The Morality of Nuclear Deterrence

An Evaluation
by Pax Christi Bishops
in the United States

issued on the 15th anniversary of

The Challenge of Peace,
God's Promise and Our Response

June 1998

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

We, the undersigned Catholic bishops of the United States and members of Pax Christi USA, write to you on a matter of grave moral concern: the continued possession, development and plans for the use of nuclear weapons by our country.

For the past fifteen years, and particularly in the context of the Cold War, we, the Catholic bishops of the United States, have reluctantly acknowledged the possibility that nuclear weapons could have some moral legitimacy, but only if the goal was nuclear disarmament. It is our present, prayerful judgment that this legitimacy is now lacking.

In 1983 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in our Pastoral Letter The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response, grappled with the unique moral challenge posed by nuclear weapons. Fifteen years ago we stated that, because of the massive and indiscriminate destruction that nuclear weapons would inflict, their use would not be morally justified. [1]

We spoke in harmony with the conscience of the world in that judgment. We reaffirm that judgment now. Nuclear weapons must never be used, no matter what the provocation, no matter what the military objective.


Fifteen years ago we concurred with Pope John Paul II in acknowledging that, given the context of that time, possession of these weapons as a deterrent against the use of nuclear weapons by others could be morally acceptable, but acceptable only as an interim measure and only if deterrence were combined with clear steps toward progressive disarmament.

Ours was a strictly conditioned moral acceptance of nuclear deterrence. It depended on three criteria:

  1. a reliance on deterrent strategies must be an interim policy only. As we stated then, "We cannot consider it adequate as a long-term basis for peace;" [2]

  2. the purpose of maintaining nuclear weapons in the interim was only "to prevent the use of nuclear weapons by others;" [3] and

  3. a reliance on deterrence must be used "not as an end in itself but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament." [4]

In our 10th Anniversary Statement, The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace, we further specified that "progressive disarmament" must mean a commitment to the elimination of nuclear weapons, not simply as an ideal, but as a concrete policy goal. [5]

A New Moment

In 1998 the global context is significantly different from what it was a few years ago. Throughout the Cold War the nuclear arsenal was developed and maintained as the ultimate defense in an ideological conflict that pitted what were considered two historical forces against each other -- capitalism in the West and communism in the East. The magnitude of that conflict was defined by the mutual exclusivity of each other's ideology. Nuclear weapons and the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction were accepted as the inescapable context of that particular struggle.

Today the Soviet Union no longer exists. The United States is now aiding its democratic successor, the Russian Federation, in dismantling the very nuclear weapons that a short time ago were poised to destroy us. Yet, the Cold War weapons amassed throughout that struggle have survived the struggle itself and are today in search of new justifications and new missions to fulfill.

But, with the end of the Cold War came new hope. World opinion has coalesced around the concrete effort to outlaw nuclear weapons, as it has with biological and chemical weapons and most recently with anti-personnel landmines. As examples of this opinion we note the dramatic public statement of December 1996 in which 61 retired Generals and Admirals, many of whom held the highest level positions in the nuclear establishment of this country, said that these weapons are unnecessary, destabilizing and must be outlawed. [6]

We also note the historic International Court of Justice opinion of July 1996 that,

"The threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable to armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law."
The Court went on to say,
"There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control." [7]

Additionally, the Holy See has become more explicit in its condemnation of nuclear weapons and has urged their abolition. We recognize this new moment and are in accord with the Holy See, which has stated,

"If biological weapons, chemical weapons and now landmines can be done away with, so too can nuclear weapons. No weapon so threatens the longed-for peace of the 21st century as the nuclear [weapon]. Let not the immensity of this task dissuade us from the efforts needed to free humanity from such a scourge." [8]

Unfortunately the monumental political changes that have occurred in the wake of the Cold War have not been accompanied by similar far reaching changes in the military planning for development and deployment of nuclear weapons.

It is absolutely clear to us that the present US policy does not include a decisive commitment to progressive nuclear disarmament. Rather, nuclear weapons policy has been expanded in the post-Cold War period to include new missions well beyond their previous role as a deterrent to nuclear attack. The United States today maintains a commitment to use nuclear weapons first, including pre-emptive nuclear attacks on nations that do not possess nuclear weapons. "Flexible targeting strategies" are aimed at Third World nations, and a new commitment exists to use nuclear weapons either preemptively or in response to chemical and biological weapons or other threats to US national interests. [9]

This expanded role of the US nuclear deterrent is unacceptable. !

A New Arms Race

In order to maintain the necessary credibility required by a continued reliance on nuclear deterrence, the United States is today embarking on an expansion of its nuclear weapons complex.

The Department of Energy, in conjunction with the Department of Defense, has developed the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program, a vast and multi-faceted effort at modernizing the nuclear weapons complex to provide for the continued research, development and testing of nuclear weapons well into the next century. The program will eventually lead to creating computer-simulated nuclear weapons tests that will allow the United States to continue to test nuclear weapons in the event that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, (which will ban full-scale underground nuclear testing) enters into force. [10]

The cost of this Stockpile Stewardship program is currently estimated at $60 billion over the next dozen years. Such an investment in a program to upgrade the ability to design, develop, test! and maintain nuclear weapons signals quite clearly that the United States, (as well as the other nuclear weapons states that are similarly developing these new testing and design capabilities) shows no intention of moving forward with "progressive disarmament" and certainly no commitment to eliminating these weapons entirely. [11]

Instead of progressive nuclear disarmament, we are witnessing the institutionalization of nuclear deterrence.

The recent Presidential Decision Directive on nuclear weapons policy, partially made known to the public in December 1997, makes this point clear. The Directive indicates that the United States will continue to rely on nuclear weapons as the cornerstone of the nation's strategic defense, that the role of these weapons has been increased to include deterring Third World non-nuclear weapons states and deterring chemical and biological weapons, as well as other undefined vital US interests abroad. [12]

Does not this policy, coupled with the huge investments under the Stockpile Stewardship Program, represent a renewed commitment to nuclear deterrence that will affect generations to come? The Department of Energy's own timetable for the Stockpile Stewardship Program indicates that the United States will continue to develop, test and rely upon a nuclear deterrent through !the year 2065. [13]

This is clearly not the interim policy to which we grudgingly gave our moral approval in 1983. Rather, it is the manifestation of the very reliance on nuclear nproliferation Treaty. In The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace we addressed the growing concerns that nuclear weapons might be used against other than nuclear threats:

"The United States should commit itself never to use nuclear weapons first, should unequivocally reject proposals to use nuclear weapons to deter non-nuclear threats, and should reinforce the fragile barrier against the use of these weapons." [15]
Nuclear deterrence policy, as developed over the past decade, stands in clear contradiction to these goals.

Inherent Dangers

The policy of nuclear deterrence has always included the intention to use the weapons if deterrence should fail. Since the end of the Cold War this deterrent has been expanded to include any number of potential aggressors, proliferators and so-called "rogue nations."

The inherent instability in a world unconstrained by the great-power standoff present throughout the Cold War leads us to conclude that the danger of deterrence failing has been increased. That danger can become manifest if but one so-called "rogue state" calls the deterrent bluff. In such a case the requirements of deterrence policy would be the actual use of nuclear weapons. This must not be allowed.

Because of the horrendous results if these weapons should be used, and what we see as a greater likelihood of their use, we now feel it is imperative to raise a clear, unambiguous voice in opposition to the continued reliance on nuclear deterrence.

Moral Conclusions

Sadly, it is clear to us that our strict conditions for the moral acceptance of nuclear deterrence are not being met. Specifically,

  1. the policy of nuclear deterrence is being institutionalized. It is no longer considered an interim policy but rather has become the very "long-term basis for peace" that we rejected in 1983.

  2. the role of nuclear deterrence has been expanded in the post Cold War era well beyond the narrow role of deterring the use of nuclear weapons by others. The role to be played now by nuclear weapons includes a whole range of contingencies on a global scale including countering biological and chemical weapons and the protection of vital national interests abroad.

  3. although the United States and the republics that made up the former Soviet Union have in recent years eliminated some of their huge, superfluous stockpiles of nuclear weapons, our country, at least, has no intention, or policy position of eliminating these weapons entirely. Rather, the US intends to retain its nuclear deterrent into the indefinite future.

Gospel Call of Love

As bishops of the Church in the United States, it is incumbent on us to speak directly to the policies and actions of our nation.

  • We speak now out of love not only for those who would suffer and die as victims of nuclear violence, but also for those who would bear the terrible responsibility of unleashing these horrendous weapons.

  • We speak out of love for those suffering because of the medical effects in communities where these weapons are produced and are being tested.

  • We speak out of love for those deprived of the barest necessities because of the huge amount of available resources committed to the continued development and ongoing maintenance of nuclear weapons. We recall the words of another Vatican message to the United Nations, that these weapons, "by their cost alone, kill the poor by causing them to starve." [16]

  • We speak out of love for both victims and the executioners, believing that "the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, 'You shall love your neig!hbor as yourself'" (Gal. 5-14).

It is out of this love that we raise up our voices with those around the world in calling for an end to the reliance on nuclear deterrence and instead call upon the United States and the other nuclear weapons states to enter into a process leading to the complete elimination of these morally offensive weapons. Indeed, in taking this position we are answering the call of Pope John Paul II, whose Permanent Representative to the United Nations stated in October 1997:

"The work that this committee (1st Committee of the United Nations) has done in calling for negotiations leading to a nuclear weapons convention must be increased. Those nuclear weapons states resisting such negotiations must be challenged, for in clinging to their outmoded rationales for nuclear deterrence they are denying the most ardent aspirations of humanity as well as the opinion of the highest legal authority in the world. The gravest consequences for humankind lie ahead if the world is to be ruled by the militarism represented by nuclear weapons rather than the humanitarian law espoused by the International Court of Justice.

"Nuclear weapons are incompatible with the peace we seek for the 21st century. They cannot be justified. They deserve condemnation. The preservation of the Nonproliferation Treaty demands an unequivocal commitment to their abolition.

"This is a moral challenge, a legal challenge and a political challenge. That multi-based challenge must be met by the application of our humanity." [17]

We recognize the opposition that our message will meet. We are painfully aware that many of our policymakers sincerely believe that possessing nuclear weapons is vital for our national security. We are convinced though, that it is not. Instead, they make the world a more dangerous place. They provide a rationale for other nations to build a nuclear arsenal, thereby increasing the possibility that they will be used by someone.

Not only are they not vital for national security, but we believe they actually contribute to national insecurity. No nation can be truly secure until the community of nations is secure. We are mindful of Pope John Paul II's warning that "violence of whatever form cannot decide conflicts between individuals or between nations, because violence generates more violence." [18]

On this, the 15th anniversary of The Challenge of Peace the time has come for concrete action for nuclear disarmament. On the eve of the Third Millennium may our world rid itself of these terrible weapons of mass destruction and the constant threat they pose.

We cannot delay any longer. Nuclear deterrence as a national policy must be condemned as morally abhorrent because it is the excuse and justification for the continued possession and further development of these horrendous weapons.

We urge all to join in taking up the challenge to begin the effort to eliminate nuclear weapons now, rather than relying on them indefinitely.

May the grace and peace of the risen Jesus Christ be with us all.

Anthony S. Apuron, OFM, Cap.Archbishop of Agana, Guam
Victor Balke Bishop of Crookston, MN
William D. Borders Archbishop of Baltimore, MD (ret.)
Joseph M. Breitenbeck Bishop of Grand Rapids, MI (ret.)
Charles A. Buswell Bishop of Pueblo, CO (ret.)
Matthew H. Clark Bishop of Rochester, NY
Thomas J. Connolly Bishop of Baker, OR
Patrick R. Cooney Bishop of Gaylord, MI
Thomas V. Daily Bishop of Brooklyn, NY
James J. Daly Auxiliary Bishop of Rockville Centre, NY (ret.)
Nicholas D'Antonio, OFM Bishop of New Orleans, LA (ret.)
Joseph P. Delaney Bishop of Fort Worth, TX
Norbert L. Dorsey, C.P Bishop of Orlando, FL
Joseph A. Ferrario Bishop of Honolulu, HI (ret.)
John J. Fitzpatrick Bishop of Brownsville, TX (ret.)
Patrick F. Flores Archbishop of San Antonio, TX
Joseph A. Fiorenza Bishop of Galveston-Houston, TX
Raphael M. Fliss Bishop of Superior, WI
Marion F. Forst Bishop of Dodge City, KS (ret.)
Benedict C. Franzetta Auxiliary Bishop of Youngstown, OH (ret.)
Raymond E. Goedert Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago, IL
John R. Gorman Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago, IL
F. Joseph Gossman Bishop of Raleigh, NC
Thomas J. Gumbleton Auxiliary Bishop of Detroit, MI
Richard C. Hanifen Bishop of Colorado Springs, CO
Edward D. Head Bishop of Buffalo, NY (ret.)
Joseph L. Howze Bishop of Biloxi, MS
Howard J. Hubbard Bishop of Albany, NY
William A. Hughes Bishop of Covington, KY (ret.)
Raymond G. Hunthausen Archbishop of Seattle, WA (ret.)
Joseph L. Imesch Bishop of Joliet, IL
Michael J. Kaniecki, S.J. Bishop of Fairbanks, AK
Raymond A. Lucker Bishop of New Ulm, MN
Dominic A. Marconi Auxiliary Bishop of Newark, NJ
Joseph F. Maguire Bishop of Springfield, MA (ret.)
Leroy T. Matthiesen Bishop of Amarillo, TX (ret.)
Edward A. McCarthy Archbishop of Miami, FL (ret.)
John E. McCarthy Bishop of Austin, TX
Lawrence J. McNamara Bishop of Grand Island, NE
John J. McRaith Bishop of Owensboro, KY
Dale J. Melczek Bishop of Gary, IN
Donald W. MontroseBishop of Stockton, CA
Robert M. Moskal Bishop of St. Josaphat in Parma, OH
Michael J. Murphy Bishop of Erie, PA (ret.)
P. Francis Murphy Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore, MD
William C. Newman Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore, MD
James D. Niedergeses Bishop of Nashville, TN (ret.)
Edward. J. O'Donnell Bishop of Lafayette, LA
Albert H. Ottenweller Bishop of Steubenville, OH (ret.)
Donald E. Pelotte, S.S.S. Bishop of Gallup, NM
A. Edward Pevec Auxiliary Bishop of Cleveland, OH
Michael D. Pfeifer, O.M.I. Bishop of San Angelo, TX
Kenneth J. Povish Bishop of Lansing, MI (ret.)
Francis A. Quinn Bishop of Sacramento, CA (ret.)
John R. Roach Archbishop of St. Paul /Minneapolis, MN (ret.)
Frank J. Rodimer Bishop of Paterson, NJ
Peter A. Rosazza Auxiliary Bishop of Hartford, CT
Joseph M. Sartoris Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, CA
Walter J. Schoenherr Auxiliary Bishop of Detroit, MI (ret.)
Roger L. Schwietz, OMI Bishop of Duluth, MN
Daniel E. Sheehan Archbishop of Omaha, NE (ret.)
Richard J. Sklba Auxiliary Bishop of Milwaukee, WI
John J. Snyder Bishop of St. Augustine, FL
George H. Speltz Bishop of St. Cloud, MN (ret.)
Kenneth D. Steiner Auxiliary Bishop of Portland, OR
Joseph M. Sullivan Auxiliary Bishop of Brooklyn, NY
Walter F. Sullivan Bishop of Richmond, VA
Arthur N. Tafoya Bishop of Pueblo, CO
Elliot G. Thomas Bishop of St. Thomas, VI
David B. Thompson Bishop of Charleston, SC
Kenneth E. Untener Bishop of Saginaw, MI
Loras J. Watters Bishop of Winona, CA (ret.)
Emil A. Wcela Auxiliary Bishop of Rockville Centre, NY


  1. The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response,
    NCCB, 1983, No. 150.

  2. Ibid., Challenge of Peace, No. 186

  3. Ibid., Challenge of Peace, No. 185 & 188 (1)

  4. John Paul II,
    "Message to the United Nations Special Session On Disarmament, 1982," #8

  5. The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace, NCCB, 1993, p. 13.

  6. New York Times, December 6, 1996,
    Statement on Nuclear Weapons
    by 61 International Generals and Admirals.

  7. Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice
    on the (Il)legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, July 8, 1996.

  8. Archbishop Renato Martino,
    United Nations Permanent Observer of the Holy See,
    Statement to the United Nations' 1st Committee,
    Oct. 15, 1997.

  9. British American Security Information Council, Nuclear Futures:
    Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and US Nuclear Strategy,
    March 1, 1998. p.10

  10. President William J. Clinton, Letter of Transmittal
    of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
    to the United States Senate, Sept. 22, 1997.

  11. Western States Legal Foundation, A Faustian Bargain:
    Why "Stockpile Stewardship" is Incompatible with the Process of Nuclear Disarmament,
    March 1998.

  12. Reported in the Washington Post, December 7, 1997, p. 1.

  13. Information shared by
    Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)
    Senior NIF Scientist, William J. Hogan
    with Pax Christi USA Delegation to LLNL,
    October 7, 1997.

  14. British American Security Information Council, Nuclear Futures:
    Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and US Nuclear Strategy,
    March 1, 1998. p.9.

  15. The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace, NCCB, 1993, p. 13.

  16. Giovanni Cheli, Permanent Representative for the Holy See
    Observer Mission to the United Nations,
    United Nations 1st Special Session on Disarmament, 1976.

  17. Archbishop Renato Martino,
    United Nations Permanent Observer of the Holy See,
    Statement to the United Nations' 1st Committee,
    Oct. 15, 1997.

  18. Pope John Paul II,
    Address to Pax Christi International, May 29, 1995.



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