Society's Institutions and the Human Condition

Peace Is Possible, but Not Inevitable

Joseph L. Cardinal Bernardin, 1984

His Eminence, Joseph L. Cardinal Bernardin is Archbishop of Chicago. He was chairman of the Bishop's Committee on War and Peace at the time they drafted the profound pastoral letter, "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response." During this interview he indicates why he believes that peace is possible but not inevitable, and explains the reasons why the bishops understood the examination of nuclear weapons as a qualitatively new world problem, and indicates a major direction set for the pastoral by Pope John Paul II.

Whiteley: In commenting on why the bishops chose to address the problem of peace in the nuclear age, you said one concern was that the threat is getting greater of nuclear war. How important was that in their thinking?

Bernardin: It was very important. I think that there are two factors that have to be kept in mind. The church has addressed social issues from their moral dimension for centuries, since the beginning really. But the Second Vatican Council emphasized the importance of the church addressing the moral dimensions of contemporary problems. After all, the church exists in the world, and it cannot be oblivious to what is happening around it. Jesus himself addressed the social issues of His day. So the Second Vatican Council emphasized our role as moral teachers. Then the second point is the one that you just mentioned - the nuclear threat is greater today than it has ever been, and many people were looking to us for some kind of moral guidance. What they wanted basically was a framework in which they could make their own moral analysis of the many nuclear issues that face us today.

Whiteley: You commented that the legacy of church teaching runs from the Sermon on the Mount to Pope John Paul II's many recent statements. What stands out in your mind about this tradition on which the Bishops could base their document.

Bernardin: Well, as you indicated we didn't start from scratch. We didn't develop this pastoral in a vacuum. We started with the scriptures and what Jesus Himself had to say to the people of his day. But between the time of the Lord, and the present time, much has been said about war and peace. For example, the "just war", the teaching of the church, goes back to the time of St. Augustine. Some people have mistakenly said that the "just war" teaching is intended to find justification for violence or war. Actually it developed for the opposite reason. It developed because the church wanted to restrict violence, to restrict war, but in an imperfect world, there are times when some force must be used, but only under certain conditions, restricted as much as possible.

In recent decades, the popes have had a great deal to say about war and peace, as did the Second Vatican Council. I'm thinking of Pope John XXIII, his encyclical Peace on Earth, Pope Paul VI, our present holy father, John Paul II, he has made many many statements, many pronouncements on peace issues. In addition to that there was the Second Vatican Council, which addressed some of the issues that we are talking about today in its Constitution of the Church in the Modern World. So what we tried to do was to bring this very rich legacy, this heritage to bear on the issues of the questions that we face today in our contemporary society.

Whiteley: In commenting on the role of the church in a democracy, you've written that the church is separate from the state, but never separate from society. How does that apply to the kind of work that you've been doing for peace?

Bernardin: Our role is basically educational. We are teachers. It's our responsibility to address the various social issues that confront us from their moral perspective. And we believe, we are absolutely convinced that in the democratic process there must be space for this kind of discussion. The issues that we confront today are certainly political issues, they're technical issues, but almost all of these issues also have a moral dimension, and there must be space in the public debate for a consideration of the moral dimension. And so, it's in that light that we see our role. We have not been elected to run the country; we don't make the decisions concerning national defense or foreign policy. That's the responsibility of the elected officials: the President, Congress. But it's the responsibility of all of us, not just priests or bishops, but the entire community to reflect on these issues. Pope John Paul II on a number of occasions during his pontificate, has emphasized the need of good public opinion. We simply have to provide some kind of a framework within which our elected officials will make their decisions.

Whiteley: You've quoted him as saying that the rulers alone cannot bring the peace, and that this thought provided a major impetus and direction for the bishops.

Bernardin: Right. The building up of peace in the world - this is true today, but it has always been true - is the responsibility of everyone. We all have different roles, perhaps, but all of us are responsible for creating the kind of climate that is conducive to peace.

Whiteley: One part of setting that climate for peace is setting the moral limits, defining the moral parameters. As you reflect back on the process of undertaking the Bishops' statement, what was their thinking about the proper moral limits in a nuclear age?

Bernardin: Well, first of all, let me answer that in a more general way. We felt that it was important, not only to enunciate or to clarify the principles that were involved; we also thought that it was very necessary that we apply those principles so that people would understand the implications of the principles themselves. Now some people became upset because of that. They said that we were not technicians; we didn't know the technical side of these issues. And it's true that we ourselves are not technicians. We're not professionals in that area. This is why we did a great deal of consulting in the development of this Pastoral Letter on War and Peace; we held hearings, and we invited people representing all kinds of disciplines to share with us their information, the results of their research, so that we would have the technical data in hand, and then we tried, and we did in effect apply our principles to the data as we understood the data - as those data were presented to us.

Whiteley: What was it about the process that led to an unprecedented 96% of the bishops voting in support of this document?

Bernardin: Well, I think that they felt, by the time the process was completed, that they owned the statement, or the pastoral letter. It went through three drafts and they had an opportunity to react to each of the drafts, and their recommendations - each one of their recommendations - was considered. Either the recommendation was incorporated into the text, or a reason was given as to why we didn't feel that it was appropriate. So in the final analysis the statement that was published was not a statement of this five-member committee. We were responsible for the process, but it was a statement of all of the bishops. And after this process had been completed, I think that most of them were satisfied with the product, even though an individual bishop might have disagreed with one point or another, overall I think the bishops were satisfied, and that was reflected in that extraordinary vote of 238 for the document, and only nine against the document.

Whiteley: Moving to the substance of the document itself, you've indicated that the bishops confronted a qualitatively new moral problem in seeking peace in the nuclear age.

Bernardin: I really don't think that the document, the pastoral letter, can be understood in its totality unless that point that you just made is emphasized. We're dealing with a situation now that is not just quantitatively different, but really qualitatively different. We are faced with weapons that were not known in a previous age. We're faced with weapons which can literally destroy the face of the earth, and that's the reason why there is such an urgency in coming to grips with the nuclear issue, and finding a way to resolve some of the problems that confront us today. Whiteley: Historically, the church, and indeed the state, has taken the position that in a world of nation states some uses of force are legitimate. I assume it's to this issue of the power to destroy civilizations that nuclear weapons present, that caused the church to rethink some of the basic positions it had taken before.

Bernardin: According to the "just war" teaching, there are two principles that must be kept in mind. First of all "the principle of discrimination." It's always wrong to attack innocent people. Therefore, you cannot bomb or attack civilian centers of the population. In addition to that, there is another principle that is very important, and it's called "the principle of proportionality". It's true that, under certain circumstances, that according to the "just war" teaching you may resort to force because there's no other way of correcting the situation. However, what is done must be proportionate to what is accomplished. With nuclear weapons that really can't be done. While theoretically, perhaps, the use of nuclear weapons might be limited - some people speak of a limited nuclear war - practically speaking we have grave doubts that the use of nuclear weapons could be contained or limited. Most of the people that we have consulted with admitted that if nuclear war ever begins, no matter on how limited a basis, there is little likelihood that it could be contained. It would immediately begin to escalate, and this would be disproportionate to whatever good might be accomplished.

Whiteley: One central finding in the statement was that there's no moral grounds for any use of nuclear weapons.

Bernardin: Well, basically, the whole thrust of the pastoral letter, and this is really the thrust of most of the church statements that have been made, is to say 'no' to nuclear war, 'no' to the use of nuclear weapons. Because, as I said, the data seem to emphasize the fact that once this use begins, it really cannot be controlled. And so the whole moral thrust is against the use of any weapons. Whiteley: Deterrence has been a part of American foreign policy in the nuclear age, the belief that by maintaining a force capable of retaliating if we are ever attacked, we are assuring the national security of the United States. Most people believe we're less secure than we ever were. The bishops were very direct in that this policy of deterrence is a transitional strategy. What did you mean?

Bernardin: I'd like to point out that the Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, referred to deterrence as a treacherous way of maintaining the peace, and encouraged the nations of the world to find some other way of keeping the peace. Our present holy father, Pope John Paul II, in 1982 in a talk that he gave at the United Nations, (actually it was prepared by the Pope, but delivered by the Secretary of State, Cardinal Casaroli) said that in the present situation, the present condition that we find ourselves in, the divided world, that deterrence is morally acceptable, but not as an end in itself, but as a step toward ultimate disarmament.

Whiteley: One of the long term goals you have for us is to work out a better way for regulating the world order so that we're not so dependent on the use of force. What do you have in mind?

Bernardin: I'm glad that you brought that up, John, because there are various sections to this pastoral letter, and in the second half of the letter we talk about not merely keeping the peace, but also building the peace. And in that section of the pastoral letter we talk about our living in an interdependent world, and if we're really going to enjoy peace - a stable peace - in the future, then we have to make sure that we order our society in such a way that it is shaped by justice, by a regard for human rights, and so on. In the final analysis that really is the most important part of that pastoral letter, and I think that in the years to come more attention will be given to it. At the moment, most of the attention is focused on the moral analysis that we provided in terms of nuclear weapons, the use of those weapons, and so on. This is very important, as I've indicated already. But it's also important that we focus on development, on the promotion of justice, because in today's world there's just a big gap between the rich and the poor countries. And unless we take into account some of the basic causes for the tension that exists in the world, then we will never really come to grips in an effective way with some of these problems.

Whiteley: What would you have us do differently as a society?

Bernardin: I really have no easy answers and I don't want to give the impression that I do. But there are certain things that I would like to emphasize. And we did this in the pastoral and that is, it's not enough simply to say it's not my responsibility, it's the responsibility of the officials whom we have elected, or it's the responsibility of someone else. I think that we are all responsible for the well-being of our society even though our roles may be different. So I think that it's very, very important that people become familiar with the issues and that they address those issues, and that they let the people who are making the decisions know how they feel. As I said, what we have been trying to do, not only in the area of nuclear warfare, but in many other areas as well, we have tried to provide a framework within which people can make a moral analysis of the questions that confront us. And in doing that we have brought to bear on today's contemporary situations our Judeo Christian heritage.

Whiteley: In commenting that peace is possible but not inevitable, what did you want people to think differently about?

Bernardin: That you can't take things for granted. Certainly peace is possible; we know that it is. But for peace to become a reality, we have to work at it, we have to make sure that we eliminate the causes of unrest, tension, warfare, and this is something, you know, that has to take place on a day-by-day basis. John Paul II said that building the peace is like building a cathedral; you have to go step by step, you have to lay one brick on top of the other, and there's no other way of doing it.

Whiteley: As you've worked since the pastoral was released you've attempted to lay some guidelines for educators and what they ought to do differently as a result of this work. What do you want educators to do differently?

Bernardin: Basically, I think it's very important that they present the issues in an objective and integral way to the people whom they are educating. And that they challenge their students to think about the issues and to take a position on them. This is the basic reason why we issued this pastoral letter. Some people asked what do you expect to happen as a result of this letter. Will there be a change tomorrow or the next day in terms of public policy? Well, we have seen, or we have looked upon, the pastoral right from the beginning as an educational instrument. And it may take three or four or five years before we are able to put across the message to the people whom we're trying to reach.

Whiteley: What do you want people in religion to do differently?

Bernardin: Well, I don't know that I want them to do things so differently, but I would hope that they would continue to address the issues of the day from the perspective of our religious heritage. I think that this is extremely important. I think that we have to take part in the public debate. We have to indicate to people what our religious Catholic or Judeo-Christian tradition has to say about the various things that we face. I don't think that we can hide from these issues, that we can hide our heads in the sand. I know that this upsets some people. They think that we are dabbling in politics, as they say. Well, certainly these issues have a political dimension but they also have a moral dimension, and it's our responsibility to keep that moral dimension always in focus.

Whiteley: In laying out the moral dimensions of the problem, you've indicated that arms control is an important activity if we're going to have a safer and ultimately more peaceful world. Working for arms control is a function assigned to the state. You've commented that the American people, setting the tone for the state, have not addressed arms control sufficiently.

Bernardin: Yes, I think that in the past there was a certain apathy at times and - but I think that we're getting over that now. I think that people are much more interested in, and concerned about, arms control than they may have been a few years ago, and I think this is all to the good. And I think that we're beginning to see the effect of that change. I would like to point out that I'm a realist, and in the pastoral letter we referred to the need for being realistic; we called it a 'cold realism'. We're very much aware of the differences that separate us from Russia, the differences in history, in philosophy, in ideology, and we can't be naive about that. And yet it's to the advantage of both the United States and Russia that we work very seriously on arms control, and I think that we have to keep focusing on that, and we have to do everything that we can to arrive at some kind of understanding that will reduce, or lessen, the prospect of the threat of war. This is certainly something that the present holy father has been insisting on in so many of his talks.

Whiteley: As part of being a realist and the bishops together speaking out in a realistic way, you've urged all the nations to not be blind to their differences, but also to focus on their common interest. Clearly as a society we work toward a more peaceful world in the long term, being mindful of the common interest in arms control is one way to a more peaceful world. What else would you have people focus on as you reflect at the kind of world you would like to see as the 20th Century comes to an end.

Bernardin: Once again, this concern of ours that you have alluded to is rooted in the fact that our world is so interdependent that what happens in one part of the world has almost an immediate impact in another part of the world. Arms control is one area of concern as you've indicated, but I was thinking of many others as well. For example, in the whole realm of economic justice policies that are decided on and implemented in the developed countries necessarily impacts what happens in developing countries, and vice versa. Also the question of human rights; that's another area where I think we have to maintain a broader vision, and we simply cannot be blind to what is happening either in our own country or in other countries. At the moment we simply don't have any kind of international authority that's really capable of addressing some of those problems that have international implications or dimensions, and so this is why it's so very important that the individual nation states maintain a vision which will permit them to see beyond their own immediate interest. Now, our immediate interest is certainly important to us, but we must also see the broader context in which we are working.

Whiteley: Cardinal Bernardin, thank you for sharing with us today your visions toward the way to a more peaceful world.