100 Seconds to Midnight

COMMENTARY: From Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) to Pope Francis, there has been a consistent, clarion call to bring an end to the madness that is the nuclear-arms race.

A UGM-96 Trident missile clears the water during the 20th demonstration and shakedown launch from the nuclear-powered strategic missile submarine SSBN-658, the USS Mariano G. Vallejo. It was the 45th flight of the Trident missile.
A UGM-96 Trident missile clears the water during the 20th demonstration and shakedown launch from the nuclear-powered strategic missile submarine SSBN-658, the USS Mariano G. Vallejo. It was the 45th flight of the Trident missile. (photo: Public domain/Wikipedia)

The Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight for 2021. This continues the setting from last year and represents, in the estimation of the scientists and security experts who make up the board, the closest we have ever been to “doomsday” — defined by the Bulletin as a “civilization-ending apocalypse.”

These scientists (including 13 Nobel laureates), after evaluating the global handling of COVID-19, have warned: 

“Though lethal on a massive scale, this particular pandemic is not an existential threat. Its consequences are grave and will be lasting. But COVID-19 will not obliterate civilization, and we expect the disease to recede eventually. Still, the pandemic serves as a historic wake-up call, a vivid illustration that national governments and international organizations are unprepared to manage nuclear weapons and climate change, which currently pose existential threats to humanity, or the other dangers — including more virulent pandemics and next-generation warfare — that could threaten civilization in the near future.”

Sobering stuff that might tempt one to fear and despair. However, as a Christian, I know that “fear is useless; what is needed is faith” (Mark 5:36). Furthermore, I know the end of the story of history — God wins. 

We look forward to the Second Coming of the Lord, when he will come at the end of time to usher in the definitive Kingdom of justice, mercy and peace (Gaudium et Spes, 38-39; Revelation 21-22; Acts 1:11; Titus 2:13). Christ has indeed conquered the ancient enemies of humankind — sin, Satan and death. In him we are “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37).

But, while we wait in hope for that glorious day, we are also called to be good stewards of all entrusted to our care. This includes our civilization, our cosmos and our fellow citizens of the earth. Christians cannot be indifferent to the myriad existential threats that we face. This has been the consistent theme of every Roman pontiff since 1945 — the year humankind mastered for the first time the awesome power to destroy everything.

From Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) to Pope Francis, there has been a consistent, clarion call to bring an end to the madness that is the nuclear arms race and to implement a worldwide security system based on solidarity, mutual trust, integral human development and respect for human rights. A first step in this process would be the elimination of defense policies based on the mutual fear of nuclear annihilation.

Although nuclear deterrence has helped keep a “quasi-peace” between competing factions and nations, it is based on a fundamental immorality. In carrying out nuclear deterrence, numerous actors must make a conditional choice to disproportionately destroy the vital infrastructure and indiscriminately kill the innocent of their potential enemy. For deterrence to work, all involved, from junior military members to the head of state, must be willing to do the unthinkable if the order is given or certain circumstances are met.

In other words, the use of strategic nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction is always and everywhere immoral. And it is also wrong to threaten to do what it is always wrong to do.

I know this to be true because it follows from the Church’s teaching about the ethics of war and peace. It also follows from the just-war tradition that is foundational to ethical military service. I also know it from my firsthand experience in the U.S. Navy.

When I joined the Navy in 1977, it was at the height of the Cold War. Our military was dealing with the recent loss in Vietnam and an energy crisis brought on by an OPEC embargo. Our society was suffering from what President Jimmy Carter called a “crisis of confidence” and others would later call a general malaise.

Despite all of this and the threat of Communist China, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the Doomsday Clock was set only at nine minutes to midnight.

But we were prepared to fight a nuclear war. My first summer cruise between my plebe and youngster years (freshman and sophomore) at the Naval Academy was on the SSBN-658, the USS Mariano G. Vallejo, a nuclear ballistic missile submarine with 16 ballistic missiles, each with a capacity of 10 independently targetable warheads, each 10 to 30 times more powerful than the devices dropped on Japan. Think of it: one boat (subs are called boats even if they displace 8,000 tons) with up to 160 warheads, each significantly more destructive than anything ever used before in war. 

I was serving aboard a doomsday machine. Every day we practiced for a game we hoped never to play, knowing that if we ever did play it, we would have already lost everything. With President John F. Kennedy and Chairman Nikita Khrushchev, we knew that if these weapons were ever used, “the living would envy the dead.”

Even though I was not yet Catholic and had not yet studied just-war theory in depth, I knew I could never do what I daily saw the captain and weapons officer practice doing — inserting the keys and launching those missiles. After becoming Catholic and studying ethics, I came to hope no one would ever be willing to do so.

Nuclear deterrence, in theory and practice, is a structure of sin. No amount of hair-splitting distinctions between “counter-force” and “counter-value” targeting can eliminate the fact that in both intent and practice the use of strategic nuclear weapons will be disproportionate and indiscriminate. This has been understood from the beginning of the nuclear age, even if not always spoken out loud. 

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was open about it when he said in a speech entitled “Mutual Deterrence” delivered in San Francisco on Sept. 18, 1967:

“Security depends upon assuming a worst plausible case, and having the ability to cope with it. In that eventuality we must be able to absorb the total weight of nuclear attack on our country — on our retaliatory forces, on our command and control apparatus, on our industrial capacity, on our cities, and on our population — and still be capable of damaging the aggressor to the point that his society would be simply no longer viable in 20th-century terms. That is what deterrence of nuclear aggression means. It means the certainty of suicide to the aggressor, not merely to his military forces, but to his society as a whole.”


The Popes Speak

This is why multiple popes have condemned strategic nuclear weapons. The Second Vatican Council, building on the teaching of Pius XII and John XXIII, taught:

“Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation. The unique hazard of modern warfare consists in this: It provides those who possess modern scientific weapons with a kind of occasion for perpetrating just such abominations …” (Gaudium et Spes, 80).

While John Paul II, during the Cold War in 1982, did allow the theoretical possibility of a conditional, interim acceptance of deterrence on the way to progressive disarmament, both Benedict XVI and Francis have been most emphatic: We must end our reliance on these weapons.

Pope Benedict, in his 2006 World Peace Day Message, said, “What can be said, too, about those governments which count on nuclear arms as a means of ensuring the security of their countries? Along with countless persons of good will, one can state that this point of view is not only baneful but also completely fallacious. In a nuclear war there would be no victors, only victims.” 

Pope Francis in 2017 stated, “Nuclear weapons are not only immoral but must also be considered an illegal means of warfare.”

And in visiting Hiroshima, Japan, in 2019, Francis went further when he declared that it is immoral even to possess nuclear weapons: “With deep conviction I wish once more to declare that the use of atomic energy for purposes of war is today, more than ever, a crime not only against the dignity of human beings but against any possible future for our common home. The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possessing of nuclear weapons is immoral, as I already said two years ago.”


What Is to Be Done?

First, we should be mindful of the progress that has been made — albeit only a small step — toward sanity. We have reduced the number of warheads worldwide. 

Using data from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, there were more than 69,000 nuclear warheads worldwide when I left the Navy to enter the seminary in 1986. By 2010, that number had dropped to fewer than 18,000. By 2020, the number was estimated to be 13,400. Of the approximately 5,800 warheads in the U.S. stockpile, only about 1,750 are deployed or deployable. 

Second, we should support arms-control efforts, including the extension of the New START treaty, reentry into the Iran nuclear agreement, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that went into effect Jan. 22, 2021. 

Third, we should oppose the massive amount of spending planned over the next decade for the modernization of our nuclear triad. The proposed cost to build and deploy a new deterrent submarine class, updated missiles, new strategic aircraft and land-based missiles is in the trillions of dollars.

As Benedict XVI taught in 2006: “The truth of peace requires that all — whether those governments which openly or secretly possess nuclear arms, or those planning to acquire them — agree to change their course by clear and firm decisions, and strive for a progressive and concerted nuclear disarmament. The resources which would be saved could then be employed in projects of development capable of benefiting all their people, especially the poor.”

Fourth, the world obviously needs concerted dialogue between the world’s nuclear powers, with the goal of multilateral disarmament. But we Catholics need a serious dialogue, as well. If it is indeed immoral to threaten the use and, perhaps, even to possess strategic nuclear weapons — and there is ample evidence that it is — then we must clearly teach this truth and act on its consequences. 

Leaving the issue ambiguous is unfair to the men and women who are asked to serve in our armed forces. This is an issue that cannot be ignored. And this is an age that desperately needs, even if it resists it, moral clarity.

Msgr. Stuart Swetland is the president of Donnelly College. 

A 1981 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he served six years as a line officer in the U.S. Navy.

The BAKER test of Operation Crossroads, July 25, 1946.

Bishops’ Peace Chairman Warns of ‘Menace’ of Nuclear Weapons

Catholic authorities have been warning about the threat of nuclear war for decades. St. Paul VI in 1968 called for “putting an end to the nuclear arms race,” while St. John Paul II in 1981 urged humanity to “make a moral about-face” in order to avoid “nuclear annihilation.”