Bishops wrestled with possibility of nuclear annihilation in pastoral letter

By Mark Pattison

Catholic News Service

Editor's note: Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the U.S. bishops' landmark pastoral letter "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response."

WASHINGTON (CNS) – Over the course of three years, the U.S. bishops not only wrestled with the specter of nuclear Armageddon in writing a pastoral letter, but how to convey that teaching effectively.

The result was the pastoral letter, "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response," which was approved overwhelmingly by the bishops in May 1983. Fewer than 10 bishops voted against it, according to retired Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton of Detroit, who had served on the five-bishop drafting committee.

"As Americans, citizens of the nation which was first to produce atomic weapons, which has been the only one to use them and which today is one of the handful of nations capable of decisively influencing the course of the nuclear age, we have grave human, moral and political responsibilities to see that a 'conscious choice' is made to save humanity," the document, colloquially known as the "peace pastoral," said in its introduction.

The pastoral acknowledged how tenuous peace was with nuclear weapons ready to be fired.

"We live today, therefore, in the midst of a cosmic drama; we possess a power which should never be used, but which might be used if we do not reverse our direction," it said. "We live with nuclear weapons knowing we cannot afford to make one serious mistake. This fact dramatizes the precariousness of our position, politically, morally and spiritually."

Still, it was unambiguous in its treatment of nuclear-weapon usage.

"Under no circumstances may nuclear weapons or other instruments of mass slaughter be used for the purpose of destroying population centers or other predominantly civilian targets," "The Challenge of Peace" said. "No Christian can rightfully carry out orders or policies deliberately aimed at killing noncombatants," it added.

Later, it proclaimed, "We do not perceive any situation in which the deliberate initiation of nuclear warfare, on however restricted a scale, can be morally justified. Non-nuclear attacks by another state must be resisted by other than nuclear means."

Despite this, the pastoral said, "we recognize the responsibility the United States has had and continues to have in assisting allied nations in their defense against either a conventional or a nuclear attack. Especially in the European theater, the deterrence of a nuclear attack may require nuclear weapons for a time, even though their possession and deployment must be subject to rigid restrictions."

"The Challenge of Peace" dwelt further on the concept of nuclear deterrence: "One of the criteria of the just-war tradition is a reasonable hope of success in bringing about justice and peace. We must ask whether such a reasonable hope can exist once nuclear weapons have been exchanged. The burden of proof remains on those who assert that meaningful limitation is possible."