This week, in continuing our series on American Church History, we are jumping forward a bit into the twentieth century. Today’s blog focuses on the National Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1983 which published a pastoral letter entitled “The Challenge of Peace.” The conference’s focus was on the ramping up of nuclear arms between the USA and the USSR in the early 1980s, as well as the rhetoric surrounding a strategy of nuclear deterrence. The idea, for President Ronald Reagan, was that the USA should stockpile advanced nuclear weaponry in order to keep the peace. Such an increase in production of catastrophic weaponry led many people to decry the policy, including the aforementioned Catholic conference (Paul Harvey and Philip Goff, eds. The Columbia Documentary History of Religion in America Since 1945, 60-61). “The Challenge of Peace” was what the conference penned in response to such political actions, and this letter will be the focus of today’s blog.
The letter states, “In the nuclear arsenals of the United States or the Soviet Union alone, there exists a capacity to do something no other age could imagine: we can threaten the entire planet. For people of faith this means we read the Book of Genesis with a new awareness” (“Challenge of Peace,” 123). The notion that the destructive power of human-produced weapons should make us look differently at Genesis carries with it a sense of foreboding. If people can annihilate vast numbers of humans and other lifeforms in a huge area with one single bomb, think at what that has to say about humanity’s relationship with God in the creation narrative. These bishops continued, “Today the destructive potential of the nuclear powers threatens the human person, the civilization we have slowly constructed, and even the created order itself” (123).
The destruction seen at Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II showed everyone the power of nuclear bombs and their catastrophic impact. Many Catholic voices dissented soon after, such as Dorothy Day. Many of them saw civilized humanity as taking a huge step backwards with the killing of so many men, women, and children who had nothing to do with the War. The Conference we are discussing responds to Reagan’s new nuclear arms race with much of this anti-nuke tradition in the background, as the letter mentions (127). The letter, however, notes that simply advocating for disarmament is complex. It states, “It much less clear how we translate a ‘no’ to nuclear war into the personal and public choices which can move us in a new direction, toward a national policy and an international system which more adequately reflect the values and vision of the Kingdom of God” (134).
While imposing a foreign policy that “reflects the values and vision of the kingdom of God” would not really be acceptable today, the Bishops do note how simply having the biggest muscles (or the most bombs) isn’t necessarily the best way to operate. The policy of nuclear deterrence is that one has to basically point the bombs at one’s enemies; in the historical case to which we are referring, the USA has to point the bombs at the USSR with the finger on the button. The goal is of course to never use the weapons themselves but to scare the enemy into thinking that you are about to. The problem arises when one’s enemies calls one’s bluff. What happens if they say, “Go ahead. We know you won’t do it.” At that point, you either have to fire the weapons, or you have to come up with an entirely new strategy. All the while, your enemies might be preparing to attack you or to fire similar weapons at you.
One final passage from “The Challenge of Peace” describes this very issue. “The need to rethink the deterrence policy of our nation… also will require, we believe, the willingness to open ourselves to the providential care, power, and Word of God, which call us to recognize our common humanity and the bonds of mutual responsibility which exist in the international community in spite of political differences and nuclear arsenals” (196).
If you ask me, this is the most groundbreaking, novel concept within the letter. Again, utilizing one’s understanding of the Kingdom of God or “opening ourselves to the providential care, power, and Word of God” would simply not work in today’s United States. You can’t mix government and religion like that. However, the aspect which I think has the strongest impact on the letter’s historical context, as well as our own today, is that there is a “common humanity and bonds of mutual responsibility in the international community.” I think one of the problems today is that we look at other countries, and the people who inhabit them, as somehow less than ourselves. The USA has plenty of enemies, but what could possibly set it apart from many other countries is a new attitude that looks at the humanity of even our enemies and the employment of a “mutual responsibility” toward them.
I don’t want to venture to far into the realm of politics or political theory here (I would be way out of my depth), but crafting a foreign policy that looks at other countries, including our enemies as fellow human citizens could go a long way to subverting other conflicts. What the National Conference of Catholic Bishops had to say to the USA in the early 1980s is powerful. They went completely against the government’s position of nuclear deterrence with a very public stance. They showed strong faith commitments and a willingness to speak up for God’s kingdom. Although this happened over thirty years ago, their views on peace and focusing on the humanity of others might still ring true today.
What are you thoughts on nuclear deterrence? What about the Bishops’ response? Is today’s geopolitical stage too advanced for such a document? Has ISIS changed the game, or can we still look for humanity in our enemies?