Published on Monday, November 17, 2003 by Newsday / Long Island, NY
Bishops Should Have Been Bolder on Nuke Ban
by Bob Keeler
It's too bad that the nation's Catholic bishops just can't seem to get the press to pay attention to anything but sex.
That's partly due to the nature of today's journalism, too prone to opt for the sexy over the merely substantive. It's partly the fault of the bishops, who haven't the vaguest idea how to maneuver past that tendency, and who assured major coverage of the sexual-abuse scandal by handling it so badly.
Last week's meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington was a perfect example. One of the major documents was a statement on agriculture that called, among other things, for the United States to reduce farm subsidies here that are hurting farmers in the developing world. This document was a long time in the making and right on target. But it had all the impact of a snowflake landing in the Atlantic. Instead, the headlines were about sex: a document on contraception that doesn't even exist yet, a document on gay marriage, and still more stories about the abuse scandal.
The bishops did run a seminar to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the watershed 1983 pastoral letter, "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response." For a Sunday afternoon, it drew a good crowd of bishops. But I wish they'd done more than just talk about it, especially now, when the Bush administration wants to build bunker-busters, tactical nuclear weapons that make the use of nukes more likely.
The 1983 letter clearly condemned the use of nuclear weapons. But, thanks to some heavy lobbying by the Reagan administration and the work of key conservative prelates in the drafting process, it did not ban the possession of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. It gave a "strictly conditioned moral acceptance of nuclear deterrence," but only as an interim step on the way to nuclear disarmament.
In a 1993 update, "The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace," the bishops made important points about arms control and placed new emphasis on nonviolence. But they didn't revoke their acceptance of deterrence. Later in the '90s, the bishops worked with retired military officers and leaders of other religious denominations on a statement about nuclear disarmament, but they didn't change their stand on deterrence.
This year, the bishops chose not to issue a major new peace document on the anniversary of the 1983 letter. "The decision not to do a major update was made a year ago," said Gerard F. Powers, director of the bishops' Office of International Justice and Peace. "At the time, we were involved in trying to prevent a war in Iraq." The bishops have spoken out against the Bush bunker-busters, but they still haven't dropped the big moral bomb: a complete rejection of nuclear deterrence.
Actually, U.S. doctrine has moved beyond deterrence to something worse: compellence. "It's basically using what force you have to force your will on your so-called adversaries and telling them either you do this or else," said Francis A. Boyle, author of "The Criminality of Nuclear Deterrence," and a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign. That includes possible first use of nukes.
"On the whole, we're in far more danger than we were in 20 years ago," said Charles Sheehan-Miles, executive director of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute in Washington. And this administration is adding to the danger.
"Our nation's actions in Iraq and its ongoing doctrine of pre-emptive war against potential threats may well prove to be the fertilizer that fuels a new nuclear arms race, as non-nuclear nations decide that nuclear weapons offer their only hope of survival against the U.S. military machine," Nancy Small wrote recently in America, the Jesuit magazine.
Though the bishops' rationale for not acting now has some merit, I still regret that they didn't move more boldly on nuclear weapons. They can't totally put the sexual-abuse scandal behind them, because there's too much work left to be done. But they can act courageously on other issues, to remind people that, despite all their bungling on sexual abuse, the Catholic bishops have taken brave, Gospel-inspired stands on issues such as Third World debt and immigration. On nuclear weapons, they have one more step to take. I wish they had taken it.
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