Indiscriminate Nuclear Destruction: Condemned by the Magisterium

Indiscriminate Nuclear Destruction: Condemned by the Magisterium December 4, 2017




Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man.

This citation appears in the CCC #2314, which in turn is citing Vatican II, Gaudium et spes: 80:3. The remark in that document was preceded by the following statement:

. . . the Council, endorsing the condemnation of total warfare issued by recent popes (3), declares [then the sentence in question occurs] . . .

Footnote 3 gives the further papal sources:

3. Cf. Pius XII, Allocution, 30 Sept. 1954: AAS 46 (1954), p. 589; Christmas Message 1954; AAS 47 (1955), pp. 15 ff.; John XXIII, Litt. Encycl. Pacem in Terris: AAS 55 (1963), pp. 286-291; Paul VI, Address to the United Nations, 4 Oct. 1965: AAS 57 (1965), pp. 877-885.

Where is the major Catholic figure who argues as Bomb proponents do?

Here’s what Pope St. John Paul II stated:


Lessons of Hiroshima, Nagasaki

Pope sees “crimes” in atomic bombing

As he greeted a new ambassador from Japan, Pope John Paul II said that Hiroshima and Nagasaki should stand as “symbols of peace” and should remind the world of “the crimes committed against civilian populations during World War II.”

Receiving the new ambassador, Toru Iwanami, on September 11 [1999], the Pontiff lamented that “true genocides” are “still being committed in several parts of the world” today. He expressed his regret that the “culture of peace is still far from being spread throughout the world.”

The Pope also invoked the 450th anniversary of the arrival of St. Francis Xavier in Japan, which is being celebrated this year. He said that the life of St. Francis should point to “the importance of spiritual freedom and religious liberty,” and he saluted “the attitude of tolerance” toward religion which now prevails in Japan.

(Catholic World Report, November 1999, vol. 9, No. 10)

Pope John Paul the Great again:

I do so especially by reason of the haunting memory of the atomic explosions which struck first Hiroshima and then Nagasaki in August 1945. They bear witness to the overwhelming horror and suffering caused by war: The final toll of that tragedy – as I recalled during my visit to Hiroshima – has not yet been entirely determined nor has its total cost in human terms yet been calculated, particularly when we consider what effect nuclear war has had and could still have on our thinking, our attitudes and our civilization. “To remember the past is to commit oneself to the future. To remember Hiroshima is to abhor nuclear war. To remember Hiroshima is to commit oneself to peace. To remember what the people of this city suffered is to renew our faith in man, in his capacity to do what is good, in his freedom to choose what is right, in his determination to turn disaster into a new beginning.”[15]

Fifty years after that tragic conflict, which ended some months later also in the Pacific with the terrible events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and with the subsequent surrender of Japan, it appears ever more clearly as a “self-destruction of mankind.”[16] War is in fact, if we look at it clearly, as much a tragedy for the victors as for the vanquished.

Footnote 15: John Paul II, Address at Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima, Japan (Feb. 25, 1981), 4: AAS 73 (1981), 417.

Footnote 16: 16 John Paul II, Centesimus Annus (May 1, 1991), 18: AAS 83 (1991), 816.


Here is an excerpt from the US Bishops document: “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response” (1983), which cites Pope Pius XII making what seems to be an unequivocal condemnation of the bombings:

1. Counter-Population Warfare

147. 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. Popes have repeatedly condemned “total war” which implies such use. For example, as early as 1954 Pope Pius XII condemned nuclear warfare “when it entirely escapes the control of man,” and results in “the pure and simple annihilation of all human life within the radius of action.” [64] The condemnation was repeated by the Second Vatican Council:

Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man itself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.[65]

148. Retaliatory action whether nuclear or conventional which would indiscriminately take many wholly innocent lives, lives of people who are in no way responsible for reckless actions of their government, must also be condemned. This condemnation, in our judgment, applies even to the retaliatory use of weapons striking enemy cities after our own have already been struck. No Christian can rightfully carry out orders or policies deliberately aimed at killing non-combatants.[66]

149. We make this judgment at the beginning of our treatment of nuclear strategy precisely because the defense of the principle of noncombatant immunity is so important for an ethic of war and because the nuclear age has posed such extreme problems for the principle. Later in this letter we shall discuss specific aspects of U.S. policy in light of this principle and in light of recent U.S. policy statements stressing the determination not to target directly or strike directly against civilian populations. Our concern about protecting the moral value of noncombatant immunity, however, requires that we make a clear reassertion of the principle our first word on this matter.


64. Pius XII, “Address to the VIII Congress of the World Medical Association,” [1954] in Documents, p. 131.

65. Pastoral Constitution, 80.

66. Ibid.

The US Bishops (in August 2004) clearly rejected the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as justified acts, and apply the prohibitive and condemnatory language of Vatican II and the CCC directly to it (they even condemn efforts to try to justify these acts):

Hiroshima, Nagasaki Bombings Call For Rejection Of ‘Total War’

WASHINGTON (August 6, 2004) -– The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 59 years ago this month remain as “permanent reminders” of the horrors of “total war” and the continuing need for nuclear disarmament, said the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in a statement released today to mark the anniversary of the bombings.

“The permanent graves of Hiroshima and Nagasaki compel us to declare once again our rejection of total war and our commitment to the advance of Christ’s peace in the furthest reaches of the globe,” said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville (IL).

He said the work of peace and justice must include the defense of human life and dignity, rejection of discrimination, and the promotion of human rights.

“On this anniversary, we must demand thoughtful and limited approaches to military action as a last resort, including systematic nuclear disarmament,” Bishop Gregory said.

He also cautioned against the temptations terrorism could present.

“At a time when much of the world is gripped by fear of terrorism and a few voices hint that the time may again come when the United States should call upon its nuclear arsenal to make ‘quick work’ of frightening threats, it is fitting to reassert our commitment to disarmament and the conduct of limited war only as a last resort,” Bishop Gregory said.

The full text of his statement follows:

“Nearly ten years ago, Pope John Paul II issued a reflection on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II. He noted then that World War II is a ‘point of reference necessary for all who wish to reflect on the present and on the future of humanity.’ But now at this time, we recall also the fateful days on which America became the first and last among the world’s nations to use an atomic weapon. Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain permanent reminders of the grave consequences of total war and symbols of our continuing struggle to balance determined action for justice with a profound responsibility to live Christ’s peace. Even now, when Cold War politics is for so many a distant and fading memory and nuclear war only the vaguest threat, the permanent graves of Hiroshima and Nagasaki compel us to once again declare our rejection of total war and our commitment to the advance of Christ’s peace in the furthest reaches of the globe.

“World War II, which liberated many and defeated tyranny but which left as a shameful legacy instances of combat, was conducted without distinction between civilian and soldier. In the decades since the bombing, some have advanced the argument that despite the horrendous magnitude of civilian suffering, these actions can be justified by the efficient end of combat it affected. But secular ethicists and moral theologians alike echo the words of the Second Vatican Council: ‘Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.’ The Church has a long tradition of condemning acts of war that bring ‘widespread, unspeakable suffering and destruction.’ At a time when much of the world is gripped by fear of terrorism and a few voices hint that the time may again come when the U.S. should call upon its nuclear arsenal to make “quick work” of frightening threats, it is fitting to reassert our commitment to disarmament and the conduct of limited war only as a last resort.

“Christ gave us His gift of peace to share with one another and to proclaim to the world. As the reality of terrorist threats gives rise to widespread fear, our duty as Christ’s faithful to pursue his peace in the world becomes ever more clear and pressing. Following the collapse of communism and apartheid, many formerly oppressive regimes have given way to peaceful, democratic institutions; but in many parts of the world, the poor and weak suffer under cruel totalitarian rulers. Never has the Church been a more important force for peace and justice. Catholic policy makers, military personnel, scientists, academics, advocates, and young people must preach Christ’s gospel of love and make the work of peace a fundamental imperative of their individual vocations. Catholics engaged in every area of public life must marshal the varied gifts given them by the Holy Spirit toward the pursuit of new responses to unfamiliar threats. In an era of often paralyzing uncertainty, the Church’s voice for peace and justice must remain undiminished and constant.
Page Three

“This commitment to the work of peace and justice must have content beyond slogans. We must commit ourselves at home and abroad to a defense of human life and dignity, a rejection of unjust discrimination and the promotion of basic human rights. We must reject indifference in the face of grave injustice and oppression wherever it occurs. On this anniversary, we must demand thoughtful and limited approaches to military action as a last resort, including systematic nuclear disarmament – which the U.S. bishops urged must be ‘more than a moral ideal’ but also ‘a policy goal.’

“As we have in the past, we again call on faithful people everywhere to renew their commitment to the work of Christ’s peace and justice, and repeat Pope Paul VI’s plaintive refrain: ‘No more war, war never again!'”

Excerpt from Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine, edited by Russell Shaw: “War”:

The principle of discrimination is of special importance, because it is simply a restatement of the fifth commandment: Directly taking innocent human life is always wrong. This principle has led Popes beginning with Pius XII to condemn the modern theory of total warfare, which holds that any means necessary to achieve victory may be used. When the Allies engaged in obliteration bombing of Dresden and other cities to terrorize Germany and hasten the end of World War II, Catholic theologians condemned the act. Similar objections have been raised to the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because the valid goal of ending the war and saving Allied soldiers’ lives could not justify the evil means of directly killing many thousands of noncombatants. Such destruction cannot be defended as the kind of “indirect” killing involved in using the minimum force necessary to defeat an attacking army.

Just-War Theory, Catholic Morality, And The Response To International Terrorism

Here is some interesting information: the author, Mark S. Latkovic, cites Pope Pius XII making statements which would not rule out all use of atomic weapons whatsoever. However, based on the pope’s stringent criteria, it would seem to me that Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not qualify as instances of his advocacy of very limited use for self-defense only:

The syndicated newspaper columnist and prominent evangelical Cal Thomas, suggests that the use of a nuclear weapon could be justified (see Cal Thomas, “U.S. Should Be Ready to Use Tactical Nuclear Weapons,” Detroit Free Press, November 6, 2001, 9A). But his reasoning here is through and through consequentialist/proportionalist. While he recognizes “psychological and political” fallout, he ignores the moral problems of using nuclear weapons. That having been said, Church teaching would not absolutely overrule the use of nuclear weapons as intrinsically evil. For instance, Pope Pius XII taught that under certain conditions even atomic, bacteriological, and chemical war could be justified “where it must be judged as indispensable in order to defend oneself” and with “limits on its use that are so clear and rigorous that its effects remain restricted to the strict demands of defense” (see Pius XII, Address to the Eighth Congress of the World Medical Association, September 30, 1954, in Catholic Mind 53 [April 1955]: 244, as quoted in Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 2, p. 899, footnote 123).

Another informative excerpt:

Moral Theology on War: A Complete Course based on St. Thomas Aquinas and the Best Modern Authorities

by John A. McHugh, O.P. and Charles J. Callan, O.P.

New York City, Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.,
May 24, 1958


The Killing or Wounding of Non-Combatants

(a) The indirect killing of non-combatants (i.e., killing which is unintentional and unavoidable) is lawful, according to the rules given for double effect (see 103, 104). Hence, it is lawful to bombard the fortifications, arsenals, munition works, and barracks of a town, to sink passenger liners that are carrying arms or stores to the enemy, to cut off food supplies from a town or country in order to starve out its troops, although these measures will entail the deaths of some civilians as well as of combatants. Humanity requires, however, that an effort be made to spare the non-combatants, when possible, as by serving warning of attack, so that they may be removed to safety. When it is a question, however, of the use of modern weapons (the atom, hydrogen or cobalt bombs) on military targets in the vicinity of large cities, where it is foreseen that many thousands of civilians will be killed or severely wounded, then the principle of double effect seems to rule out the lawfulness of using such devastating weapons. The immediate evil effect, the slaughter of the innocents, could hardly be called incidental and only reluctantly permitted. Concretely, the inevitable results of the use of such weapons would have to be intended directly, if not as an end, at least as a means.

(b) The direct killing of non-combatants (i.e., killing which is intentional) is unlawful and constitutes the sin of murder. Obliteration bombing, the dropping of 11-bombs or atom bombs on a residential section of a city containing no military objectives, are of this character; for they are attacks on civilians. It can not be argued that such an attack would probably break down the morale of the citizens to such an extent that they would force their rulers to make peace and so save many thousands of lives. For this argument is based on the principle that a good end justifies evil means.

Occasionally it is argued that modern “total” warfare demands that all citizens contribute to the war effort and that consequently everyone is a combatant. The argument can hardly be sustained, for Catholic doctrine insists that those whose participation is only remote and accidental are not to be classified as combatants. In a well-documented article on “The Morality of Obliteration Bombing,” by John C. Ford, S.J. (Theological Studies, V, 1944, pp. 261-309), the validity of the distinction between combatants and innocent non-combatants, even in the condition of modern war, is upheld. Fr. Ford shows that in an industrial city, as round in the United States, three-fourths of the population belong to the non-combatant category, and he lists more than a hundred trades or professions which, according to the natural law, exclude their members from the category of combatants. Direct attacks on such a population clearly would constitute unjustifiable killing or wounding of non-combatants.

Here is a direct quote from Pope St. John Paul II (I cited parts of it earlier):

We cannot forget that your country is one of the symbols of peace, as you have just emphasized, since the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a message to all our contemporaries, inviting all the earth’s peoples to learn the lessons of history and to work for peace with ever greater determination. Indeed, they remind our contemporaries of all the crimes committed during the Second World War against civilian populations, crimes and acts of true genocide which we thought were for ever in the past but are still being perpetrated in various parts of the world. In order not to forget the atrocities of the past, it is important to teach the younger generation the incomparable value of peace between individuals and peoples, because the culture of peace is contagious but is far from having spread everywhere in the world, as is demonstrated by persistent situations of conflict. We must constantly repeat that peace is the essential principle of common life in all societies.


Pope Paul VI:


1 JANUARY 1976

“The Real Weapons of Peace”

. . . If the consciousness of universal brotherhood truly penetrates into the hearts of men, will they still need to arm themselves to the point of becoming blind and fanatic killers of their brethren who in themselves are innocent, and of perpetrating, as a contribution to Peace, butchery of untold magnitude, as at Hiroshima on 6 August 1945?” . . .

Pope Paul VI:


1 JANUARY 1977

“If You Want Peace, Defend Life”

The close relationship between Peace and Life seems to spring from the nature of things, but not always, not yet from the logic of people’s thought and conduct. This close relationship is the paradoxical novelty that we must proclaim for this year of grace 1977 and henceforth for ever, if we are to understand the dynamics of progress. To succeed in doing so is no easy and simple task: we shall meet the opposition of too many formidable objections, which are stored in the immense arsenal of pseudo-convictions, empirical and utilitarian prejudices, so-called reasons of State, and habits drawn from history and tradition. Even today, these objections seem to constitute insurmountable obstacles. The tragic conclusion is that if, in defiance of logic, Peace and Life can in practice be dissociated, there looms on the horizon of the future a catastrophe that in our days could be immeasurable and irreparable both for Peace and Life. Hiroshima is a terribly eloquent proof and a frighteningly prophetic example of this. In the reprehensible hypothesis that Peace were thought of in unnatural separation from its relationship with Life, Peace could be imposed as the sad triumph of death. The words of Tacitus come to mind: “They make a desert and call it Peace” (ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant: Agricola, 30). Again, in the same hypothesis, the privileged Life of some can be exalted, can be selfishly and almost idolatrously preferred, at the expense of the oppression or suppression of others. Is that Peace?

I have shown what Pope St. John Paul II thought of Hiroshima. Here is an example of what he stated about deterrence:

In current conditions, “deterrence” based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable. Nonetheless, in order to ensure peace, it is indispensable not to be satisfied with this minimum, which is always susceptible to the real danger of explosion.

(Address to the Second Special Session on Disarmament of the U.N. General Assembly, read by his secretary of state, 11 June 1982, in The Apocalyptic Premise: Nuclear Arms Debated, edited by Ernest W. Lefever and E. Stephen Hunt, Washington, D.C.: Ethics & Public Policy Center, 1982, p. 337)

So deterrence is allowed (which has been my own position for some 25 years), but thus far, I have seen no hint whatsoever in Pope St. John Paul II that the weapons should be used, or that Hiroshima in particular was a justified use. Obviously, from his other statements, he would deny that it was (just as Pius XII did). Quite the contrary: it is only a temporary step towards disarmament. So any use of his statements of deterrence as a supposed argument in favor of what happened in August 1945 is a failed attempt at gathering papal support which isn’t there.

Also, the jaded attempt by some to make out that I am trying to make non-binding papal utterances binding on consciences is not only false to what I have argued, and what I believe, but muddleheaded and misguided as well. It’s a straw man.

The real issue, when popes are brought into the discussion, is whether they have the knowledge and wisdom to make a judgment on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or not (in the realm of moral theology), and whether their judgment carries more weight than that of mere laymen (not even academics or other sorts of “experts”). We’re all mere laymen, so when it comes to such momentous ethical questions, the Catholic looks to the Church for guidance, not insignificant little microbes like me.

Therefore, I (who make no claim to being any sort of expert at all in this area) have produced many statements from the Church and her popes.

Now I shall prove that Ven. Pope Pius XII condemned the bombings in Japan, by very strong implication and simple logical deduction.

John J. Cardinal O’Connor wrote penetratingly about this topic in his book, In Defense of Life (Daughters of St. Paul: 1981). Part of it was reprinted in The Apocalyptic Premise: Nuclear Arms Debated, edited by Ernest W. Lefever and E. Stephen Hunt, Washington, D.C.: Ethics & Public Policy Center, 1982, pp. 295-308; entitled “The Church’s Views on Nuclear Arms.” Here is an excerpt (italics in original):

Yet Pius XII did not seem to feel the need to outlaw the use of the atomic bomb, as he knew it, under all possible circumstances. Conceivably atomic warfare could be used, he suggested, in response to “an obvious, extremely serious, and otherwise unavoidable injustice.” But the restriction he then imposes is all important, both as a major factor that must henceforth be considered critical as a condition of the just war, and as a harbinger of the controversy that would arise as successive generations of nuclear weapons appeared, each with its own sophisticated refinements and claims for “safety” in use.

[he then cites Pius XII]

“Even then, however, one must strive to avoid it by all possible means through international understanding or to impose limits on its use that are so clear and rigorous that its effects remain restricted to the strict demands of defense. When, moreover, putting this method to use involves such an extension of the evil that itentirely escapes from the control of man, its use must be rejected as immoral. Here there would be no longer a question of “defense” against injustice or a necessary “safeguarding” of legitimate possessions, but the pure and simple annihilation of all human life within the radius of action. This is not permitted for any reason whatsoever.”

[bolding emphasis added {i.e., by Cardinal O’Connor}; purple emphasis is my own ]

[source: Allocution {or} Address to the 8th Congress of the World Medical Association, 30 September 1954; cited in Gaudium et spes, at 80:3 as a background thought-source, and listed in AAS 46 (1954), p. 589]

Cardinal O’Connor offers his commentary:

This is a critically important statement that goes beyond the demand for what is usually called “proportionality” – that war is never justified if the means used, the cost, and the consequences seriously outweigh the anticipated gain, redress of wrong, or whatever. Here the pope goes directly to the heart of the crucial question about nuclear weapons, the question of predictability.

After some pages of marvelously informative, balanced, nuanced treatment, Cardinal O’Connor sums up:

So Vatican II did not outlaw the manufacture, possession, or deployment of nuclear weapons as a deterrent to war. As noted previously, the Council leaves open a judgment on the validity of the strategy of deterrence . . .

What We Can Conclude

The foregoing has been an effort to discern the basic position of the Church as of 1980, in the persons of four popes, the Vatican Council, and the body of bishops of the United States. That the position is completely unambiguous would be arguable. That it seems to be still evolving might be a fair appraisal. To return to the question raised above, admittedly at risk of oversimplification – what does the Church say and leave unsaid about nuclear weapons? – it seems fair to assert the following:

a. The Church condemns war of aggression, unlimited war, acts of war “directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants,” the use of weapons of mass destruction.

b. The Church does not condemn defensive war, limited war, acts of war directed to the destruction of military targets, the manufacture or possession of nuclear weapons, the use of weapons of limited destruction.

c. The Church seriously questions the strategy of nuclear deterrence, abhors the arms race, considering it a treacherous trap for humanity, potentially destructive of all life, and draining resources critically needed to feed the hungry and generally advance civilization.

d. The Church calls for the eventual goal of banning nuclear weapons, urging that in the meanwhile, there be continuing, balanced, mutual, progressive restrictions in nuclear weapons “backed up by authentic and workable safeguards,” and urging negotiations and treaties that will help reduce risks of nuclear war.

To deduce from official statements of popes, Vatican II, or the National Conference of Catholic Bishops that the “Church has condemned more than is noted would appear to be precisely that – an act of deduction. To discern less in what the Church says would appear to be an act of short-sightedness.

I agree with all of this. It is right-on, as always with the Church. And I think that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki clearly come under the prohibition of a. above — especially in light of Ven. Pope Pius XII’s comments from 1954.

There is a sensible middle ground in the larger issue of nuclear ethics. I agree that one can argue that a limited use of nuclear power is permissible and moral in a given circumstance. Pius XII himself said so. It is not inconceivable to make such an argument as a Catholic. Thus, I am not a “nuclear pacifist.” Nor do I oppose deterrence. I accept it in precisely the way that Pope St. John Paul II did.

However, concerning the particular instance of Japan (which is, after all, the only example of military use thus far), I contend that the Church has condemned it, in terms of it clearly being of the type that is condemned in the general teaching. It’s condemned (by very strong deduction) at a lower level of teaching authority, but that is still sufficient to be binding and to prevent public contradiction of what has been stated.

Moreover, no one can find anything to the contrary, and it is condemned specifically in many lower-level statements, especially by Pope John Paul II. Such consensus proves to me that it is foolish and futile for any Catholic to attempt to argue otherwise (certainly publicly, at any rate).

There may still be room for “conscientious objection” at least privately (I don’t know; I’m no canon lawyer or moral theologian), but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t foolish to keep up the objection publicly, when the consensus in the Church is so crystal-clear.


Photo credit: Mushroom cloud above Nagasaki after atomic bombing on August 9, 1945. Taken by Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack. [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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