From The Monitor, San Francisco, January 12, 1984.

THE FRENCH BISHOPS ON WAR AND PEACE

 

At Lourdes on November 8, 1983, the French bishops issued an extraordinarily lucid and persuasive letter on war and peace. This makes the third pastoral on the same subject (the German, April 18, and the U.S. on May 3). In addition, Basil Cardinal Hume, the English primate, following the general lines of the French and German documents, issued a letter on the same subject on November 17. (These three European documents are published in Out of Justice, Peace [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984).

 

As almost all commentators have noted, the French statement is astonishingly different in tenor, argument, and conclusions from the well-known U.S. pastoral. It follows the general line of the French military and political thinking about how to prevent war. (See my Monitor columns "Active Politicians and War's Morality," March 17, and "French Deterrent Doctrine," March 25, also my "Civil and Military Responsibility for a Just Peace," Vital Speeches, November 15, 1983). Fundamentally, the French hierarchy begin with a realistic analysis of the military and ideological threat against free powers. Only in this context do the French bishops discuss military power and its use.

 

Like the German bishops, the French hierarchy understood the essentially political nature of the threat against them and did not ever argue that weapons or ideologies could be considered in the abstract. They argued from a constant position of adequate strength and recalled that World War II was largely caused by the failure of western powers to contain Hitler in time. But the French bishops are more concerned that today military power is useful without being used. "Some countries are very well skilled at seizing the advantage of war without paying the price of its having been unleashed: simply by fomenting the threat of war, they exercise a permanent state of blackmail."

 

To this, the French bishops respond simply: Don't be blackmailed. that is, understand what kind of forces we are up against and how they operate. Counteract this. For the French hierarchy, this means adequate military and deterrent capacity, which the actual enemy fears to the point of ceasing his blackmail. This requires that politics as a test of wills be clearly understood.

 

The French bishops do not see the world in anything but realistic terms: "In a world in which man is still a wolf to other men, to change oneself into a lamb could provoke the wolf. Less enlightened acts of generosity have sometimes provoked the very evils that they were believed to be capable of eliminating. A poorly adapted nonviolence can unleash a series of chain reactions of inexplicable violence." The French bishops, in fact, are not particularly enamored by nonviolence. As a form of personal testimony, perhaps, it might have its uses provided it does not create a worse evil. To it, they always counter-balance the military and civil vocations which make any nonviolent vocations possible in the first place.

 

The French bishops pointed out that "the Church does not encourage unconditional pacifism. She has never preached unilateral disarmament, knowing full well that this could be a signal for violence on the part of an aggressive military, political, and ideological complex." Moreover, pacifism or nonviolence is not an option for the state, which has the objective duty of defending peace, liberty, and national independence, both in the internal arena and in foreign affairs.

 

The French bishops did not hesitate to approve nuclear deterrence or "dissuasion," as they called it. They do not think it is a "good" world situation in which even the smaller French deterrent must be necessary. But they also understand that there are values of life and freedom that must be protected, that keeping alive at any cost is a very dangerous position. They recall in this very context the virtue of prudence which insists that morality in dire situations can still be in effect for a free and intelligent people.

 

The central question which is being asked is the following: "in the present geo-political context, can a country, which is being threatened in its life, in its liberty, or identify, morally have the right to fend off this radical threat by effective counter-threat, one which is even nuclear? Up until now, while stressing the limited character of such a parry, and the enormous risk which it entails, the Catholic Church has not believed it necessary to condemn it."

 

The French bishops have, in other words, provided a clear, reasonable, moral method of deterrent doctrine which can be used by any conscientious people. The French bishops' pastoral, along with that of the German bishops and the letter of Cardinal Hume, will be most welcome Catholic documents to the many responsible people throughout the world who recognize that peace can be won and preserved by a clear-headed use of politics and counter power when there is an adequate understanding of the power in being and ideology of one's major enemy. These documents deserve careful and constant study for anyone at all interested in this issue.