When someone commits a grave sin, such as adultery or murder, but never confesses or even acknowledges it, the sin festers. Things begin to go wrong in his life, and he does not understand why. His character slowly becomes corrupted. He loses his former ideals and goals. He finds he is unable to escape a constant, gnawing unhappiness.

The same principle holds for groups of persons, since together, or through their leaders, groups can do things that are seriously wrong. The history of Israel illustrates this: Frequently, its troubles and woes could be traced to some unacknowledged infidelity. In our own time, nations have fallen through presumption and folly. Large firms such as Arthur Andersen have collapsed through unprincipled actions they tried to rationalize.

It is common for Catholics to look at American culture today, with its “moral anarchy,” and wonder when things began to go wrong. Why do we have rampant divorce, abortion, contraception, promiscuity, pornography, homosexual activism and secularization? Usually the ’60s are blamed, and yet there was no noteworthy cause then. Could our moral anarchy, perhaps, have its origins in something even prior to that decade?

This August marks the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We propose that Catholics reflect seriously on whether those bombings amount to a serious, unacknowledged national “sin,” one that has contributed to the corruption of the national character. Could our current moral malaise be traceable — at least in part — to these great, dishonorable acts?

From the point of view of natural law, and Catholic moral teaching, these bombings objectively were acts of mass murder against some 200,000 people, mostly women and children. And yet today it remains common for Catholics to defend them.

Recently we attended a dinner party with about 20 pro-life Catholic friends. In an informal poll, only 4 were confident that the bombings were objectively immoral. Our friends tried to defend the bombing with bad arguments, using premises unacceptable to a well-formed Catholic conscience.

“The bombs were necessary to shock the Japanese into surrender,” they said, “To have fought Japan in an invasion, we might have lost as many as a million soldiers.”

But can an end justify the means? One cannot do evil so that good may come. Non-combatants cannot be directly killed in war, even to achieve a good end.

“In being the first to use the atomic bomb, we adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages,” commented Admiral William Leahy, chief of staff to President Truman. “I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”

Our friends then remarked that wars should not be run on abstract principles but on realistic military tactics. In essence, they posited that national interest and ethical principles can sometimes be in conflict.

But Truth is One: Authentic self-interest is never at odds with what is right. In the case of the atomic bombs, one does not need to look far to see that, even then, good ethics and good military practice really did coincide. Eisenhower and MacArthur, the greatest American generals of World War II, both opposed the use of the bombs as unnecessary.

“Japan was already defeated, and dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary,” Eisenhower wrote afterwards. “Our country should have avoided shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.”

MacArthur likewise asserted that there was “no military justification for the dropping of the bomb,” and that “the war might have ended weeks earlier if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor.”

In the end, it looks as if the best military course of action was exactly the same as the right ethical decision.

Our friends at the dinner party then said that the bombings were justifiable as part of “total war”: All Japanese people, including women and children, were forced to contribute to the war effort. There was no distinction between soldier and civilian; thus, all shared in the guilt.

But we need to be clear about what justifies taking another human life during wartime: It is not “guilt,” but rather being an actual aggressor. One cannot seriously claim that the women and children of Hiroshima were aggressors. They would not have climbed into planes to attack the United States if all the Japanese soldiers had died.

Ultimately, the “total war” argument is an attempt to avoid the explicit condemnation of the Catholic Church of “indiscriminate” attacks — those that do not distinguish between soldier and civilian. The Church has repeatedly reminded us that it is evil to adopt the total war outlook. Wars conducted according to the just-war principles require that one observe carefully the distinction between aggressors and civilians.

Our friends then said that the bombings could be justified by “double effect”: The intended goal was ending the war quickly; the unintended side effect was that 200,000 Japanese people died; and this evil was proportionate to the good achieved, since it probably saved a million U.S. lives.

But this is a misuse of the principle of “double effect.” Double effect applies only to good and bad things achieved in an action itself, not those that are a consequence of the action. (This is why double effect never justifies doing something bad as a means to a good end that comes about later.) The good achieved in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the destruction of a relatively small number of unimportant factories. The evil caused in the bombing was the death of 200,000, which clearly is not proportionate. The “intended” good of ending the war quickly is a remote, not a proximate end, which is not relevant to double effect.

“Suppose Germany had developed two bombs before we had any bombs. And suppose Germany had dropped one bomb, say, on Rochester and the other on Buffalo, and then having run out of bombs she would have lost the war. Can anyone doubt that we would then have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and that we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them?” Thus argued Leo Szilard, a leading scientist in the Manhattan Project, and Catholic teaching would suggest that he was correct.

Mother Teresa used to point to a deep connection between abortion and nuclear war, warning repeatedly, “The fruit of abortion is nuclear war.” But could the reverse be true also, that we see the fruits of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the mentality of abortion and the culture of death? There is, after all, a chilling similarity between the bad arguments for dropping the bombs and the misguided attempts to justify abortion as a “necessary evil.”

It seems reasonable to assert that America is in fact suffering from an unacknowledged sin — one that will continue to fester, undermining our moral idealism, until we bring it out into the open, acknowledge it as the war crime it was, and do penance and reparation.

Catherine Pakaluk is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at Harvard University. Her husband Michael is the author of Dissoi Blogoi, a scholarly weblog. They have 11 children and live in Lancaster, Massachusetts.