The ethical challenge of nuclear disarmament: formation of personal and social conscience

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Margie Pfeil, Department of Theology and the Center for Social Concerns, January 10, 2018.

On Nov. 8-10, 2017, I had the great privilege of attending a conference hosted at the Vatican on the topic of nuclear disarmament, thanks to the generous support of the Theology Department and at the invitation of Jerry Powers of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where I am a Fellow. This gathering of scholars, activists, Nobel laureates, and ecclesial leaders was marked by many insightful contributions, not least from Pope Francis, who issued a statement condemning not only the use but also the possession of nuclear weapons.

His position carries many implications, and one emerges clearly for consideration: What work is needed, ethically and theologically, to help form the consciences of the U.S. people around the possession and use of nuclear weapons? The U.S. possesses the most nuclear warheads of any nation in the world (6,800) after Russia (7,000), and it remains the only nation to have used nuclear weapons in warfare. Yet there is shockingly little public awareness of corresponding responsibilities, making the current tensions between the Trump administration and the government of North Korea all the more dangerous.

What is the U.S. population to make of Pope Francis’ condemnation of the possession of nuclear weapons? How might each person reason morally about the degree of his or her own complicity? I think of military personnel currently stationed in missile silos, on submarines, or at airfields, ready to receive orders to launch nuclear weapons. I think of those working in munitions factories, or in the myriad manufacturing facilities assigned to make some small but essential part of nuclear warheads under the auspices of the U.S. government’s “nuclear maintenance and modernization” effort. I think of those charged with the disposal of nuclear waste from both nuclear weapons and energy production. Most often, indigenous peoples and their lands have born the actual human and environmental costs of nuclear testing and waste disposal. The U.S. government has yet to identify a safe, viable solution to store waste that will remain highly toxic for generations to come (cf. Stephen Schwartz, ed., Atomic Audit).

I think of the taxpayers who, perhaps unwittingly, continue to finance the research, development and assembly of nuclear weapons at tremendous socio-economic and environmental cost. “An analysis by the Arms Control Association of U.S. government budget data projects the total cost [of U.S. nuclear forces] over the next 30 years at between $1.25 trillion and $1.46 trillion in then-year dollars, meaning it includes price increases due to inflation” (ACA, “U.S. Nuclear Modernization Programs,” August 2017).

Through the tentacles of transnational corporations, the nuclear weapons industry is spread throughout the U.S. and across the globe, by design. Every taxpayer and likely most with 401(k) investments are complicit in some way, but few of us have ever been invited to form our consciences sufficiently to realize the fact of our involvement and its moral implications.

After the Pope delivered his statement, I asked a U.S. bishop in attendance whether he might raise the need for more vigorous conscience formation regarding nuclear weapons with the other U.S. bishops at their upcoming November meeting. He looked at me sadly and indicated that while he would personally support that idea, it would not be well received among the body of bishops as a whole. Nevertheless, he encouraged me to develop a resource for pastoral use in formation of conscience around nuclear weapons, which I intend to do.

I was reminded of Dorothy Day’s reflection about her interaction with Bishop (later Cardinal) McIntyre. As she advocated for Catholic conscientious objectors during World War II, appealing to Scripture and the patristics, he said that he and the other bishops were never taught about conscientious objection in the seminary. He encouraged her along, saying that she and other lay people could push ahead and “make the mistakes,” and that would open the way for the bishops to follow. As the crucible of World War II revealed, the American Catholic hierarchy was generally under-equipped and unwilling to support her claim that pacifism was an appropriate and theologically valid option for the faithful.

I believe the U.S. Catholic Church is still facing that same challenge, only in more insidious fashion. Gone are the witnesses of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, who advocated tax resistance against nuclear weapons development, and Bishop Leroy Matthiesen, who urged people in his diocese to stop working at the Pantex factory in nuclear weapons assembly in Amarillo, Texas as a matter of conscience.

The military industrial complex about which President Eisenhower raised alarm in his 1961 Farewell Address has only become more enmeshed with the everyday lives of U.S. Americans. It has numbed consciences, personal and social, and fostered a false consciousness in which “national security” is used as a sort of hypnotic suggestive trigger to advance an “anything goes” approach to generating profit by way of war-making and preparations for war.

At the Vatican nuclear disarmament conference, Nobel laureate Jody Williams, who led a worldwide movement to ban landmines, contested the term “national security.” Whenever someone uses that phrase, she challenges the person to define its meaning. I could not help but think of Dorothy Day as she spoke. This is exactly the sort of consciousness-raising needed now.

As Dorothy insisted, and as both Popes Benedict XVI and Francis have affirmed (cf. 2017 World Day of Peace Message), Gospel nonviolence is not merely a strategic move but a way of life, a way of being in the world. Thomas Merton wrote about conditions for honesty in the practice of nonviolence, and they all begin from contemplative awareness of one’s own interior predispositions toward violent thoughts and actions. They begin with being honest in my desire to follow Jesus, knowing that it is not possible but for God’s grace and humble, willing surrender to the love of God’s Spirit within and without.

So, I think our work ethically and pastorally in the Catholic Church will need to begin interiorly, and it involves helping to cultivate “weapons of the Spirit” among God’s people. We need to develop pastoral resources for formation of conscience at the parish level to form people in nonviolence as a way of life and to address specific and urgent signs of the times, like nuclear weapons.

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