Nuclear Weapons and Moral Questions: The Path to Zero
Archbishop Edwin Frederick O’Brien
Archbishop of Baltimore, Maryland
Symposium hosted by the U.S. Strategic Command, July 29, 2009
It is an honor and pleasure for me to offer some modest reflections on “Nuclear
Weapons and Moral Questions: The Path to Zero.” I am grateful to General Kevin
Chilton and the U.S. Strategic Command for hosting this first annual Deterrence
Symposium and for inviting me to be part of this impressive gathering.
I have been asked to speak at the end of what has been a long day for many of
you. Believing in a merciful God, I will try to keep my reflections to a
Since this is a dinner speech, starting with a joke is a basic expectation, but
I should warn you that archbishops are rarely funny. But here goes.
A soldier, a marine, a sailor and an airman went on a hike. The path wound
higher and higher up a mountain. From time to time they stopped to admire the
view from the ledge of one of the many sheer cliffs along the way.
As the day wore on toward evening, they got into dispute about which of the
armed services best served God and country. The argument got so heated that the
four of them got into a brawl and their fight carried them over a cliff to their
The four servicemen found themselves in front of St. Peter at the pearly gates
of Heaven. With their dispute still unresolved, they asked St. Peter: “Which
service branch best serves our country?”
St. Peter replied, “I can't answer that.” But just then a dove landed on St.
Peter's shoulder with a note in its beak. St. Peter opened the note and read it
to the four service men:
“Gentlemen: All the branches of the military services are honorable and
courageous. Each serves your country well. Be proud of that.
P.S. Semper Fi.”
My apologies to the Army, the Navy and the Air Force.
One of the great joys of my years as a priest has been my ministry with the U.S.
military. Shortly after my ordination in the mid-sixties, I served as a civilian
chaplain at West Point. In the early seventies, I was an Army Chaplain and did a
tour in Vietnam. For a decade, I had the honor of serving both the Church and
the entire military family as the Archbishop for the Military Services before
Pope Benedict XVI appointed me to serve as the Archbishop of Baltimore two years
My service as a chaplain has enriched my life and ministry. I have personally
witnessed the skill, courage, and dedication of so many who serve our nation in
all branches of the military. Theirs is a noble calling—to protect our nation
and to defend peace. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of
the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably,
they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of
I wish to recognize and thank the military leaders in this room tonight. You
have sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution and to carry out the military
policies of our nation, including the awesome responsibilities that come with
nuclear weapons. Your participation in this Symposium is a sign of your
commitment to explore and assess the broader dimensions and moral implications
of these policies, and to place your experience at the service of policy makers
and analysts as they work to evaluate and improve nuclear weapons policy. It is
good to have this opportunity to meet with you face to face as we work through
complex questions of nuclear policy.
My task tonight is to reflect on the moral questions that face our nation and
world as we seek to build lasting peace in the shadow of nuclear weapons with
all their massive destructive potential. I have been asked to offer more
challenge than comfort. This is not an easy role for me. Within our Bishops’
Conference I am often a defender of the proper role of military action and a
skeptic of easy and naïve hopes. I know our world remains a dangerous place. I
have been on battlefields. I know the moral struggles that come with battlefield
decisions. But I also have great respect for military institutions and for the
men and women who serve in them. In this talk I will offer hard questions and
directions, not easy answers. I bring the voice of a pastor and teacher, not an
expert analyst or policy maker.
My reflections come out of the Catholic moral tradition, but many of the values
and concerns that grow out of our faith tradition are shared by people of many
religions and no religion at all. As the late Pope John Paul II stated when he
addressed the United Nations on nuclear weapons over twenty-five years ago, the
Catholic Church strives to echo the “moral conscience of humanity, a conscience
illumined and guided by Christian faith, …but which is … nonetheless profoundly
human” and “shared by all men and women of sincerity and good will.”
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the fifth commandment could not be more clear: “You
shall not kill.” In Catholic teaching human life is sacred because every human
being is created in the image and likeness of God. For this reason, our Church
works consistently and persistently to defend the life and dignity of all: the
unborn, the poor at home and abroad, the immigrant, and persons in every age and
condition of life. Our Catechism teaches: “God alone is the Lord of life from
its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself
the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.”
In order to protect human life and dignity and to set moral limits on the use of
force, a tradition of teaching on what is a “just war” has developed and
continues to evolve in the Catholic Church. It is a teaching whose principles
are widely discussed, debated and employed and which reverberates in other
religious and moral traditions.
It must be said at the outset that our Church supports building international
agreements and structures that will make war ever less likely as a means of
resolving disputes between nations and peoples. Ultimately we must work for a
world without war. In the powerful and haunting words of Pope Paul VI to the
United Nations that were repeated often by Pope John Paul II, "No more war, war
never again!" The international community must seek ways to make war a relic of
humanity’s past if humanity is to have a future worthy of human dignity. As Pope
Benedict XVI has taught: “War always represents a failure for the international
community and a grave loss for humanity.”
But in this fallen and often dangerous world, at this point in human history,
the traditional principles that guide the just use of force can, and should,
inform moral assessments of all aspects of war, especially policies on nuclear
weapons and deterrence. Of the principles that apply to war of any kind, some
that are most directly applicable to questions of nuclear policy are:
The use of force must be a last resort. We have a prior obligation to avoid war
if at all possible.
The use of force must be discriminate. Civilians and civilian facilities may
not be the object of direct, intentional attack and care must be taken to avoid
and minimize indirect harm to civilians.
The use of force must be proportionate. The overall destruction must not
outweigh the good to be achieved.
And there must be a probability of success.
Popes of the modern era have applied this moral tradition to nuclear weapons
and deterrence policy for decades in formal teaching and in papal addresses to
the United Nations. The Holy See, in its capacity as a Permanent Observer to the
United Nations, has addressed these questions in a particular way through
ratification of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and active participation in
the Treaty’s review conferences over the past four decades.
For our part, the Catholic bishops of the United States have examined U.S.
nuclear policy in light of our moral tradition, most notably in our pastoral
letters of 1983, The Challenge of Peace, and 1993, The Harvest of Justice is
Sown in Peace, as well as in numerous public statements and ongoing dialogue
with public officials to this very day.
Nuclear war-fighting is rejected in Church teaching because it cannot ensure
noncombatant immunity and the likely destruction and lingering radiation would
violate the principle of proportionality. Even the limited use of so-called
“mini-nukes” would likely lower the barrier to future uses and could lead to
indiscriminate and disproportionate harm. And there is the danger of escalation
to nuclear exchanges of cataclysmic proportions.
The real risks inherent in nuclear war make the probability of success elusive.
In his 2006 World Day of Peace Message, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “What can be
said … about those governments which count on nuclear arms as a means of
ensuring the security of their countries? Along with countless persons of good
will, one can state that this point of view is not only baneful but also
completely fallacious. In a nuclear war there would be no victors, only
Both the Holy See and our Bishops’ Conference have spoken about the strategy of
nuclear deterrence as an interim measure. As the U.S. bishops wrote in 1983:
“Deterrence is not an adequate strategy as a long-term basis for peace; it is a
transitional strategy justifiable only in conjunction with resolute
determination to pursue arms control and disarmament.”
In Catholic teaching, the task is not to make the world safer through the threat
of nuclear weapons, but rather to make the world safer from nuclear weapons
through mutual and verifiable nuclear disarmament. This will require both
bilateral and multilateral cooperation.
From a moral perspective it is important to judge actions from the perspective
of the end. The Greek word for end is telos. In the words of Pope John Paul II:
“[T]he moral life has an essential ‘teleological’ character, since it consists
in the deliberate ordering of human acts to God, the supreme good and ultimate
end (telos) of man.”
In Catholic moral teaching, the end does not justify the means, but the end can
and should inform the means. The moral end we seek ought to shape the means we
use. When it comes to issues of war and peace, and nuclear weapons and
deterrence, the end is the protection of the life and dignity of the human
person through defending the tranquility of order. Tranquillitas ordinis is
peace built on justice and charity.
So in this moral analysis of nuclear weapons and deterrence, let us start with
the end and work backwards. The moral end is clear: a world free of the threat
of nuclear weapons. This goal should guide our efforts. Every nuclear weapons
system and every nuclear weapons policy should be judged by the ultimate goal of
protecting human life and dignity and the related goal of ridding the world of
these weapons in mutually verifiable ways.
It will not be easy. Nuclear weapons can be dismantled, but both the human
knowledge and the technical capability to build weapons cannot be undone. A
world with zero nuclear weapons will need robust measures to monitor, enforce
and verify compliance. The path to zero will be long and treacherous. But
humanity must walk this path with both care and courage in order to build a
future free of the nuclear threat.
The goal is not new. For many decades the Catholic Church and numerous other
leaders and institutions of goodwill have supported a nuclear-weapons-free
world. In 1968 many nations of the world committed themselves to a vision of a
world without nuclear weapons and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty came into
being. Today only four sovereign states are not parties to the Treaty – India,
Israel, Pakistan and North Korea.
More than two decades ago, President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail
Gorbachev called for abolishing all nuclear weapons. In the past two years
Secretaries George Shultz, William Perry and Henry Kissinger and Senator Sam
Nunn have promoted a nuclear-free world. Abolishing nuclear weapons is not a
narrowly partisan or nationalistic issue; it is an issue of fundamental moral
values that should unite people across national and ideological boundaries.
It is worth noting that earlier this year President Barack Obama and President
Dmitry Medvedev committed “our two countries to achieving a nuclear free world.”
And just this month they signed a Joint Understanding to guide negotiations on
reducing strategic warheads and delivery vehicles and extending effective
verification measures before the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) expires
late this year. This is an important step down the road to nuclear disarmament.
Unlike the four servicemen hiking up the mountain, the nations of the world
cannot afford to allow themselves to get caught up in deadly competitions and
struggles. Our world and its leaders must stay focused on the destination of a
nuclear-weapons-free world and on the concrete steps that lead there. Especially
in a world with weapons of mass destruction, and at a time when some nations,
including regimes like North Korea and Iran, are reportedly seeking to build
such weapons, we must pursue a world in which fewer nuclear states have fewer
nuclear weapons. We should carefully assess every nuclear policy proposal in
light of its potential to help bring us closer to a world without nuclear
Seeking a Moral Path to Zero
As we look down a moral path to zero we can see some signposts along the way.
But before we do, it is essential to note the limits of the Church’s
responsibility and competence. Bishops and other moral teachers are on much
firmer ground when they articulate moral principles drawn from faith and reason
and less so when applying these principles to particular policy choices. These
more concrete judgments involve both political and technical realities that
people of goodwill may evaluate differently. It is especially important to
recognize the expertise, experience and judgment of leaders like those gathered
in this room tonight when moral principles are applied to concrete situations
fraught with competing and complex choices.
As the bishops wrote in The Challenge of Peace: “When making applications of
these principles ... prudential judgments are involved based on specific
circumstances which can change or which can be interpreted differently by people
of good will…. However, the moral judgments that we make in specific cases,
while not binding in conscience, are to be given serious attention and
consideration by Catholics as they determine whether their moral judgments are
consistent with the Gospel.”
The first signpost along the path to zero is the nature and direction of the
policy of deterrence itself. The Second Vatican Council addressed the limits of
deterrence in 1965. The Council argued that deterrence is only able to produce
“peace of a sort.” Peace is more than the absence of war; it is built
painstakingly on the foundation of justice and human rights. Tragically the vast
resources devoted to acquiring “ever new weapons” can rob nations of the
resources needed to address the causes of human suffering and conflict. In the
words of the Council Fathers, “The arms race is an utterly treacherous trap for
humanity, and one which ensnares the poor to an intolerable degree.”
Pope John Paul II spoke about nuclear deterrence at the United Nations in 1982.
He said: “In current conditions ‘deterrence’ based on balance, certainly not as
an end in itself but as a step on the way to progressive disarmament, may still
be judged morally acceptable.” In other words, deterrence only has moral meaning
in light of the goal of deterring the use of nuclear weapons as we work for a
world without nuclear weapons.
This moral assessment was applied by the Catholic bishops of our nation to U.S.
nuclear policy in 1983. They reiterated that deterrence is not “an end in
itself” and must lead to progressive disarmament. Over twenty-five years ago
they wrote: “What previously had been defined as a safe and stable system of
deterrence is today viewed with political and moral skepticism.” In 2009, it is
even clearer that nuclear deterrence cannot be “the long-term basis for peace.”
The weakening of the non-proliferation regime, which has contributed to the
spread of nuclear weapons and technology to other nations, and the threat of
nuclear terrorism, which cannot be deterred with nuclear weapons, point to the
need to move beyond nuclear deterrence as rapidly as possible.
In Catholic moral teaching the only morally legitimate purpose of nuclear
deterrence is to deter the use of nuclear weapons by others. This means that
“not all forms of deterrence are morally acceptable.” It is not morally
acceptable to aim for nuclear superiority instead of sufficiency. It is not
morally legitimate to develop new nuclear weapons for new missions such as to
counter non-nuclear threats or to make them smaller and more “usable” as “bunker
busters.” Why? Because these policies and actions lead us further away from the
goal of a world without nuclear weapons. They lead us toward a world more likely
to rely on nuclear weapons for security.
In identifying other signposts along the road ahead let me draw from the Holy
See’s May 2009 statement to the Preparatory Committee for the 2010 Review
Conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. There are a number of
morally significant signposts for our nation as it walks with the international
community along the path to zero.
The Holy See argues that entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
would demonstrate that nations are serious about their commitment to a
nuclear-weapons-free world. For us in the United States, this means that public
opinion makers, including religious leaders, should help build public dialogue
and support for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. And leaders
of both political parties should build a strong bipartisan consensus to support
the Treaty as an important step on the road to zero.
The Holy See supports negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty to
prohibit the further production of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. The
United States should provide robust leadership for negotiations on this Treaty.
A world moving to rid itself of nuclear weapons is a world that stops producing
weapons-grade materials and secures those stockpiles that exist.
The Vatican also advocated for the revision of the military doctrines of nuclear
weapon states. The Congressionally mandated Nuclear Posture Review provides an
opportunity for the United States to move toward reducing its reliance on
nuclear weapons. To build international confidence in our nation’s commitment to
working for a world without nuclear weapons, our nation should renounce the
first use of nuclear weapons, declare that they will not be used against
non-nuclear threats, and confine our nation’s nuclear doctrine to deterring the
use of nuclear weapons by others. These actions will strengthen the moral
credibility of our nation as we seek to persuade other nations to forego
development of weapons of mass destruction.
The Holy See supports placing the peaceful use of nuclear energy under the
“strict control of the International Atomic Energy Agency” (IAEA) and
strengthening the capacity of the Agency to monitor non-proliferation and
develop “common solutions and international structures for the production of
nuclear fuel” to ensure safety, security and fair access for all nations.
Our nation could exercise its global leadership, in partnership with other
leading nations, to strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency, both to
enhance adherence to non-proliferation and to ensure a safe, reliable and
available source of fuel for peaceful nuclear power in nations throughout the
world. It is critically important that the United States work with the
international community to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by
non-nuclear states and to prevent the transfer of weapons and nuclear materials
to terrorists and other non-state actors.
The Holy See affirmed both national policies and bilateral agreements to reduce
nuclear weapons. With the expiration of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty
(START) looming in December of this year, our nation should negotiate a new
Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that includes deeper, irreversible cuts in
nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles, and extends and strengthens verification
procedures. The recent discussions between President Obama and President
Medvedev are encouraging in this regard.
The United States and the Russian Federation can also use this opportunity to
work toward taking weapons off immediately available alert status. Any morally
justifiable form of deterrence can be achieved at dramatically lower levels of
risk by transforming operational practices as some other nuclear powers have
Finally, the United States, responding to the prompting of the Holy See and
others, could use its important role in many regions of the world to encourage
creation of nuclear-weapons-free zones to build “trust and confidence” as
interim steps on the path to a world without nuclear weapons.
A Difficult, but Hopeful Path
A difficult road lies ahead. It is essential to translate the goal of a world
without nuclear weapons from an idealistic dream or pious hope, to a genuine
policy objective to be achieved carefully over time, but not postponed
indefinitely. The horizon for a nuclear-free world should not recede too far
into the future. If it does, the goal risks losing moral urgency and relevance.
Now some will argue that a world without nuclear weapons is a dangerous, utopian
dream. They will assert that it can never be. They raise valid questions about
the new risks that might arise as the world moves toward zero. Will moving
toward zero increase the strategic value of even a small number of nuclear
weapons and make it harder to stop proliferation? Will there be an incentive to
move to counter-population deterrence, despite moral objections, because there
are insufficient numbers for counterforce deterrence? These questions deserve
creative and concrete solutions—solutions that can only be crafted by committed
policy makers, experts and scientists.
Religious leaders, prominent officials, and other people of goodwill who support
a nuclear-weapons-free world are not naïve about the task ahead. They know the
path will be difficult and will require determined political leadership, strong
public support, and the dedicated skills of many capable leaders and technical
experts. But difficult is not impossible.
We take up this task mindful of the fears of nuclear war, but ultimately we are
driven by hope for a better future for humanity. Pope Benedict dedicated his
second encyclical to hope. He wrote: “All serious and upright human conduct is
hope in action. ... Only the great certitude of hope that my own life and
history in general, despite all failures, are held firm by the indestructible
power of Love, and that this gives them their meaning and importance, only this
kind of hope can then give the courage to act and to persevere.” And when the
stakes are so high and the consequences of failure so great, persevere we must.
And so when we get to the telos of our lives, the ultimate end and purpose of
our lives, symbolized in my opening story at the “pearly gates of heaven,” we
will not ask Saint Peter: “Was our branch of service the best? Was our nation
the greatest?” But rather Saint Peter will ask us, “Did you do all you could to
protect the lives and dignity of all of God’s children?” With the help of God
and the hard work of those in this room tonight, my hope is that on the question
of the threat of nuclear weapons, we will be able to answer, “Yes.”
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