Catholic Church Pivots on the Acceptability of Nuclear Deterrence

Comments, Humanitarian Initiative, Vienna

During the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, the Holy See formulated a new policy on the ethics of nuclear deterrence. Does this change in policy imply a wider doctrinal change in the Holy See’s interpretation of the rules of war?   

In December 2014, the Holy See circulated a paper entitled “Nuclear Disarmament: Time for Abolition” during the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons.

This document raises many important arguments in favour of abolishing nuclear weapons. For example, it speaks of the changed security environment in which a deterrence-driven “peace of sorts” brings instability rather than stability; the cost of the nuclear stalemate to the global common good; the built-in defects of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime; and the price that current nuclear policy exacts upon the poor and vulnerable.

What really caught my attention, though, is the paper’s section entitled “the problem of intention.” It says:

“It is now time to question the distinction between possession and use which has long been a governing assumption of much ethical discourse on nuclear deterrence. … The political and military officials of nuclear possessing states assume the responsibility to use these weapons if deterrence fails. But since what is intended is mass destruction – with extensive and lasting collateral damage, inhumane suffering, and risk of escalation – the system of nuclear weapons can no longer be deemed a policy that stands firmly on moral ground.”

In the broader scheme of things, this may not sound like much – or, in any event, not much that is new or radical. But in fact, the passage’s last sentence marks a very significant, even bold, shift in Catholic thinking about the ethics of nuclear deterrence.

Just over 30 years ago, the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) issued a pastoral letter on the subject of war and peace. In their letter, American Catholic bishops considered it unacceptable “to intend to kill the innocent as part of a strategy of deterring nuclear war” (para. 178). Insofar as the deliberate intent to do so was concerned, the NCCB apparently found some assurance in government declarations that “it is not U.S. strategic policy to target the Soviet civilian population as such or to use nuclear weapons deliberately for the purpose of destroying population centers” (para. 179).

 “The passage’s last sentence marks a very significant, even bold, shift in Catholic thinking about the ethics of nuclear deterrence.”

The 1983 letter then reflected on massive civilian casualties that are “indirect” or “unintended.” The bishops made it clear that they “cannot be satisfied that the assertion of an intention not to strike civilians directly, or even the most honest effort to implement that intention, by itself constitutes a ‘moral policy’ for the use of nuclear weapons” (para. 182). Note the letter’s implicit reference here to a moral principle known as “double effect” – or “double intention,” as Michael Walzer called it in his seminal work Just and Unjust War (pp. 155-156). According to this principle, not only must one exclusively intend to achieve good; he or she must also intend to minimize the foreseeable evil that his or her action may cause. The bishops were saying, essentially, that it is not enough for nuclear-armed states to satisfy the principle’s first prong.

The letter indicated the authors’ deep ambivalence about the feasibility of strictly proportionate nuclear strikes, and concerns about further nuclear escalations arising from such strikes. It seems that the U.S. Catholic bishops did not deem the nuclear-armed states’ intention to minimize foreseeable evil entirely credible. Still, in 1983, the bishops were not quite prepared to reject the nuclear deterrence doctrine on such grounds either. Rather, their letter at that time concluded: “These considerations … lead us to a strictly conditioned moral acceptance of nuclear deterrence. We cannot consider it adequate as a long-term basis for peace” (para. 186). They tied their conditional moral acceptance squarely to progressive disarmament.

The Holy See’s 2014 paper effectively collapses the double effect/intention requirement, a long-held cornerstone of just war theory in Catholicism, into a single effect/intention requirement. Also, in doing so, the formulation arguably lowers the morally relevant standard of intention in nuclear deterrence, at least in Catholic pastoral thinking, to dolus eventualis. Dolus eventualis covers the actor’s intention to behave in a certain way, combined with his or her full awareness and acceptance of the side effects that the conduct may produce. Applied to nuclear deterrence, the main intent would be to inflict damage on legitimate military targets, while the likely collateral casualties would be regarded as foreseeable yet unintended side effects. Significantly, it’s because of the latter that the Holy See now denies “firm moral ground” to nuclear deterrence.

“What is remarkable is the speed with which the double effect – a core tenet of Catholic teaching – has in substance been modified vis-à-vis nuclear deterrence.”

It’s hard to tell whether this change is a tangible reflection of the progressive thinking seen in other areas that has become a hallmark of Pope Francis’ papacy. Nor, for that matter, is it clear whether the 2014 statement was really intended to introduce dolus eventualis. Nevertheless, something qualitatively different from the 1983 letter is afoot. What is remarkable here is the speed with which such a core tenet of Catholic teaching – double effect goes all the way back to St. Aquinas’ Summa Theologiæ – has in substance been modified vis-à-vis nuclear deterrence. By the standards of the timelines typical of some other positions of the Catholic Church, this change really does appear to have occurred in the blink of an eye.

This important change is also an acknowledgement of the new, post-Cold War strategic setting in which we live today. It signals that the once all-encompassing imperative of nuclear deterrence is losing its existential grip over us. Meanwhile, much of the world has been growing increasingly frustrated at the negligible progress made in the NPT framework toward reducing dependence on nuclear weapons. One constant in this picture remains the raw immorality of mass murder.

Nobuo Hayashi (Twitter: @forestinnorway)