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Pro-Bomb? No, morality entails sacrifice and trust in God.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 09, 2020

When George Weigel wrote his absurd defense of the bombing of Hiroshima and Fr. Jerry Pokorsky essentially called him out for it, I was surprised and saddened to find that some of our readers also defended the bombing, declaring that Fr. Pokorsky was wrong. In thinking about this, I realized two things:

  1. Some otherwise serious Catholics do not understand the concept of intrinsic evil.
  2. Some otherwise serious Catholics do not understand that sacrificial trust in God lies at the heart of morality, including moral public policy.

Intrinsic evil

If an action is intrinsically evil, it may not be directly willed under any circumstances whatsoever. Full stop. The simplest example is probably murder, defined as the deliberate taking of innocent human life. Suppose, for example, that a criminal invades my home, bringing with him a hostage whom I have never seen and do not know. The criminal tells me I have two choices. I can beat the hostage to death with a sledge hammer, and he will leave without harming me and my family. Or I can refuse that request, and he will kill me, my wife and my six children.

Note that my fatherly responsibility, my affections, and the numbers involved—not to mention my own self-interest—all favor one course of action: As Caiaphas put it, “It is expedient that one man should die for the people” (Jn 11:50)—and he was right, if morality is defined (as it so often is) as the moral actor’s human expediency. But the correct moral course is to refuse to bludgeon the hostage, even if it means the criminal will kill all of us. And the reason this is the correct moral course, is that killing the innocent hostage is murder, which is intrinsically evil. Therefore, I may not commit murder under any circumstances whatsoever.

I would try to prevent the logical outcome by launching a direct attack on the gunman, of course. We must always be alert to possibilities which lie “outside the box”, which so often means outside the box of our own fears. But with respect to the hostage, I have no Catholic choice except to trust in God and follow what I know to be His will.

Most readers of understand this argument when it comes to abortion. It is intrinsically immoral to choose to directly cause the death of an unborn child even if doing so, according to competent medical opinion, is likely to save the life of the mother. Here again, the Catholic has no moral choice other than to strive to save both lives while trusting in God.

But it seems that some do not grasp the concept of intrinsic evil when it comes to war. It is intrinsically evil to directly will the deaths of non-combatants in order to increase the likelihood of victory in a war. Some level of undesired collateral damage can be tolerated when not directly intended, simply because, with the best will in the world, we cannot always completely control the results of military action. The effort to destroy a weapons factory, for example, even if properly targeted, may entail some collateral damage. But dropping a major nuclear device on a city, in order to demonstrate our power to destroy the general population, clearly targets not only non-combatants but a great many people, young and old, who never wanted the war, may not support it, or are too young even to understand it.

Some have tried to justify the American decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by explaining that Japanese culture made it likely that large numbers of civilians would actively resist an invasion, and/or that the American death toll in an invasion would have been very high. On this basis, the best calculation suggests that many American lives were saved by the decision to use the atomic bomb, perhaps even many lives on both sides. But intrinsic evil has nothing to do with the projection of future contingencies or the calculation of numbers. Such projections and calculations may play a role in prudential decisions, but intrinsic evil is not subject to considerations of prudence. An intrinsic evil is something we cannot do under any circumstances.

Moral clarity and sacrifice

Morality is not simply a series of ends and means to which we adhere by virtue of our perception of the natural law when it seems reasonable and within our abilities to do so. For all persons, it is much more than that, but this “much more” is clearly visible only in light of Divine Revelation and Catholic teaching. For the Christian, moral behavior is a participation in the life of God and, ultimately, a willingness to recognize that God is God, that we are not, and that God’s will is not only theoretically sovereign but always best. For this reason, Judaism, and to an even greater extent Christianity, enable us to grasp morality not only in terms of a true understanding of good and evil but in terms of the decision about whether or not to put our trust in God.

As I mentioned in a recent commentary, we know, or ought to know, that “unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it” (Ps 127:1a)—or, perhaps more to the point here, “unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (1b). We also know, or ought to know, that “a day in thy courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.” Indeed, as the Psalmist puts it, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Ps 84:10).

We know that it is blessed to hunger and thirst for righteousness, for those who do will be satisfied (Mt 5:6). We pray daily, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” (Mt 6:10). And presumably we try to accept the challenge of these words: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Mt 6:33). But the key to embracing all of these statements—the root of the matter, the teeth of the moral instruction—is revealed here:

And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” [Mt 16:22-26]

The reference here, of course, is to eternal life with God. Throughout the earthly stage of life, each of us is challenged in different ways when it comes to our willingness to “take up his cross”, whether in private matters or public affairs. Often that challenge is to avoid taking the easy way out of a difficult situation by choosing what is expedient. Our motive may be to prevent great evil, and since God knows perfectly all circumstances and all the pressures, our guilt for a transgression of His law may be judged lesser or greater in each case. But the point here is that we cannot do the good under duress if we do not trust that adherence to God’s will is always the right course—that is, if we are unwilling to take up the cross and follow Him, even when the results of doing so, to our human eyes, seem intolerable.

Christianity with teeth

One of the risks of the current “culture wars” is that we tend to think that a willingness to state the truth about contemporary problems is the essence of a Christianity with teeth. God knows it is better than nothing, but it is not the real test of our conviction as Catholics. The real test is our willingness to trust God even when we do not understand how His way can possibly be the right way. The real test is our willingness to refrain from an intrinsically evil action even under duress, when the outcomes we ourselves foresee are all wrong.

This applies as much to macro decisions about nuclear bombing as to micro decisions about one woman’s abortion. The difference may well be that some on “our side” can grasp the intrinsic evil of abortion and its consequences only because they are not personally involved. But put the same question in terms of a war in which their own family history or national self-image is involved, and suddenly the concept of intrinsic morality is discarded. Or perhaps it is simply the private aspect of abortion as compared with the public aspect of war that makes some think the concept of intrinsic evil should apply privately but cannot be applied to affairs of state. Either way, suddenly it is all about who started it, or about the lesser worth of “enemy” lives, or about numbers and tradeoffs.

But it isn’t, not really. Whether personal and private or national and public, morality is always first and foremost about the acceptance of suffering and trust in God. Every moral decision begins, ends and bears fruit only through the Cross of Christ.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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Show 16 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: stan.sienkiewicz3391 - Nov. 25, 2020 12:42 PM ET USA

    I agree with you that taking innocent lives purposefully is always wrong. The Allies found the bombing of London to be evil because of the innocent lives involved but forgot this when it came to Japan. How can you look at the pictures of the families sitting outside sitting on their steps and be at peace. Yes, you want to drop the bomb because you want an early end of the war but ends never justify means. Thank you for the article.

  • Posted by: philtech2465 - Oct. 20, 2020 9:00 AM ET USA

    Thanks Dr, Mirus, but these discussions assume both a moral clarity and a clear set of outcomes, neither of which existed for the Hiroshima bombing. In your example, I argue that it is immoral both to kill the hostage, and passively allow the gunman to kill your family, so you had a duty to attack the gunman -- unless you knew with certainty that was impossible. At Hiroshima, the line between combatant and non-combatant in Japan was already blurred, making the morally right decision unclear.

  • Posted by: concerned_citizen - Oct. 18, 2020 1:48 PM ET USA

    Thanks, Dr. Mirus, for the clarity on the dropping of the bomb. I appreciate George Weigel in so many of his writings, but this reminds me how easily the "conservative" Catholic can slip into a merely neo-conservative political mode. Fr. Jerry's article was excellent, and Fulton Sheen's the words of a true prophet.

  • Posted by: Cory - Oct. 15, 2020 8:04 AM ET USA

    "But intrinsic evil has nothing to do with the projection of future contingencies or the calculation of numbers. Such projections and calculations may play a role in prudential decisions, but intrinsic evil is not subject to considerations of prudence. An intrinsic evil is something we cannot do under any circumstances." And that sums it up.

  • Posted by: christosvoskresye5324 - Oct. 12, 2020 10:15 PM ET USA

    "There are no innocent civilians, so it doesn't bother me so much to be killing innocent bystanders." -- Curtis LeMay "I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.... Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you're not a good soldier." -- Curtis LeMay Don't make excuses for him.

  • Posted by: christosvoskresye5324 - Oct. 12, 2020 7:33 PM ET USA

    Taking an action you know will also kill innocents does not NECESSARILY mean you directly intend the deaths of those innocents. However, the proponents of terror bombing were quite explicit about what they were doing, both before and after the atom bombs were dropped, and the targeted structures at ground zero were not military bases. The idea that the bombs were "really" designed to take out something like a ball bearing plant does not deserve to be taken seriously.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Oct. 12, 2020 10:42 AM ET USA

    BellocFan: Thanks for your comment. I don't know where you got the idea that the essence of my argument was that nuclear weapons are immoral. You are right that the issue is targeting non-combatants. Nuclear weapons are not intrinsically evil, since they can be used precisely to strike particular targets without necessarily killing the innocent (what are called "tactical" nuclear weapons), at least assuming my understanding of this weapons technology is correct. The same can be said of any weapon, of whatever type, regardless of its potential destructive power, if that power can be harnessed in limited ways for legitimate military purposes without necessarily extending the destruction to non-combatants/civilian populations. Clearly there is both a huge risk and a serious moral question involved in possessing weapons that cannot be, or are not designed to be, limited in this way, but that is a separate problem, which was not within the purpose of my article.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Oct. 12, 2020 10:22 AM ET USA

    john.aerts6220: Thanks for the questions you raised. I'll attempt to respond here. (1) We know the death of non-combatants was directly willed because it was impossible to use that weapon to target that location without necessarily murdering huge numbers of innocent people, both from the blast itself and from radiation poisoning, and the decision-makers clearly understood this. Hence, to take this action necessarily involved a willingness to obtain that result, as opposed to a reasonable effort to avoid it. For such deaths to be classified as collateral damage, one would have to (a) believe that this bomb could have been used under these conditions to destroy only a specific target; and (b) take specific steps to use it only in that way. Otherwise, the general loss of life was willed, regardless of the reasons and the calculations. (And, in fact, historically we know this was the case.) Which bring us to (2) We can admit the decision was made to save lives (or at least American lives) in the long run, but the whole point is that this is nothing to the purpose. Deliberately choosing a course of action that necessarily kills the innocent cannot, by any mind trick, be justified under the heading of prudence (turning what is intrinsically evil into a numbers game), or be justified as not directly willed (collateral damage). On this last point, we cannot argue that something has not been directly willed because "we were forced into it by circumstances beyond our control". No amount of theoretical reluctance can support the pretense that the action was not directly willed. That can be argued only if somebody takes your hand and forces it down on the button while you were struggling to prevent it. To say "I hate to do it, but..." always shifts the will to the BUT, making an action directly willed. Of course, as I indicated in the article, God understands how difficult a decision can be for each of us to make, and how confused our minds may be, and with what degree of fault (if any) they are confused. Moreover, the will's freedom may also be impaired under duress. We can judge an action to be right or wrong, certainly; but without pretending that wrong can be made right, we must also recognize that only God can judge the disposition, state of mind, and corresponding degree of guilt of the actor.

  • Posted by: 1Jn416 - Oct. 11, 2020 10:56 PM ET USA

    It is relatively easy to analyze the morality of the nuclear attacks on Japan 75 years ago. The true hard work, morally and politically, is to find the right way to handle the nuclear situation in the world today. Every year arms of the church publish "nukes bad, get rid of them" pablum with no suggestion of how. No examination on the state of proliferation among smaller states, and the need to have nukes yourself to deter attack, and how to unwind all this. We need that thinking to begin!

  • Posted by: nix898049 - Oct. 11, 2020 8:13 PM ET USA

    This whole discussion reminds me of nothing so much as the moral dilemma posed by the creation and storage of 'spare' embryos. They should never have been brought into existence but they were and they are a reality. Even medical ethicists can't come up with a moral way to bring them to birth or to dispose of them. Painted into a corner by the bomb and IVF. We can only acknowledged our sin and pray for mercy.

  • Posted by: howwhite5517 - Oct. 11, 2020 11:29 AM ET USA

    The original point of Fr Pokorsky was that Hiroshima was the cause of the cultural decay. I thought it abortion. Your comments seem to weigh in on Hiroshima. Your comment on Weigel surprises me but I have not yet read his article. A lot to think about. Thank you for your thoughts on Hiroshima.

  • Posted by: padre3536 - Oct. 10, 2020 12:26 PM ET USA

    Quite good, but needs some Godly elaboration: "It is intrinsically evil to directly will the deaths of non-combatants in order to increase the likelihood of victory in a war". First, elaborate-elucidate on why we can judge and be CORRECT, not merely certain, that they directly willed as opposed to INDIRECTLY willed. Second, elaborate-elucidate, on WHY we know the intention WAS not to prevent an even greater loss of lives for BOTH sides than bomb, by prudence, while NOT willing collateral...

  • Posted by: Bronco Pete - Oct. 09, 2020 7:54 PM ET USA

    Decisions of morality are easy in the abstract. However very difficult when we are forced to pull the trigger. I’ve seen that elephant. Perhaps it is the better person who can act with morally clarity. If so, I respect that person.

  • Posted by: BellocFan - Oct. 09, 2020 6:54 PM ET USA

    I think that the (unstated or unclear) conclusion is that nuclear weapons are intrinsically evil but is not founded upon the facts presented. The issue is targeting civilians. The use of any weapon to target mainly civilians is intrinsically evil, and at Hiroshima that seems the case. But is the weapon technology intrinsically evil, or only the intentional use primarily against civilians. Is there yield limit beyond which a weapon is intrinsically evil? Gunpowder? TNT? Cannons?

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Oct. 09, 2020 6:07 PM ET USA

    Let us not forget the fire bombing of Japan and Germany before the nuclear holocaust. Those military leaders who supported fire bombing but found nuclear bombing unacceptable are simply washing their hands free of guilt like Pilate. War is waged for profit! That was plainly stated by General Butler a very long time ago. What we do from here is love our neighbor as ourselves because that is what we MUST do. Pray for God's mercy and peace will follow.

  • Posted by: christosvoskresye5324 - Oct. 09, 2020 4:53 PM ET USA

    That still leaves us with the problem of what to do NOW. The quickest way off a dangerous cliff is to jump, but the point is to get down safely, not quickly. Likewise, unilateral disarmament would be quick, but it would be VERY unsafe. It will take hard thinking that engages reality to get us down from this cliff without disaster, and we can expect no such help from our bishops, nor from a Pope who seems to blame COVID-19 on "ecological sins".