Ethics of Hiroshima & Nagasaki: Catholic Reflections

Ethics of Hiroshima & Nagasaki: Catholic Reflections May 4, 2018

I have produced many popes, bishops, conciliar statements, leading theologians, well-known priests, and apologists who oppose those bombings as inherently contrary to just war tradition, and hence, proper Catholic ethics.

Catholic bomb proponents with regard to this issue have not produced a single one that I am aware of. If it is such a respectable Catholic position, then I wish they would do that. But they haven’t, and I think that is very telling, if not compelling. We’re not Protestants; we form opinions hopefully with the Mind of the Church in our own minds. 

It goes without saying that no one can speak “magisterially” about Hiroshima except for the pope or an ecumenical council, which is why I haven’t done so, and have appealed to exactly those Catholic authorities whom I believe have done so at some important level. I’m not a canon lawyer or a theologian, and don’t claim to understand every jot and tittle of how that works in this particular instance, but I do know that what has been written is pretty straightforward and all in one direction, which ought to count for something for a Catholic. Hence, when I was asked if the nuclear issue was similar to that of capital punishment and just war theory in general, I answered:

No, because I don’t believe that this particular instance can be squared with just war ethics. If indeed it can’t, then obviously, it falls into a different category, since it would be immoral by its very nature . . . . If, on the other hand, it can be, then the answer would be yes. Then I would like to see some major Catholic teacher / figure / bishop, etc. state that it is morally defensible by just war standards. (1-22-06)

Obviously, I was giving my own opinion (not pontificating or attempting to ridiculously speak magisterially), which I am perfectly entitled to have. If indeed the act is immoral (as I believe) then no Catholic could hold it. But note that I didn’t rule out the contrary hypothetical: “If, on the other hand, it can be . . .” I was simply nothing that there is no middle ground here: it is either impermissible by Catholic ethical standards or it is permissible. Everyone I can find who has any authority says it is impermissible. So I (as an obedient Catholic who abides by the Mind of the Church — whether the specific issue is defined at some high level or not) follow their thinking, which is nothing new for me because I held the same view as a Protestant since the early 80s.

I made my own view quite clear, again, on the next day, showing that I am not at all speaking as some “magisterium of one” (like the reactionaries habitually try to do):

There is a sensible middle ground here, in what you are saying, Jim [Scott]. 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 JPII did.

However, concerning the particular instance of Japan (which is, after all, the only examples of military use thus far), I contend that the Church has condemned it, in the sense 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 as I have shown, 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.

Furthermore, these are two particular acts that we know a lot about, which is a lot more concrete than something like capital punishment or favoring a certain war: things which involve many variables. Those things are factually and situationally complex, so that men of good will obviously will come to different conclusions in different cases. But what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki forces one to take either one view or another (somewhat like the stark choice of accepting or decrying abortion). It’s a known act. We know all about how it was planned and what occurred. What have popes and Councils stated about the matter? I have documented that. Pope Pius XII stated:

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 it entirely 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.

(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; cited in John J. Cardinal O’Connor, In Defense of Life [Daughters of St. Paul: 1981]. Part of this book 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.”)

Cardinal O’Connor remarked about the above statement:

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.

I agree with him. I disagree with my opponents. Those who are supposed to proclaim magisterially (I think it can be very strongly argued, as I am attempting to do right now) have done so in this case!

Gaudium et spes (80:3), from Vatican II, drew upon Pius XII’s statement above, in its own very strong proclamation:

. . . the Council, endorsing the condemnations of total warfare issued by recent popes (3), declares: 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.

(Austin Flannery edition; Footnote 3: 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)

The Walter M. Abbott version of the same passage follows:

. . . this most holy Synod makes its own the condemnations of total war already pronounced by recent popes (260), and issues the following declaration:

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 himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.

(the footnote 259 informs the reader that this passage “contains one of the few uses of the term “condemnation” in the record of Vatican II”)

Likewise, Pope Paul VI wrote on 1 January 1976:

. . . 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?” . . .

And again on 1 January 1977:

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?

Here are the words of the late great Pope John Paul II from September 1999:

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. (see source)

In February 1981, John Paul the Great said at Hiroshima: “To remember Hiroshima is to abhor nuclear war.” Furthermore, here is an excerpt from the US Bishops document: The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response (1983), which cites Pius XII:

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 ndiscriminately 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]

True, this doesn’t mention Hiroshima by name, but it certainly can be strongly, plausibly asserted that what it describes (as in Gaudium) would include Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville (IL), the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement to mark the anniversary of the bombings:

. . . 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 . . . the permanent graves of Hiroshima and Nagasaki compel us to once again declare our rejection of total war . . .

Furthermore, to give but one example, prominent moral theologians casually assume that the bombings were “immoral” according to Catholic moral principles. I noticed one such statement in the densely-argued book Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism (Oxford, 1987) by the “conservative” moral theologians John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, and Germain Grisez. I looked up “Hiroshima” in the index, and the authors (no dummies, and quite acquainted with the traditional principles of just war and moral theology), quickly dismissed some argument trying to defend it.

They also proved in short order (just as I have done in my research) that the plan was to bomb the cities and deliberately kill many civilians (utterly contrary to just war principles) , so as to destroy Japanese morale, and noted (as I did, again, long before I ever saw this book) that President Harry Truman later called these acts “murder” himself. I didn’t write the page numbers down because I was looking for something else in the seminary library at the time, but they can be easily found via the index.

I’ve cited three popes and one ecumenical council, which directly draws upon the statement of Pius XII to make a very strong condemnation of something that I think includes these bombings within its purview.

If someone asks me as an apologist, “what does the Church teach about nuclear war, or about Hiroshima?,” I answer to the best of my ability (in my case, very similarly to how Cardinal O’Connor answered the same question). I not only tell them what I believe the Church teaches, but (as far as I can determine and know, myself) the reasoning and some of the history behind that opinion, as that is what apologists do: give rational reasons for why we believe things, not merely what we believe.

To take a provincial, exclusivistic view of “apologetics as strictly theological only” is to fall into the same error that the fundamentalist Protestants fell into: by radically separating what they called the “social gospel” from doctrinal considerations. The liberals who were forsaking their traditional Protestant theological beliefs concentrated almost solely on social issues. The ones who retained the former beliefs concentrated almost exclusively on those and neglected the social, intellectual, and culturally transformative elements of Christianity.

We see those same dynamics (very much so) today, in Protestant and even political circles. Catholics are (or should be) much different than that. We (including apologists) combine both aspects, and do not dichotomize them against each other. Anything having to do with Church teaching, I will try to defend. That’s my job. I discuss, for example, contraception, divorce, and racism. The last two are social issues. If they can be discussed, why not also matters of war and peace and just war, or, say, the excesses of capitalism and oppression of the poor (which is a huge theme in Holy Scripture)? These are clearly matters of high importance for Catholics and anyone who is conscientious about world affairs.

It is quite possible for me to cite others as to the situation and about what those in the Church have proclaimed about it. That makes perfect sense, yet some of my opponents on this issue didn’t like that at all, and complain that I don’t depend on my own self as the final determinant of my opinions on this (as they appear to do), but instead rely on others far more informed about the matter and authorities in the Church with regard to the particularly Catholic slant on the issue. They wrongly think that must be the fallacy of appeal to authority, by its very nature.

I have made no “magisterial statement.” I again expressly deny having ever done so, and no one can produce a remark of mine which would qualify for such a thing – which would be utterly impossible anyway (not to mention ludicrous), as I am a nobody, and “magisterial” statements must come from popes and ecumenical councils.

It could very well be that the Church didn’t condemn Hiroshima and Nagasaki specifically (i.e., by name) in Gaudium et spes, because it decries the tragedy that all war entails and consistently seeks to be a voice for peace, without ruling out the possibility of just wars and actions. That doesn’t rule out the distinct possibility, however, that what was condemned there includes those acts as included within its description. The Church uses general language whenever it can. The classic example is Trent, where the Protestant founders (Luther, Calvin, etc.) were never mentioned, though their errors were condemned in no uncertain terms. Nevertheless, there are indications of a moral judgment, such as use of terms like “butchery” (Paul VI) and “crimes” (John Paul II).

It is true that Gaudium dealt with larger total war and Cold War issues (which is obvious from the context of 80:3), but not exclusively, since this passage cited as background thought Pius XII’s allocution to the 8th Congress of the World Medical Association (30 September 1954) — cited above — in which that pope referred to “the pure and simple annihilation of all human life within the radius of action. This is not permitted for any reason whatsoever.” Pius XII doesn’t specify how large of an area, and according to Cardinal O’Connor, this statement even bypassed the criterion of proportionality. I have heard no argument back that it couldn’t possibly include what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (only bald, dogmatic denials). Moreover, section 79 refers to general just war considerations, which are not solely dealing with total destruction of a global nuclear conflict:

. . . the natural law of peoples and its universal principles still retain their binding force . . . Any action which deliberately violates these principles and any order which commands such actions is criminal and blind obedience cannot excuse those who carry them out . . .

On the question of warfare, there are various international conventions, signed by many countries, aimed at rendering military action and its consequences less inhuman; they deal with the treatment of wounded and interned prisoners of war and with various kindred questions. These agreements must be honored; indeed public authorities and specialists in these matters must do all in their power to improve these conventions and thus bring about a better and more effective curbing of the savagery of war.

Thus, it seems quite plausible to me that the next section has a wider scope than simply the arms race and mutually assured destruction. The rules of warfare and the just war tradition are also in mind, it seems. I believe that one can construct a strong argument that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were condemned, based on the characteristics in the conciliar condemnation as applied to that specific situation.

I have never claimed that President Truman was a war criminal; nor have I utterly condemned his decision to drop these bombs. In fact, I have stated over and over, the exact opposite. I completely agreed with George Weigel’s “sympathetic but opposed” position.

I quoted another anti-Bomb writer in agreement, stating that he did not consider Truman a “bad man.” I have denied numerous times that I consider Truman a war criminal or “murderer.” Some people I cited think so, but I do not.

The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response
, written by the American bishopsin 1983 offers one way of viewing the issue:

12. This passage acknowledges that, on some complex social questions, the Church expects a certain diversity of views even though all hold the same universal moral principles. The experience of preparing this pastoral letter has shown us the range of strongly held opinion in the Catholic community on questions of war and peace. Obviously, as bishops we believe that such differences should be expressed within the framework of Catholic moral teaching. We urge mutual respect among different groups in the Church as they analyze this letter and the issues it addresses. Not only conviction and commitment are needed in the Church, but also civility and charity.

Apologists can give an opinion that we believe the Church teaches a certain thing. There is nothing wrong with that at all. In fact, allowing diversity of opinion means exactly that: diversity of opinion! One could hold that the Church teaches one thing; another might think it teaches a contrary position; a third may believe that the Church has not any preference either way.

Some bomb proponents seem to think it isn’t even permissible for a Catholic to think that the Mind of the Church has opposed these bombings, even though this may be “sub-magisterial”. In any event, I am certainly not bound to their opinions as to what I should and shouldn’t write about.

I should like to end by reiterating my sincere, inquisitive request for those who hold the position that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified attacks according to Catholic principles: please produce for me some orthodox Catholic moral theologians (even one, if that is all you can find) who argue as you do. I’m not denying that they exist at all. I have simply never seen one, and would like to know if such a creature exists and how he argues his position.

* * * * *

I say the bombings are pretty clearly condemned in the ordinary magisterium in Vatican II (as a species of what was described there). The task of those who disagree is to show that Hiroshima and Nagasaki do not constitute an example of what was condemned in Gaudium et spes. They’ve tried, but I don’t buy it. I find their arguments ludicrous and special pleading of the worst sort (and that includes the arguments from double effect). They don’t fly.

How does Gaudium et spes not condemn Hiroshima and Nagasaki, since it utterly condemned bombs which kill all human beings within a certain radius, as part of its inherent capabilities? I don’t see how this doesn’t apply. Double effect is superseded by this sort of moral reasoning concerning something which is absolutely impermissible in any circumstance. Double effect is irrelevant because the very nature of the act is intrinsically immoral. Pius XII’s statement from which the Council derived some of its thought here is even more clear.

I believe that the pro-bombing position (from a Catholic standpoint; made by a Catholic) is ludicrous not only because it seems to clearly contradict magisterial teaching in Vatican II but because it is radically untrue to the known facts (i.e., it is based on factually-suspect premises in addition to being questionable according to Catholic teaching). These facts being:

1) That the decision was clearly made with the intention of targeting both military installations and civilians. I believe that I proved this by producing several formerly top secret documents and Truman’s own words.

2) The entire population of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not all part of the military, as proponents seem to argue at times.

Therefore, there were innocents as classically defined who were deliberately targeted. That cannot be squared with just way ethics. Period. Double effect is irrelevant because it wouldn’t even apply if the intention from the outset was to also kill the civilians.


(originally 1-28-06; revised on 10-23-06)

Photo credit: ruins of the Catholic Church in Hiroshima. Photographed by Allan George Cuthbert (8-5-46) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


"This accusation turns the Truth on its head. It is not Catholicism, but Protestantism, which ..."

Dialogue: Is the Mass Similar to ..."
"Yes, my view is that if human beings are dying by the hundreds of thousands ..."

Dialogue: Racism, Republicans, Logic, and Liberals
"After reading all this in a state of bewilderment, I think I may finally know ..."

Dialogue: Racism, Republicans, Logic, and Liberals
"Pacifism vs. “Just War”: Biblical and Social Factors of Just War"

Catholic Social Teaching & Myself: Brief ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment