification. This translates itself into so many moods which, through their resistance to any diminution of national sovereignty, are in the end an obstacle to international cooperation and the setting up of truly effective international juridical institutions with authority and effective sanctions.

Our schema deals with the question of war in an objective and balanced way. We must thank the authors for avoiding extremism. They emphasize that conditions must be created under which war of any kind can no longer be regarded as a legitimate means even in defense of right. They state that unrestricted use of modern weapons is morally inadmissible and the goal must be their total elimination. All must work for the establishment of an international public authority wielding effective power at world level.

Meanwhile, we are obliged to live under the threat of war and in the shadow of destruction. What must be done in the interval? And how long will that interval last? The schema is right to say that as long as international institutions give no adequate guarantee, the possession of these armaments exclusively as a deterrent for an enemy equipped with the same weapons cannot be said to be in itself immoral. The possession of nuclear arms may in a particular situation be legitimate.

What must we say, however, of the morality of deterrence? How far may threats of reprisals go? May a state even threaten, by way of deterrence, that indiscriminate destruction of cities and whole regions which our schema condemns as a crime against God and man? What is the significance of the term “massive retaliation”? Is the responsibility for protecting the innocent in these areas — or of evacuating them to a place of safety — a responsibility of the original aggressor which he must bear in mind before he makes the decision to attack? Have we yet, even among our experts, worked out the ethics of threat and counter-threat? Has the Church anything to offer to governments on the morality of bluff, especially when the stakes are hundreds of thousands of human lives?

It seems clear that a government which possesses nuclear weapons as a deterrent and threatens to use them as such is in a proximate occasion of grave sin. It may be argued that, until our international institutions become effective, so that a nation can sacrifice its deterrents without grave risk to its freedom and cultural and spiritual values, this proximate occasion of sin is what moralists call a “necessary occasion” to be accepted as a compromise pending the creation of that balance of trust and discussion which must succeed to the present balance of terror. We must remind such nations of their present and grave obligation to make the occasion of sin remote, by showing readiness to accept limitation of their national sovereignty in the measure necessary to the creation of an effective international authority.

There remains the problem of obedience and the rights of conscience. The presumption that legitimate authority has the right to obedience is clearly stated in the text. But I should like to see stronger emphasis both on what a public authority must never do or threaten to do under pain of losing its right to the obedience of its subjects and the rights of conscience of all citizens in certain circumstances. In this aula only a few days ago we debated at great length the right which every human being possesses to religious liberty, a right which he can vindicate before civil governments as part of his dignity as a human person. But religious liberty applies to matters of moral conduct as well as to matters of doctrine. Just as the surgeon must refuse to kill the innocent child in the womb of the mother by the practice of abortion, so must the soldier or the captain of the aircraft have the right to refuse to use, for example, a nuclear weapon which will obliterate a whole town or a whole region, or to take part in any form of indiscriminate attack.

We must ask that the rulers of nations should respect the consciences of those of their subjects who look upon certain forms of war as never justifiable even for defensive purposes. This is not a question of Christian meekness or of non-violence. There are many men in the world today who are convinced that some forms of modern warfare are always and in all circumstances gravely evil. If our Declaration on Religious Liberty is to mean anything it must be admitted to apply in this field.

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