The debate comes up every once in a while in Catholic circles, and it comes up below. I want to take issue with Brad Birzer a little, but with Tom Crowe a lot more. Because our acts of destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not only wrong, they were monumentally wrong in a way that changed us. America hasn’t had the same moral force ever since.
The Second Vatican Council condemned our nation’s use of the atomic bomb and the Catechism repeats its denunciation verbatim in No. 2314 (which someone quoted in the comments section):
“Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.”
The council fathers certainly had the atomic bomb in mind when they put that sentence into Gaudium et Spes (as well as Dresden and Hamburg and even London). The Church’s condemnation is Biblical in its severity : a “crime against God and man.” If you want to fudge on an issue of Catholic morality, don’t pick this “firm and unequivocal” one.
But don’t make the opposite mistake either, concluding that America’s position in World War II was the moral equivalent of our enemies’. Pope John Paul II told our National Prayer Breakfast in the year 2000 that he was “personally grateful for what America did for the world in the darkest days of the 20th century.” Given our achievements in World War II, it seems clear that the dropping of the atomic bomb wasn’t “American Bloodlust” as Brad Birzer had it. No one seriously advocates following the Hiroshima example today. The U.S. military in the 21st century is a leader in weaponry and tactics that avoid harm to civilians (yes, I know there are horrific and disquieting exceptions. But these are not the rule).
Rather, the atomic bomb was a temptation to end the war the easy way — to end the war even if it meant vaporizing children. We didn’t do it out of bloodlust, we did it out of desperation and weariness (and in justified anger at the atrocities Japan was guilty of). The only problem is, once we took the devil’s bait, we found that the only way to rationalize what we did was to abandon moral logic. To obliterate cities, we had to obliterate right and wrong along with them.
Pope Paul VI said “few events in history have had such an effect on man’s conscience.” Pope John Paul II here includes Hiroshima and Nagasaki on a list of pilgrimage sites we should visit and remember in reparation on a par with the “holy cities” of the earth.
As Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said in “What Now America?”
“When, I wonder, did we in America ever get into this idea that freedom means having no boundaries and no limits? I think it began on the 6th of August 1945 at 8:15 am when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. … Somehow or other, from that day on in our American life, we say we want no limits and no boundaries.”
Shortly before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said much the same thing. He associated the use of the atomic bomb with a host of modern abuses of freedom, including terrorism and biomedical attacks against human life.
“There no longer exists a ‘knowing how to do’ separated from a ‘being able to do,’ because it would be against freedom, which is the absolute supreme value. … Man knows how to clone men, and so he does it,” he said. “Man knows how to use men as a store of organs for other men, and so he does it; he does it because this seems to be a requirement of his freedom. Man knows how to build atomic bombs and so he makes them, being, as a matter of principle, also disposed to use them. In the end, terrorism is also based on this modality of man’s self-authorization, and not on the teachings of the Koran.”
American democracy is only as good as American morality. The only way for America to be a moral force in the world is for it to embrace the “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” it was founded on.
For Americans, the culture of life is built on the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The culture of death is built on “crimes against God and man.”
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., where he teaches in the Journalism and Mass Communications department and edits the college’s Catholic identity speech digest, The Gregorian.