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Posted April 29, 2010

The Ethics of the Obama Administration’s Nuclear Weapons Policy: Catholic Perspectives

Eugene Hemrick

“Are you going to the conference on the ethics of nuclear weapons being held at our Catholic U.,” I asked?

“I didn’t know there was a conference,” was the reply. “I do know, however, that any discussion on this topic is far more important than the discussions we are having on the economy, global warming, and other so-called significant issues making the news,” was the follow-up observation.

In this conversation with a parishioner, who also teaches at Catholic U., we talked about the devastation created by the Iceland volcano and how this pales in comparison to the destruction a nuclear war would create.

The Conference on Nuclear Weapons Policy was sponsored by Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies and United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The panelists addressing the issue included: Archbishop Edwin Frederick O’Brien, Former Head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, Dr. Rose Gottemoeller, Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance & Implementation, Dr. Maryann Cusimano Love, Professor in the Department of Politics and Fellow of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Gen. William Burns, Professor at the Army War College in Carlisle, PA, former US arms negotiator and leader in the Global Zero movement, and Dr. William Barbieri, an Associate of The Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.

What were the principal issues that were discussed by these panelists, and what are their implications for us?

1. First, it is a moral imperative to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Here we might ask, “What do we mean by a moral imperative?”

Turning to Emmanuel Kant, we learn that moral principles are categorical imperatives, absolute commands of reason that permit no exceptions and are not related to pleasure or practical benefit. Kant argued that human beings should act as members of an ideal “kingdom of ends” in which every person is treated as an end in himself or herself, and never as a means to someone else’s ends. In addition, everyone should govern their conduct as if their actions were to be made law—a law that applies equally to all without exception. Kant thereby postulated a freedom of action based on moral order and equality. In his religious teachings he emphasized individual conscience and represented God primarily as a moral ideal.

Simply put, a moral imperative gives us no choice but to follow its command. It is not what we feel should or should not be, it is a truth that must be followed. Ridding the world of nuclear weapons is a moral obligation based on right and wrong: increasing nuclear weapons is wrong, ridding them is right, and therefore, a moral imperative.

2. The guiding principle for dealing with the nuclear weapons issue is the Greek word for end, as in means to an end. When a nuclear weapon is created, what is its end? Is it to deter others from war? Is it to destroy anyone using nuclear weapons? Can the end for which nuclear weapons are created be justified?

3. This leads us to the issue of deterrence and to ask, is it morally ethical to speak of creating nuclear weapons as a means of deterring/scaring/frightening others from using them? Is deterrence a justifiable end in itself? The Church’s teaching on this question is unequivocal: deterrence must not be considered an end in itself. Rather, the end to be achieved in the nuclear weapons question must be the abolishment of nuclear arsenals.

The purpose of the New Start Treaty recently signed by Russia and the United States confirms this: to reduce nuclear weapons until they don’t exist anymore.

At the conference it was pointed out that nuclear weapons have been dramatically reduced, but are still at an unacceptable level. Its ultimate level should be zero.

4. At the Prague signing, President Obama pointed out the First Start Treaty is the beginning of a long process and that the world needs to move toward total disarmament “one step at a time.” The first step is for the Russian Government and our Government to ratify the treaty. Implied here is that these two nations, which possess the majority of nuclear weapons in the world, get their act together first.

5. One reason abolishing nuclear weapons is tedious is that we now must contend with other nations that are not friendly to us and the Western world, for example, North Korea and Iran. How to bring them into the aims of the First Start Treaty will be a long and trying effort. Another reason abolishment is a long process is that it requires setting up oversight panels that can verify the elimination of nuclear weapons.

It was pointed out that at the moment the U.S. is missing eleven nuclear weapons and has no idea where they are. Knowing exactly how many weapons are in existence is one of the major problems an oversight panel faces. Counting existing nuclear weapons is also a problem. How is one warhead that contains ten nuclear weapons counted?

As I pondered this, I couldn’t but think of the efforts we are now experiencing to control Wall Street better. A key issue is the construction of oversight committees that can control the way it does business. As we move toward total globalization, we are beginning to realize it can’t happen randomly, but needs restraints. Controls must be put in place to assure a safe and healthy future. It was pointed out that Pope John Paul II alerted us to the fact we have entered a post modern age in need of a new global authority, one in which there is a common morality and ethics.

Another issue that requires attention is the fact life is changing radically and all of global changes in one way or other are connected with the future of the nuclear age. As we have already seen, one nuclear accident can threaten the ecology of an entire nation and take years to once again normalize it.

Another wrinkle of our globalization age is open markets that are now selling highly enriched uranium to the highest bidders. Here again, there is a moral imperative to better police ourselves and to create new and more sophisticated controls.

6. The bishops of the U.S. have stated peacemaking is a requirement of our faith. Again we have a moral imperative. But how do we accomplish this? One way that was suggested is to adhere to the principle: controlling the nuclear age is not to be left to our governments only, it is everyone’s responsibility! And how is this achieved? By using modern means we now have to network, dialogue and learn from each other.

When I heard of the power of networking, I couldn’t but help remember the Tiananmen Square uprising and how the Internet stopped a potential slaughter of innocent protestors. Once the word got out globally, global pressure was created --- one of the greatest pressures we possess for stopping nuclear proliferation.

A final Reflection

Many years ago while bicycling through Germany, I came upon a priest in Uberlingen, resort area on Lake Bodensee, who had devoted the final years of his life to grappling with the pressing questions of the nuclear age. He had been a doctor and had been married. When his wife died he became a priest. What was most attractive about him was his intensity. He was a lifelong student who never stopped studying or writing about the consequences of a nuclear war. When discussing the topic, he became passionate, and would send me his articles on the subject.

Meetings like the above at Catholic University remind us we need to be lifelong students, perpetually studying and discussing our nuclear age, and especially the role our church plays in addressing it. It is spawning moral imperatives heretofore not imagined. When the imperatives are reduced to a common denominator, we come down to one question: what are the justifiable ends to which it must adhere? What is the ultimate truth of the matter?

At present, we live at a crossroads in which we can end life with an Armageddon, or we can end the nuclear arms race and be blessed peacemakers who are called children of God.