A little more than halfway through their 1983 pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace, the U.S. bishops acknowledge voices calling on them “to raise a prophetic challenge to the community of faith—a challenge which goes beyond nuclear deterrence.” Those prophetic voices rejected the position, embraced at that time by most U.S. bishops and Pope John Paul II, that nuclear deterrence was an acceptable “interim ethic” so long as the ultimate goal was disarmament. One of these voices, Thomas Merton, claimed that “there is simply no ‘good end’ that renders risk [of nuclear war] permissible,” and questioned whether rationalizations for “wielding the threat of nuclear destruction” do not constitute cooperation in evil.
In recent years, leading voices in the Roman Catholic Church, not least Pope Francis himself, have begun to sound more like Merton than like the majority of the U.S. bishops in the 1980s. Prophetic indictment not only of the use but also of the very possession of nuclear weapons is no longer limited to the likes of Merton, the Berrigan brothers, and activist groups like Plowshares. Thus, in a 2017 address, Pope Francis commended the “prophetic voice” of the hibakusha, the survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and condemned the “very possession” of nuclear weapons. In his visit to Hiroshima in late November 2019, Francis extemporaneously reiterated that condemnation. Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego has claimed that the possession of nuclear weapons “is now condemned, regardless of the intention.” And the Jesuit just-war theorist and former America editor Drew Christiansen has argued in La Civiltà Cattolica that “we should cease to imagine nuclear weapons as tools for us to manage, but rather as a curse we must banish”—language that The Challenge of Peace reserved for the arms race, not nuclear weapons themselves.
Pope Francis’s November 2019 visit to Japan, which included stops in both Nagasaki and Hiroshima, brought attention to the Vatican’s renewed diplomacy on nuclear weapons. But one could argue that more attention now needs to be given to the question of how people who fervently wish for a world without nuclear weapons should go about working for it. As the moral theologian and Commonweal contributor Cathleen Kaveny explains in her book Prophecy without Contempt: Religious Discourse in the Public Square, prophets demand unambiguous compliance with unconditional moral imperatives. By contrast, what she calls deliberators allow that moral rules need to take into account complex circumstances, human weakness, ignorance, and sin. (See also her Commonweal column, “Bridge Burners,” December 2019.)