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An Affectionate and Respectful Objection

During his homily [1] for Pentecost last Sunday, Benedict XVI referred to the mythological Prometheus and observed that:

having possessed himself of the energy of the cosmos – the ‘fire’ – man today seems to present himself as God, and wishes to transform the world while excluding, marginalising, or even rejecting the Creator of the universe. Man no longer wants to be the image of God but of himself, and declares his own autonomy, freedom and maturity. In the hands of such a person, the ‘fire’ and its enormous potential become dangerous. They can turn against life and against humanity itself, as history unfortunately shows.

All that is completely consistent with what this sensitive and brilliant leader has taught in the past, in particular his insistent message that our intellects, our reason, must be used in accordance with the truth of faith if we are to avoid disaster.

But then the pope added, “The tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain as a perennial admonition where atomic energy, used for bellicose ends, ended up causing death on an unprecedented scale.” There is no more ardent set of defenders of this pope than those who write for The Catholic Thing, myself included. But this remark is wrong and ill-reasoned, and it raises questions.

First, the atomic bombs did not cause death on an unprecedented scale. The American firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities that preceded the atomic bombs killed more Japanese. The Japanese rampage through Asia in the 1930s and ‘40s killed vastly more people than the atomic bombs. So did the Nazi war on European civilization. So did the German ovens in the concentration camps. So did the forced starvation of Ukraine – the horrible fire in the bellies of millions — by the Soviet Union. Etc., etc.

Second, to say or clearly imply that those who decided to use atomic weapons on Japan, faced with the prospect of far more Japanese and American casualties in the event of an invasion of Japan, were men who were pursuing their own “bellicose ends” stemming from self-declared “autonomy” in defiance of God, is unjust. They may have been wrong. The debate rages. But to suggest that they were exemplars of the promotion of fiery godless violence is not on a level with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s many majestic books, the Regensburg lecture, or the pope’s speeches in America and the Middle East. Something just isn’t right here.

Maybe it was just bad wording. Even great minds miss logical or factual errors at times. Popes are infallible when all the requirements for an infallible statement are met, but they and their staffs are human, too. The comment about Nagasaki and Hiroshima, however, is a non-sequitur in the context of the rest of the homily. That suggests it was added with a purpose in someone’s mind.

One such purpose might be to reach out to President Obama. July could be a convenient time for a first meeting between the pope and Obama, who will be in Italy for the G-8 meeting. In April, President Obama spoke in Prague and outlined a broad nuclear disarmament agenda with a final goal of a world without nuclear weapons: “as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.” He did not add that the United States is also the only power in history to have enjoyed such a military advantage over its enemies and not to have put it to wider use for worse aims.

The Vatican has long advocated nuclear disarmament. In announcing that priority, Obama was clear that a nuclear-free world is a distant prospect and that we will maintain an effective nuclear arsenal in the meantime. But broad U.S. moral guilt in nuclear and other matters – beyond the question of the specific circumstances of the atomic bombs – is certainly a reflexive anti-American assumption in some circles in both America and Europe (including some members of the Curia).

A second reason may have been to highlight the dangers of nuclear proliferation in the wake of North Korea’s nuclear test and Iran’s continued defiance of pressure to end its nuclear weapons program. The leaders of both those countries certainly fit the category of men who have sundered faith and reason for Promethean goals. But if this was the point, there was no reason to try to establish a specious moral equivalence between a United States trying to end a world war brought on by tyrants in Japan, Germany, and Italy, with an Iran that would destroy Israel or a North Korea that would destroy anything within reach. And the homily made no mention of the American rebuilding of devastated Japan and Europe after the war when atomic bombs were used; we should expect no comparable program from Pyongyang or Tehran.

Whatever the purpose of the pope’s remark, if any progress is to be made on disarmament or other ways of advancing the cause of peace, the debate must proceed based on facts and logic – reason – coupled with faith. And Pope Benedict XVI knows that better than anyone else on the scene today.

Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.