Thank God for Consistent Moral Theologians Like Fr. Ford

John Herreid at Ignatius sends this along:

An excerpt from Russell Shaw’s book “American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America”:

As they’d done in every other American war, U.S. Catholics in large numbers fought in World War II. The Church vigorously supported the war effort. The habits of hyper-patriotism, combined with a more general Catholic tendency in the direction of uncritical support of political authority, may help account for the fact that Catholics, like Americans generally, raised no objections to the use of atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

True, a friend recalls being told by a nun who was a parochial schoolteacher at the time that she and other teachers received a written communication from the pastor telling them they were welcome to tell their students that deliberately bombing civilians was wrong. But this seems to be the exception. Certainly there was no general Catholic outcry against the use of the bomb. On the contrary, my reaction as a ten-year-old Catholic—that the “Japs” had picked this fight at Pearl Harbor and deserved whatever they got, and besides, the new weapon had saved many American lives by bringing the war to a speedy close—probably mirrored that of most of the Catholic adults around me.

One of the few Catholics who protested was the leading American moral theologian of the day, John C. Ford, S.J. Father Ford is remembered now as a leader of the minority on the papal birth control commission who supported the Church’s constant teaching on contraception before Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae vitae” of 1968. But that was to come later. In 1944, in the journal “Theological Studies”, Ford published a 49-page article arguing against the killing of the innocent by the obliteration bombing of cities that was then being carried out by the American and British air forces. A year later, in his “Notes on Moral Theology” in the same journal, after having acknowledged the atrocities committed by the Soviets, the Nazis, and the Japanese, he nevertheless spoke of “the greatest and most extensive single atrocity of all this period, our atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki”.

The words were widely noted in theological circles, but they didn’t reach me or most other American Catholics at the time. Even now, it appears they haven’t reached many.

From Russell Shaw’s book “American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America”.

Available in softcover and e-book

It’s striking to me that Fr. Ford would say this after having discussed Nazi atrocities. I suspect it’s due to the fact that, in 1945, with the war just ended, the extent of the Holocaust was not yet widely known. I have a hard time believing that Hiroshima/Nagasaki, bad as they were, can be weighed as the “most extensive single atrocity” of the war once the deliberate mass murder of some 11 million innocents was widely documented. I wonder if he ever returned to the question later?

That said, given the state of knowledge as it stood when he said it, his argument makes plain that there were Catholic voices (voices that eventually prevailed at the Council) which recognized that mass murder–even done for the red, white, and blue–remains mass murder (which gives the lie the the “things were different back then” excuse). And, in a certain way, it can be argued that the fundamental consequentialism of the nuking of Hiroshima is the most deadly toxin still leaching poison into the American (and Western) experiment to date. After all, nobody but a few nuts argues that the Holocaust was just. Also, as reader Stu points out, the crimes of totalitarian regimes are ordered and organized without any input from the governed, but in a representative democracy, responsibility for the actions of the state is shared by the whole citizenry.

So 68 years later, no German looks back at the Holocaust and tries to justify it, but (as the comboxes right here on this blog make clear) lots of Americans argue that this act of mass murder was not merely not evil, but morally good. And aggregators like Pewsitter actively promote that view in the teeth of (and without any reference to) the Church’s clear and unequivocal teaching. Such consequentialism–that you may deliberately kill innocent human beings if they get in the way of what you want–is at the root of the abortion and euthanasia ethos.

Fulton Sheen saw that years ago.

When, I wonder, did we in America ever get into this idea that freedom means having no boundaries and no limits? You know I think it began on the 6th of August 1945 at 8:15 am when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. That blotted out boundaries. The boundary of America that was the aid of nations, and the nations that were helped. It blotted out the boundary between life and death for the victims of nuclear incineration. Among them even the living were dead. It blotted out the boundary between the civilian and the military. And somehow or other, from that day on in our American life, we say we want no limits and no boundaries.

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