A new moral debate about nuclear weapons in the churches

A new moral debate about nuclear weapons in the churches

In 1977, at a time when as a result of the détente policies of the first half of the 1970ies public interest in nuclear weapons had faded away, the Dutch Interchurch Peace Council (IKV) launched a new campaign against nuclear weapons. Our main motive was not fear but shame. Although we did fear a worldwide nuclear holocaust or a so called ‘limited’ nuclear war, with Europe as the battlefield, we were convinced that the moral imperative came first. And we wanted to avoid a simplistic moralist approach that from the outset would distinguish between being ‘right or ‘wrong’: our moral appeal was to be an appeal to all humanity, ourselves in the first place. Why had we (humanity) allowed the threat of mass destruction to become the cornerstone of security in the world, including our own security? Our appeal started with confessing our shame about the degeneration of humanity through the system of ‘mutual assured destruction’, which was then – and essentially still is – the core of deterrence.

Thirty years later, in January 2007 in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, a new call for a world free of nuclear weapons came from a group of four U.S. security veterans, including Henry Kissinger. Their appeal was based on their political analysis of new security threats, esp. the dangers of further proliferation of nuclear weapons and of nuclear terrorism. They did not distance themselves from the Cold War policies we had opposed with so much conviction. Still, it was evident that also churches and ecumenical councils were challenged by this new call to renew or even redefine their earlier commitment to nuclear disarmament, including their moral stance.

Most church positions still date back from the Cold War. Their main basis was the moral conviction that, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons must never be used again. However, in the first decades after 1945 only few churches took the position of a full moral condemnation of nuclear deterrence as such. Most churches made a distinction between the use of nuclear weapons (which they rejected) and the possession of nuclear weapons (which they could accept in the deterrence role of preventing their use). This discussion received a new impulse in the 1980ies under the pressure of strong peace movements in Europe (incl. IKV), the U.S. and Canada, with unprecedented mass demonstrations against new rounds in the nuclear arms race.

In 1982, when the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops seemed to be moving towards a strong condemnation of deterrence, the Vatican stated that nuclear deterrence still might be judged as morally acceptable, “not as an end in itself but as a step towards a progressive disarmament.” (Pope John Paul II). For many years, this 1982 ‘interim ethics’ defined the moral limit of statements by national catholic bishops conferences.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) had condemned the use of nuclear weapons many times, also calling for their abolishment, but only in 1983, at its Assembly in Vancouver, it took the position of unequivocally rejecting nuclear deterrence as such as “morally unacceptable.” However, many of its member churches remained ambivalent and did not want to condemn nuclear deterrence in its role of preventing the use of nuclear weapons. Besides this argument itself, two important reasons were: a) a reluctance of churches to become part of the political polarization about nuclear weapons in the 1980ies, and b) a sense of pastoral responsibility to those church members serving in military or other functions who could be seen as part of the deterrence system. They might feel excluded from their church if this system was rejected as morally unacceptable.

However, other churches saw the moral condemnation of nuclear deterrence not as marking military and others as second rate church members. For instance, the Netherlands Reformed Church, which played a vanguard role in this peace ethics debate, stated that with its position against deterrence it sought communication with those who disagreed, not their excommunication.

Today, the political, legal and moral debate has entered into a new phase. The political call for ‘zero’ comes from former and current world leaders including the U.S. President. In the international community, support is growing for new legal instruments or using humanitarian law for prohibiting nuclear weapons. And while (as said) most current moral positions of churches still date from the Cold War, the new political dynamics and also presents a new moral challenge. How, today, can peace ethics help bringing ‘zero’ closer? What can the new WCC ‘Just Peace’ concept contribute to cooperation between historic peace churches and churches in the ‘just war’ tradition? How, given the close relation between ethics and law, can ‘raising the moral nuclear threshold’ contribute to strengthening international legal instruments for outlawing nuclear weapons?

Roman Catholic statements now emphasize that the ‘interim ethics’ of 1982 must be seen in the context of the Cold War. Therefore, the focus is now fully on the political and legal steps to be made. However, recent Vatican statements still contain contradictions in their moral view of nuclear deterrence, some calling nuclear weapons unlawful and deterrence no longer justifiable, others suggesting that some role of nuclear weapons in preventing their use may still be acceptable. Late July 2011, a large controversy developed in the U.S. about an ethics course of the U.S. Air Force, teaching officers that on the basis of Biblical texts and of the 16 centuries old Just War tradition launching nuclear weapons could be justified.

Ecumenical councils like the WCC actively participate in the new political debate, on the basis of their earlier unconditional moral rejection of nuclear deterrence. But they see little interest among member churches who during the Cold War were pushing them for taking this position.

And the largest protestant church in Europe, the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), remains ambivalent on nuclear deterrence in its new peace ethics document (on ‘Just Peace’, 2007). It says that it has now departed from its Cold War position of, though rejecting nuclear war, regarding the acceptance of deterrence as a position that was still possible for Christians. However, the new text first rejects threatening with nuclear weapons but then states that the consequences of this new moral position remain controversial: complete nuclear disarmament is one possible conclusion, but a second possible line of arguing is that deterring potential aggressors with nuclear weapons in a political role continues to be a valid principle.

All of this clearly points to the need for taking the moral debate seriously again. How can ethics help to further delegitimize nuclear deterrence? Is there still a place for the ‘interim ethics’ of the Cold War? How can the ‘just war’ tradition and the pacifist tradition join forces? What is the potential of new concepts in peace ethics such as ‘Just Peace’? Et cetera. Needless to say, a new moral debate will build on the debate where it was about a decade ago. Therefore, we offer two articles that can serve as a basis for renewing the debate in the churches about the ethics of nuclear deterrence.

1. An article by Laurens Hogebrink, published by IKV in 1999, about raising the ‘moral nuclear threshold’, in which he describes the development of the nuclear peace ethics in the Netherlands Reformed Church and the World Council of Churches until 1999.
2. A similar article by Ben Schennink about the developments in Roman Catholic teaching in the 1980ies and 1990ies.
For an annotated list of all recent statements by churches and ecumenical councils since 2007, with a focus on Europe and on the work of those ecumenical organizations with whom IKV Pax Christi closely collaborates, see ‘Statements on nuclear weapons by churches and ecumenical organizations since 2007’.

Laurens Hogebrink (IKV Pax Christi), 23 August 2011

The Roman Catholic Church and Nuclear Weapons

Raising the Moral Nuclear Threshold