US Catholic Faith in Real Life

25 years ago in U.S. Catholic—Bombs away: What U.S. Catholic readers think about nuclear weapons

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By Tim Unsworth

This article appeared in the August 1988 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 53, No. 8, pages 6-17).

Although few readers believe God would intervene to stop a nuclear war, they still bend God's ear about it every day.

An old Arab proverb says: "Trust in God but tie up your camel." U.S. Catholic readers have a lot in common with the unknown camel driver who mined this bit of bucolic wisdom from the hardscrabble of his experience.

U.S. Catholic readers are very peace oriented, perhaps even more so than the larger body of Catholics in the United States. "We must stop the nuclear arms race," says a Florida man. "We must develop mutual trust and establish more trade and create exchange programs for students, scientists, doctors, and engineers."

Another respondent says, "God gave us the Ten Commandments. If we truly followed each one, how could there be war? We would love one another and care what happens to all."

It's safe to say that readers surveyed feel as strongly about the use of nuclear weapons as they do about abortion. Both represent an unwarranted taking of human life. Both involve the killing of defenseless and innocent people. Both are threads in the seamless garment of gospel teaching.

Most antinuclear Catholics agree strongly with ever pontiff since Pius XII, who tried to negotiate a U.S.-Japan treaty before the nuclear holocausts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and especially with the present pontiff, who pleads passionately and consistently for bilateral treaties that call for a reduction and the ultimate abandonment of every nuclear weapon.

The U.S. Catholic survey results would warm the hearts of the American bishops, whose 1983 pastoral, The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response, was received favorably by the majority of Catholics. Jim Castelli, author of The Bishops and the Bomb, says, "Bishops very often take positions that agree with the majority of American Catholics." In this instance, it is obvious that the pastoral was widely accepted because it represented American Catholic thinking well before it was issued. Castelli, who is coauthor with George Gallup, Jr. of The American Catholic People: Their Beliefs, Practices and Values and with Msgr. Joseph Gremillion of The Emerging Parish: The Notre Dame Study of Catholic Life Since Vatican II, points out that only one in three Catholics had even heard of the peace pastoral by 1987 but that this statistic, taken in isolation, is misleading.

"The Notre Dame survey was conducted in 1983," Castelli says. "During that time there was a peak of publicity about the pastoral, which took a strong stand in favor of arms control and reduction and supported the concept of a bilateral U.S.-Soviet freeze. Gallup surveys have consistently found Catholics more supportive of the freeze than any other religious group in this country. Between 1982 and 1984, Catholic support fluctuated between 70 and 84 percent. But the Notre Dame study found that an incredible 92 percent of Catholics supported a bilateral freeze. The pastoral study dearly influenced that difference."

Swords into plowshares

When the pastoral appeared, the White House selected a Catholic writer to prepare a polite rebuttal. The major newspapers gave the bishops' document ample coverage but carried opinion columns authored by their equal-time conservative writers, some of whom are Catholics. The effect was to suggest that there were a lot of hawkish Catholic ethnics out there. The reality, according to Castelli, is quite the opposite. “American Catholics have been doves for a generation," he says. “At the beginning of the Vietnam War, Catholics were more hawkish," he wrote in a recent article in Salt, a social justice magazine published by the Claretians, ''but by the middle of 1966, they had become more dovish—and have remained so ever since." One U.S. Catholic reader from Texas writes that if he were president for a day he'd "close every store and business and ask that everyone gather in their churches and conduct daylong services for peace."

Statistically, then, there were few great surprises in the U.S. Catholic survey. What did surprise was the sheer intensity of the responses. War hawks are rapidly becoming an endangered species. The emotional answers were reminiscent of Pope Paul VI's plea to the United Nations during his U.S. visit. "War no more," he literally shouted. "Put down your weapons!"

Like the pope's address, the respondents to this survey used a lot of imperatives and exclamation points. "Stop! ... Pray! ... Negotiate!" the answers shouted. Deeply loyal, pragmatic Americans, some of whom applauded President Reagan's tough rhetoric about Communism, were also saying: "War is insane. Dialogue and dismantle." There were echoes of the late President John F. Kennedy's famous elliptical sentence: "Let us never negotiate in fear, but let us never fear to negotiate."

Sixty-one percent of the respondents do not agree that America's best peace is a strong nuclear defense. Says one woman from the South: 'All that is needed is a few warheads. The aftermath alone would render a region helpless due to people too sick with radiation poisoning to do anything." Seventy-five percent believe that there could be no such thing as a just war that involves the use of nuclear weapons, and only 10 percent believe that they could fire the first salvo of nuclear weapons even if they believed the war were just. A staggering 97 percent believe that no one would win in an all-out nuclear war. In this they echoed President Reagan's own sentiment: "Nobody wins a nuclear war," and that of former President Jimmy Carter who said: "The survivors, if any, would live in despair amid the poisoned ruins of a civilization that had committed suicide."

Better dead or red?

U.S. Catholic readers are not pacifists, but they are clearly not "better dead than red" bumper-sticker Christians. "I don't want to die a horrible death, and I don't want to destroy our planet," says a reader from New Hampshire. Only 20 percent of the readers surveyed favor unilateral disarmament, and only 16 percent believe that God would intervene in a nuclear war. Yet, 82 percent do not believe that it is morally permissible to launch nuclear weapons, and 80 percent want their bishops to continue their present posture or take an even stronger stand against nuclear weapons. Even the most conservative respondents called for negotiations before all else—“even if it causes us to lose face,” one says. Many asked that the money saved in defense cuts be used to feed the poor, to do medical research, and to improve the living conditions of the elderly.

Castelli finds no contradiction in these findings. “Catholics are very peace oriented but also pragmatic,” he says. “There is very little utopianism among them. The theme of all the research I’ve seen on this issue is a kind of pragmatic dovishness.”

The survey is interesting in that it says a great deal about direct church involvement in this issue and, inferentially, about other issues. Initially the common response from political leaders about peace proposals was that the church should stay out of politics. The historical reality is that church involvement in moral issues predates involvement in peace groups. Catholics fought anti-Catholic textbooks in the schools, the use of Protestant Bibles, and numerous other issues. Catholics defended unions, fought court packing, and supported much social legislation. Thus, when U.S. Catholic readers urge the president to exert every effort to keep the flash points of war well-watered with the discussion of peace, they are living out one of the very tenets of their faith.

One New York resident comments: "Until all people have a voice and have respect, you'll never have world peace." She believes its important "to keep peace at home and in the neighborhood with people you come in contact with."

Passion for peace

Politicians should take heed. Catholics—at least those surveyed—are not rosary-packing Rambos. They are measurably less blood-and-guts Christians than the fundamentalists. They are well left of Teddy Roosevelt's "speak quietly and carry the big stick" foreign policy. They are far more sophisticated and nuanced than they are sometimes portrayed. U.S. Catholic readers are a bit more likely to expect war than some other groups; but 94 percent support a gradual disarmament or a bilateral freeze rather than a red-phone, push-button war.

However, they remain pragmatic. Like the police officer's billy that the homeowner keeps in the closet as a measure of protection against home invasion, most U.S. Catholic readers feel that some weapons are needed simply to prevent their use.

Catholics seem to be moderates with a passion for peace. Jim Castelli believes that they are the driving force behind U.S. efforts to achieve arms control. The bishops' pastoral may have inspired the political leadership to get back to the bargaining table, and the 1988 arms treaty signed by Reagan and Gorbachev may have more support among Catholics than any other religious group. "Peacemaking must become a way of life," one Minneapolis respondent writes. And another reader says: "For the sake of our sister earth and all living things, the initiative toward peace must be seized now!"

Image: Flickr photo cc by The Official CTBTO Photostream

Read more articles from past issues here: From the U.S. Catholic archives