Bishop of Belleville
President, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord
August 6, 2004
Nearly ten years ago, Pope John Paul II issued a reflection on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II. He noted then that World War II is a “point of reference necessary for all who wish to reflect on the present and on the future of humanity.”1 But now at this time, we recall also the fateful days on which America became the first and last among the world’s nations to use an atomic weapon. Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain permanent reminders of the grave consequences of total war and symbols of our continuing struggle to balance determined action for justice with a profound responsibility to live Christ’s peace. Even now, when Cold War politics is for so many a distant and fading memory and nuclear war only the vaguest threat, the permanent graves of Hiroshima and Nagasaki compel us to declare once again our rejection of total war and our commitment to the advance of Christ’s peace in the furthest reaches of the globe.
World War II liberated many and defeated tyranny but left as a shameful legacy instances of combat conducted without distinction between civilian and soldier. In the decades since the bombing, some have advanced the argument that despite the horrendous magnitude of civilian suffering, these actions can be justified by the efficient end of combat it effected. But secular ethicists and moral theologians alike echo the words of the Second Vatican Council: “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.”2 The Church has a long tradition of condemning acts of war that bring “widespread, unspeakable suffering and destruction.”3 At a time when much of the world is gripped by fear of terrorism and a few voices hint that the time may again come when the United States should call upon its nuclear arsenal to make “quick work” of frightening threats, it is fitting to reassert our commitment to disarmament and the conduct of limited war only as a last resort.
Christ gave us His gift of peace to share with one another and to proclaim to the world. As the reality of terrorist threats give rise to widespread fear, our duty as Christ’s faithful to pursue his peace in the world becomes ever more clear and pressing. Following the collapse of communism and apartheid, many formerly oppressive regimes have given way to peaceful, democratic institutions; but in many parts of the world, the poor and weak suffer under cruel totalitarian rulers. Never has the Church been a more important force for peace and justice. Catholic policy makers, military personnel, scientists, academics, advocates, and young people must preach Christ’s gospel of love and make the work of peace a fundamental imperative of their individual vocations. Catholics engaged in every area of public life must marshal the varied gifts given them by the Holy Spirit toward the pursuit of new responses to unfamiliar threats. In an era of often paralyzing uncertainty, the Church’s voice for peace and justice must remain undiminished and constant.
This commitment to the work of peace and justice must have content beyond slogans. We must commit ourselves at home and abroad to a defense of human life and dignity, a rejection of unjust discrimination and the promotion of basic human rights. We must reject indifference in the face of grave injustice and oppression wherever it occurs. On this anniversary, we must demand thoughtful and limited approaches to military action as a last resort, including systematic nuclear disarmament — which the U.S. bishops urged must be “more than a moral ideal” but also “a policy goal.”4
As we have in the past, we again call on faithful people everywhere to renew their commitment to the work of Christ’s peace and justice, and repeat Pope Paul VI’s plaintive refrain: “No more war, war never again!”5
- "Message for the 50th Anniversary of the End of the War in Europe." Origins 25:3, 35.
- Gaudium et Spes, no. 80
- National Catholic Welfare Conference Board, "Man and the Peace!" 17 November 1946.
- The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace. 13.
- Address to the United Nations. 4 October 1965.