The Olympics were back this winter! A parade of nations. Skiing, skating and various other competitive events on snow and ice.
The games are a hope-filled image of what the human community could look like if we ever learned to settle differences without resorting to more violent competition. They also remind us that some of the most unimaginable dreams can be realized through hard work and a determination to achieve the best.
This Olympic message stands in sharp contrast to another one playing out on the international stage. That is the mounting call for more nuclear weapons. North Korea and Iran are the most visible actors on this stage, but other countries are auditioning, including Russia. The president is calling for expansion and updating of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
So the obvious questions: When other nations threaten nuclear war, is expanding our own nuclear stockpile the only, or even the best, way to prevent such a horrific conflict? Equally important, is the use of nuclear weapons morally justified? Our answer to the second question should determine how we respond to the first.
Catholic social teaching is quite clear about the use of nuclear arms. That teaching was shaped during the Cold War when the United States and Soviet Union were engaged in a nuclear stare down. In 1983, the U.S. Catholic bishops gave us their pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.”
The letter offers three pivotal points regarding the use of nuclear weapons. First, there is no situation in which “the deliberate initiation of nuclear warfare, on however restricted a scale, can be morally justified” (150).
Retaliating with nuclear weapons against another nation’s first strike is equally unacceptable. The bishops state that because of the difficulty in controlling a nuclear exchange, they stand “against any use of nuclear weapons,” even in self-defense (153). Finally, regarding the use of limited or strategic nuclear weapons, the letter points to the near impossibility of actually limiting their use to the battlefield. The bishops therefore conclude “there is no moral justification for submitting the human community to this risk (161).
The bishops’ stance against any use of nuclear weapons rests on the principle that acts of war may never knowingly destroy populations of noncombatants. Nuclear weapons, because of their massive destructive power, do exactly that, and they must never be used.
So what is a nation to do in the face of threats from a nuclear-armed foe? The answer is as simple as it is difficult. That is, strive to resolve the underlying conflict without going to war. Enlist the support of the global community to resolve tensions. Employ economic pressures to bring the other party to the bargaining table.
Consider how our own nation may have helped bring about the crisis. Never accept that war, especially nuclear war, is the only way to respond to a foe, even a dictator intent on preserving his own regime by threatening nuclear attacks.
Every nation has a right and responsibility to defend itself, but no nation has the right to employ immoral means to that end. Our leaders would do well to set aside egos, tone down the bravado, and stop boasting about the size of our nuclear button. Rather, let them — and all of us — engage in the long, tedious work of building peace. It is a requirement of our faith.
The Olympic athletes have shown us how that can be done. They are committed to an ideal, to a dream, and they have put in the time and effort to make that dream a reality.
In the opening ceremony a striking performance was that of four Korean musicians singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.” We, too, might imagine what the world would be like if we and our leaders committed to resolving international conflicts without war, and without moving us closer to nuclear annihilation.
Bernie Evans is retired from St. John’s University School of Theology/Seminary in Collegeville, where he held the Virgil Michel Ecumenical Chair in Rural Social Ministries.