It’s estimated the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed more than 100,000 people. Photo from Wikipedia

The Register Archive: Theologians debate use of atomic bomb after Hiroshima

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  • April 21, 2018

April 22 marks the birthday of Robert Oppenheimer, born 104 years ago and famously destined to become known as “the father of the atomic bomb” because of his work on the secret Manhattan Project during the Second World War. When news of the weapon of mass destruction became public with the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945, theologians jumped in on the moral debate over its use. Here is a report from the Aug. 18, 1945 issue of The Catholic Register:



WASHINGTON – The immense moral problems arising from the use of atomic energy as a weapon of modern warfare have been informally discussed by a number of leading Catholic theologians and scientists in this country.

It was observed that the Holy See during the first few days after announcement of the atomic bomb has abstained from commenting in any way on the moral issues involved in the exploitation of a new scientific discovery for military purposes. 

The view that the atomic weapon is legal in a just war because in modern total war “the old distinction between combatant and non-combatant has lost much of its significance” was expressed by the Rev. James B. Macelwane, SJ, professor of geophysics and director of the Department, Dean of the Institute of Geophysical Technology, St. Louis University.

“Modern warfare is an armed struggle between nations,” Fr. Macelwane said. “The object of each side is to win the war, to force the opposite side to surrender by making it difficult or impossible for it to wage further warfare. Provided the war be a just war, the choice of weapon is immaterial as far as morality is concerned.

“The quicker an attacking enemy is brought to his knees and forced to surrender, the better it is for all concerned,” the priest-scientist declared. “The atomic bomb is a weapon and apparently a very effective one. When a modern nation goes to war it enters the war totally, that is, the entire nation is engaged either in providing or in using the immensely complicated material that is required to wage a modern war.

“The old distinction between combatant and non-combatant has lost much of its significance. War is no longer simply a struggle between armed men, it is primarily a clash of mechanism. Therefore, to win the war the enemy’s production must be stopped and his ability to wage mechanized warfare thereby must be destroyed. The atomic bomb is a means to that end.”

The Rev. Francis J. Connell, CSSR, associate professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America, commenting informally, began by saying that “at present it is impossible to pass a precise judgment on the morality of the atomic bomb since our military authorities have given us only meagre information about the effectiveness of this terrible instrument of destruction and of the way in which they intend to use it.

“However,” he continued, “from the account of the havoc which it is capable of effecting there are grave reasons to fear that it lends itself to methods far contrary to the law of God. Two moral principles relative to the waging of war must be emphasized, and this is an appropriate occasion to bring them to the attention of all decent people, both Catholic and non-Catholic.

“The first is that it is never permitted in war to attack directly the non-combatants of the enemy nation, consequently, if the bomb were employed for a direct attack on a residential section of a Japanese city — a section in which there are no important military objective — its use would be a flagrant violation of the law of God. This principle would hold even if it were foreseen that as result of such an attack on the civilian population the morale of the people would be broken and the war brought to a speedier close. A good end does not justify the use of an immoral means.

“Secondly, even in the supposition that the bomb were employed directly only against a strictly military objective, such as a munitions factory or an air field, it would be against the law of God to use it if the harm done coincidentally to the civilian population were out of proportion to the benefits consequent on the destruction of the military objective. For example, if the bomb were aimed at the munitions factory but it could be reasonably anticipated that five or six thousand civilians would be killed in their homes in the vicinity as a result of the stupendous power of the bomb, its use would again be unlawful according to the fundamental moral principles.

“It is well for the American people to realize now when this stupendous weapon is put in their hands, that we have certain definite moral obligations toward the Japanese people in the conduct of the war,” Connell said. “Whatever wrongs may have been done by their leaders or by some of their soldiers, we may not transgress God’s law in return. The Japanese people are human beings with certain inalienable rights. They are children of God and according to Christian principles (which most American people are supposed to accept), they have been redeemed by Jesus Christ and are capable of meriting the kingdom of Heaven. It is to be hoped that our leaders will be guided by God’s law in their use of the atomic bomb if they decide to employ it.”

(To explore more from The Catholic Register Archive, go to catholicregister.org/archive.)

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