Reader John Herried writes …

Welp, we’re likely to be treated to the annual round of defenses of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Interesting factoid I found out last year when reading Russell Shaw’s book American Church was that the leading American theologian condemning the bombings was also influential in defending the Church’s position on artificial birth control.

An excerpt from the book:

One of the few Catholics who protested [the atomic bombing] 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.

There is a prolife culture that is actually prolife: that consistently defends the proposition that human life is sacred from conception to natural death.  But a lot of “prolife” culture is merely anti-abortion (and even the prohibition on abortion only holds till the child to be murdered lives in a place deemed worthy of murder, such as Hiroshima, or in the womb of somebody Dirty Harry decides is unfit to live (yes, I know she lied, but he didn’t know that when he murdered her)).  Today is a major feast day of that subculture, so we can expect the rationalizations for that act of mass murder, just as we are seeing the rationalizations for crimes against children in Gaza and on the border right now. There’s always a good reason for killing children who get in the way of the plans of the powerful–even among many who call themselves “prolife”.  And when the human life is deemed guilty?  Lots of “prolife” people have no conception of the sanctity of *that* human life at all.  War, torture, and the death penalty are eagerly supported in large percentages by “prolife” people.

Here’s the disconnect:  The Church’s preferential option for life asks “How can we minimize harm and killing as much as possible even in the case of guilty human life?”  Jesus, after all, came to save not merely babies, but everybody. But our culture, including anti-abortion-but-not-prolife culture, asks “When do we *get* to harm and kill human life?” and strains at the leash, not to save as many as possible but to justify even the murder of babies as much as possible (for a worthy cause, of course).  Both Planned Parenthood and the people screaming at busses full of kids and demanding they be sent back to murderous narco-states or cheering for the bombs raining on Gaza or Hiroshima have their arguments for why the harm and murder of these children, sad though it is, constitute acceptable losses.

Jesus, in contrast, says, “It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”  It is imperative that we internalize that and stop thinking with the world.

A couple more quotes:

“If anyone were to declare that modern war is necessarily total, and necessarily involves direct attack on the life of innocent civilians, and, therefore, that obliteration bombing is justified, my reply would be: So much the worse for modern war. If it necessarily includes such means, it is necessarily immoral itself.”…/Ford-Morality-of-Obliteration…


“we must begin asking ourselves whether as things stand, with new weapons that cause destruction that goes well beyond the groups involved in the fight, it is still licit to allow that a ‘just war’ might exist.” –  Pope Benedict XVI

The world’s response to the possibility that a war might simply have no good guys and be impossible to fight justly is typically to spout something about “realism” and then get on with the work of murder for the Greater Good.  Another term for Murder for the Greater Good is “Murder”.  And murder will send you to hell, particularly if you spout rubbish about your great “courage” in being willing to murder for the Greater Good.  Jesus, in contrast, offers the terrifying and breathtaking alternative of preferring martyrdom to committing sin:

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. 5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him!  (Lk 12:4–6).

It’s not a popular alternative.  But it remains a possible one–and might become a necessary one if we find ourselves faced with a choice of saving our skins or sinning against Almighty God to save them.

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  • Mark S. (not for Shea)

    Well said on all counts. You put on that Ring, and you will become Sauron, all good intentions aside.

  • freddy

    Thank you for this. Today in the old calendar it is the feast of the Transfiguration. Fitting, I think; do we follow the Light of Christ, or the lurid glare of the world? God bless you!

    • HornOrSilk

      Indeed. Nagasaki was just another attempt of man trying for self-theosis, with the typical destruction this brings.

  • KM

    “…just as we are seeing the rationalizations for crimes against children in Gaza and on the border right now.”

    Thank you for drawing this connection, which I’ve noticed too. The hatefest on the poor, homeless, and innocent victims of war has been troubling me very much lately. Some of the rhetoric (not here but documented elsewhere on the internet) has been fascistic in its glee for getting rid of various undesirables in the world.

    Kyrie Eleison.

  • Dave G.

    And yet how have I personally treated those who God sends into my life? It seems that is a testimony to how sacred I think life is. An old event that doesn’t really impact me? I think the answer to the first that tells as much if not more.

  • jeanvaljean24601

    Back in high school circa 1965, I once suggested that the firebombing of Dresden had left the US with no moral superiority to speak of. Naturally, only a score of years after the end of WW2, that did not sit well. Not to mention the other sundry immolations done by the Allies.

    For Hiroshima, we might claim we really didn’t know how bad it would be. It was only one bomb. But we can not claim that for Dresden. It took lots of planning and lots of planes to achieve that.

    • Dave G.

      Dresden was a disaster on many fronts. Nonetheless, for many, the word “Dresden” is what the word “Inquisition” is for others. Something used to undermine the moral authority of something or someone. In both cases, the truth is more complex (and sometimes, more chilling) than the words themselves suggest. For me, as a Catholic, I’m hesitant to attribute moral authority to wrong, or even bad, decisions. For me, it’s a lesson about getting swept up with the latest thinking and latest world views that brought us to the industrialized wars of the 20th century. Words of caution to be sure.

      • jeanvaljean24601


        In the XXth Century, killing took on industrial strength size and solutions. All sides did it. And the few individuals who abstained or opposed the destruction of life do not absolve the rest of us. Isaiah’s cry, “I am a man of unclean lips, of a people of unclean lips,” strikes home.

        There are (I am told) “Just Wars”, but even in them, unjust things happen. It is so very easy to point finger and feel smug, but does merely living in a society wherein evil things happen lead to guilt whether or not the evil is opposed/protested/exposed? It certainly will not make you popular with your neighbors when smoke is in the wind.

        On the other hand, Catholics have never been very popular in the US, so one may as well make the most of antipathy. Or would THAT lead to a self-righteous “martyr complex”? (Doggone it, wouldn’t it be so much easier if God had less complicated problems for us to resolve?)

        • Dave G.

          I think Just Wars can happen unless we feel that it’s only just if nothing unjust happens. From the beginning, the Church struggled with looking toward the ideal, and living in a world of the real. Right now, it looks as if that tension is being rethought. Which isn’t easy. Because it’s more than just war and death of course. The Church also conceded that, despite the early church’s experience in Acts, we can’t expect Christians to give everything to each other to make sure nobody wants. I’m not sure we’re ready to change that. And therefore, we’re stuck with the Church conceding the ‘real’ over the ideal. At least in that department. Though with Pope Francis, I’m not sure he is. I’m waiting to hear more on that front, and that could determine how we’re prepared to say no more real, there’s only the ideal.

  • Vicq Ruiz

    Ford’s article is interesting and well reasoned.

    However, he wimps out when he decides it’s acceptable to grant absolution to the bombardiers who push the buttons.

    Let the Church decide to deny the sacraments to any of its flock who are involved in war crimes, from the lowliest private to the C-in-C, and then you’ll see this teaching taken seriously.

    • Josh

      A new unforgivable sin. Bold suggestion. By extension, all we need to do to end all perennial problems is just have priests stop hearing confessions. No possible absolution, no sin. Easy peasy.