from For Swords into Plowshares, the Hammer Has to Fall edited by Daniel Berrigan, S.J. Although this Pentecost reflection was written around 1984, it is still relevant today.
I have decided to be a witness in the trials of several persons arrested while they were engaged in non-violent protest of the deployment of the Trident weapons system. I have made this decision for two reasons. First, I wish to voice both my admiration and support for those who, at great personal cost, continue to remind us of our moral responsibility for the presence of these horrifying weapons in our midst. Secondly, I believe this is an important opportunity for me to reflect with the Church in this community on principles important to our common vocation to be peacemakers.
It is my understanding that, in their defense, the protesters not only cite the principle that the claims of conscience are superior to the claims of civil law, but also the principle that we owe an allegiance to all of the human family which goes beyond loyalty to the nation state. Therefore, the tenets of international law, including the common law of human kind, supercede the law of any nation when the two are in conflict. I wish to focus on the second principle enunciated here because I believe it goes to the heart of the matter. For only the individual is bound by the dictates of individual conscience, but I believe that we are all morally bound to take seriously the common laws of humanity.
The idea that we are all bound by reciprocal rights and obligations to all our brothers and sisters has long been a central theme in Catholic social teaching. This teaching is echoed in the principles that were applied by the United States at the Nuremberg trials. Applied, I might point out, in the trial of officials who failed the test of this standard in a situation hauntingly similar to the situation we face today as citizens of the United States. This teaching is clearly restated and elaborated in our recently completed pastoral on nuclear war, The Challenge of Peace:
“The Creator has provided this world and all its resources for the sustenance and benefit of the entire human family. The truth that the globe is inhabited by a single family in which all have the same basic needs and all have a right to the goods of the earth is a fundamental principle of Catholic teaching which we believe to be of increasing importance.” (p. 95)
In applying this principle to the roles of the citizen in the United States today, we go on to state in our pastoral letter:
“The virtue of patriotism means that as citizens we respect and honor our country, but our very love and loyalty makes us examine carefully and regularly its role in world affairs, asking that it live up to its full potential as an agent of peace with justice for all people.”
We then quote the relevant passage from The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World from Vatican II:
“Citizens must cultivate a generous and loyal spirit of patriotism, but without being narrow-minded. This means that they will always direct their attention to the good of the whole family, united by the different ties which bind together races, people, and nations.” (Pastoral letter p. 148)
If we accept this teaching of the church that we are, in effect, citizens of the world, then we are bound to honor that citizenship when it is appropriate to do so. Up until very recent times, because of social and physical limitations, there was virtually no time or matter where reference to our citizenship of the world was appropriate. But I believe, in this “new moment” in human history of which our recent pastoral letter speaks, our world citizenship has become a reality. We must accept responsibility for the rights and obligations that the “new reality” of nuclear arms and the threat of worldwide annihilation imposes.
In Catholic social teaching, the measure we use to determine the appropriate social level for undertaking action on behalf of the common good is called the principle of subsidiarity. Simply put, that principle says that the responsibility for meeting the needs of an individual or individuals resides at the social level closest to the persons concerned who can effectively meet those needs. When applied to political society, that principle holds that the laws, processes and structures of that political unit which is the nearest effective unit to the social needs demanding to be met are the laws, processes and structures which govern in that case. As I and my fellow bishops reflected on the moral magnitude of the issues presented to us by nuclear arms, we came to this conclusion:
“This must be the starting point for any further moral reflection: nuclear weapons, particularly, and nuclear warfare as it is planned today, raise new moral questions. No previously conceived moral position escapes the fundamental confrontation posed by contemporary nuclear strategy. Many have noted the similarity of the statements made by eminent scientists and Vatican II’s observation that we are forced today ‘to undertake a completely fresh appraisal of war.’ The task before us is not simply to repeat what we have said before; it is first to consider anew whether and how our religious-moral tradition can assess, direct, contain, and we hope, help eliminate the threat posed to the human family by the nuclear arsenals of the world.” (Pastoral letter, p. 57)
In other words, the issues of nuclear war and nuclear arms are appropriate to the entire human family. It follows, then, that the laws we recognize as proper to the community we share with all of humanity are the laws which should bear on the resolution of issues involving nuclear arms.
As our pastoral letter on nuclear war states:
“The relationship of the authority of the state and the conscience of the individual on matters of war and peace takes a new urgency in the face of the destructive nature of modern war.” (p. 108)
The relationship between one’s conscience and the state is also clearly addressed in the following quote from Pacem in Terris:
“Those therefore who have authority in the state may oblige men in conscience only if their authority is intrinsically related with the authority of God and shares in it…Since the right to command is required by the moral order and has its source in God, it follows that, if civil authorities pass laws or command anything opposed to the moral order and consequently to the will of God, neither the laws made nor the authorizations granted can be binding on the conscience of the citizens (since God has more right to be obeyed than men).”
In short, I see the protesters as acting on their world citizenship. In light of the scope and breadth of the issues they address, I see it as altogether appropriate that they stand on this ground. I believe they have a right to be judge according to the “common laws of humanity” no less than Jefferson and the other signators of our Declaration of Independence who, in their day, referred to the very same standard to vindicate their protest against what they saw to be morally outrageous conduct.
I recognize many will be troubled by this counsel. We Catholics, after all, have long cultivated a decent respect for the law and the appropriate exercise of authority. It has been a difficult process for me to come to the position that a person has a right to ignore a legitimately established law. I am confident that this is also true for those protesters whom I now stand to support. I can only take this difficult position because I believe their acts and mine will serve to uphold the law, the divine law first, but just as certainly, International law and its recognition in Article VI of the Constitution of the United States as well. In order to be responsible to this high law, we must face the irony that it has become appropriate to contravene lesser laws and accept the penalty.
Although the paradox of breaking the law to uphold the law may be hard to accept, the fact that this paradox exists is clear and its root is readily identifiable. Catholic social teaching holds that the authority in which law is founded emanates from God and has as its object the common good. The common good, in its turn, is defined in reference to the human rights which have as their source the claim of every human person to be in the image and likeness of God. Authority and law, therefore, are limited; they must be in balance with all the elements of the political order and oriented to the common good appropriate to the state for which that authority and law exist. When an imbalance among these elements exists, everything falls out of kilter and into question.
The development of nuclear weapons has caused a profound imbalance in the political order. To put it bluntly, the United States and the Soviet Union–by creating their huge arsenals of nuclear weapons which threaten all of humanity with extinction–have taken upon themselves a power wholly outside of the power proper to a nation state. In short, the laws of the United States and the authority on which they rest are being violated through their use in the process of usurping a power that no nation can legitimately hold–the power to threaten all humankind with destruction. In this fight it is the actions of the protesters which speak for the integrity of our laws.
More than four hundred years ago, Thomas More–history’s most noted Catholic jurist–wrestled with these same questions. He reflected on the issues presented to him with a learned and profound respect for the law. In the end, he came to the same conclusion that I have expressed to you here. In a letter to his daughter Margaret shortly before his execution, he wrote:
“Then Lord Westminster said to me: ‘that, no matter how the issues (acknowledging the King as head of the Church) seemed to my own mind, I had cause to fear that my own mind was erroneous, when I saw the Great council of the realm determine the contrary to what I thought, and that, therefore, I ought to change my conscience. ‘ To that I answered, ‘that if there were no more than myself on my side, and the whole Parliament on the other, I would be very much afraid to set my own mind only against so many. But on the other hand, if I have (as I think I have) as great a Council and greater too, I am not then bound to change my conscience and conform it to the Council of one realm against the general ‘council of Christendom!'” (Thomas More to Margaret More Roper, April 17, 1535)
We pray that the transforming power of the Spirit again comes to us, and that we will be open, and God will renew the face of the Earth. I believe, for the Church in the United States, this is a very special Pentecost, for I believe the Spirit has moved in a very real way to speak through the bishops the truth concerning Nuclear War. As many commentators have noted, this is in itself a great transformation. I know for myself personally–and I believe for a great many others beside–this transformation owes a great deal to the courage and conviction of those who have chosen to brave the structures of lesser law to witness non-violently to the truth. As hundreds of thousands of people around the world demonstrate their concern for nuclear weapons, we can see that their witness–like the witness of Peter at the first Pentecost–has taken voice in many tongues. We can only say that this is truly the work of the Spirit, stand open before it, and be ready to act on our convictions that God is moving–as God always has and always will–to renew the face of the earth.
Filed under: Historical writings Tagged: | Archbhishop Raymond Hunthausen, Catholic social teachings, conscience, international law, Margaret More Roper, nonviolence, nuclear weapons, Pacem in Terris, Pentecost, plowshares, protest, Thomas More