They reject the government’s policy of deterrence; their pastoral letter may affect evangelical thinking.

The nation’s Catholic bishops probably will boldly denounce nuclear war and the arms race at a May meeting in Chicago. At about the same time, evangelicals will convene in Pasadena, California, to discuss the same issue.

These two events may have more in common than timing; the bishops have tied their nuclear position to their antiabortion stance. At a November meeting in Washington, D.C., the president of the bishops’ conference, Archbishop John R. Roach of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, said the two issues are inseparable.

Evangelical author and educator Ronald J. Sider believes the Pasadena meeting may be influenced by the bishops’ action. “Their conscious linking of these two issues is quite significant” and will compel evangelicals to consider the theological and moral questions the bishops address, Sider said. But he cautioned that the evangelical meeting, hosted by two Fuller Theological Seminary graduates, will produce no statement. “We will just bring together a whole range of evangelicals. We need to talk and we need to pray about the issue without forcing anyone to change his thinking.”

That is how the bishops approached the issue when they started on it two years ago, but they decided to draft a pastoral letter to the nation’s 51 million Catholics. The letter probably will call for a freeze on development of nuclear weapons when it is formally approved in May. Its purpose is to provide a coherent foundation for church teaching on the issue, but not to dictate a binding opinion. The advent of nuclear weapons, say the bishops, presents a “new moment” for which traditional alternatives of pacifism or “just-war” theory no longer suffice. The awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons calls for a more finely tuned morality that addresses “intention” and “possession” as well as actual use of nuclear weapons.

As the draft of the pastoral letter points out, “We live with nuclear weapons on the basis of an assumption we would not tolerate in any other area of life: we know we cannot afford one mistake.”

The present draft of the 110-page document sounds a clear warning. Chicago archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin, who chairs the committee on the pastoral letter, said its message is that “the danger of nuclear war is great; the present direction of the arms race intensifies the danger; the moral, political, economic, and human costs of the arms race are intolerable”; and as a result it is imperative that “a process of authentic disarmament” begin immediately.

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The bishops’ plunge into this issue, coupled with their unflinching critique of Reagan administration policy, is seen as a significant departure from the image they have long held as the conservative bulwarks of the country’s most populous religious group. Some bishops suggested that this indicates the church has shed its “immigrant mentality” and feels more comfortable entering controversy in public.

The document addresses theology, defense policy, and the dilemma of Catholics in defense-related careers. Each of these subjects attracted spirited discussion, although there was overwhelming support for the letter’s general thrust.

Their letter draft says that “the Church is called to be, in a unique way, the instrument of the Kingdom of God in history.… The church fulfills part of her essential mission by making the peace of the Kingdom more visible in our time.” Pursuing peace belongs in the center of the church’s ministry, with an emphasis on the believer’s “capacity to hope even in the face of threatening tasks.”

In this light, the paper cites a “re-emergence of support for a pacifist option,” placing it next to Saint Augustine’s just-war theory, which has shaped moral thinking about war for centuries. The just-war concept affirms the right of self-defense and defines the conditions for using force.

Several bishops who raised concerns about the letter addressed this shift away from the concept of just war. Auxiliary Bishop Alfred Hughes of Boston warned against “legislating gospel perfection” by failing to distinguish between teachings of Christ that are enjoined equally on all believers, and examples set by Christ that he “invites us to approximate.” Hughes said the letter’s explanation of just war and pacifism violates this distinction. Just war offers moral parameters that apply across the board, Hughes said, while pacifism is an ideal to which some individuals aspire.

Bishop Richard Sklba of Milwaukee questioned the use of Scripture in the letter, saying the biblical theme of peace is developed exclusively, without sufficient reference to war episodes, metaphors of God’s might, or the biblical ideal of laying down one’s life for another.

Bishop Kenneth Untener addressed a common concern about whether the document would divide Catholics. In his own Saginaw, Michigan, diocese, he distributed 18,000 copies of the letter to Catholics, Lutherans, and 200 other churches in an area that is one-third Catholic and one-third Lutheran.

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Rather than being divisive, Untener said the letter brought people together: “Alienated Catholics sensed in this a possible call to come home to a church they are proud of.” Overwhelmingly, local clergymen responded positively, and Untener said the paper “holds great promise to be a significant step toward peace within our own Christian family.”

On the subject of national defense policy, the paper attracted the most heated debate as well as lengthy discourses from the White House. The bishops’ letter takes a firm stand against first use of nuclear weapons and calls for “clear public resistance” to concepts such as “winnable” nuclear war, “survivability” and strategies for “protracted nuclear war.” At the heart of this debate is what the paper calls “the political paradox of deterrence.” It asks, “May a nation threaten what it may never do? May it possess what it may never use?”

Deterrence, the official policy of the U.S. government, justifies the arms build-up because the policy intends to prevent a nuclear war from starting. If war should break out, the deterrent force of our nation’s defenses, it is believed, would prevent war from becoming a nuclear conflict.

The letter recommends “support for immediate bilateral, verifiable agreements to halt the testing … and deployment of new strategic systems”—in essence, a nuclear freeze.

Proponents of deterrence point out that its effectiveness depends on actual willingness to use a nuclear weapon. They question the moral fuzziness of saying deterrence is acceptable as long as arms reductions proceed. They point out that there may be moral justification for supporting deterrence without apology.

Catholic author Michael Novak says deterrence has succeeded for 40 years and does not need tampering: “If you want not to use it, you have to will to use it,” and that is our only realistic option since nuclear weapons are here to stay.

The harshest criticism came from Archbishop Philip M. Hannan of New Orleans, who called on the bishops to scrap the document and substitute statements by Pope John Paul II. Hannan claimed the paper focused exclusively on the questionable morality of American nuclear deployment while completely ignoring “the horrible sufferings, physical and spiritual, of those enslaved by communism and other dictatorships which disregard human rights.”

Hannan said the letter also neglects the U.S. duty to defend Western Europe, could undercut President Reagan’s present arms negotiations with the Soviets, and would involve the bishops “directly in the presidential campaign, creating a very divisive issue among our people.”

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This viewpont was similar to that expressed by the Reagan administration in a seven-page letter from National Security Advisor William P. Clark. It was delivered during the November meeting.

Clark said the pastoral draft “continues to reflect fundamental misreadings of American policies and continues essentially to ignore the far-reaching American proposals that are currently being negotiated with the Soviet Union.”

Whether the nation’s Catholics are likely to take the bishops’ advice any more seriously than they take the ban against artificial contraception remains to be seen. What the bishops have already accomplished, without even approving the letter, is added momentum to discussion of an issue that offers no easy answers.

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