My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
One of the most popular television programs of the 1970s and early 1980s was called M*A*S*H, which stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. The television series follows a team of doctors and support staff who care for the injured during the Korean War and use humor to escape from the horror and depression of the military conflict.
The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, when the North Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th parallel, the boundary between the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the north and the pro-Western Republic of Korea to the south. This invasion was the first military action of the Cold War. By July, American troops had entered the war on South Korea’s behalf. After some early combat, the fighting stalled and casualties mounted with nothing to show for them. The Korean War officially came to an end in July 1953, but the Korean peninsula is still divided today.
The situation in Korea today continues to pose a real threat to world peace, as the heated rhetoric escalates between the president of the United States and the supreme leader of North Korea. Writing in The Wall Street Journal under the headline, “Let Calm and Cool Trump Fire and Fury” (Aug. 10, 2017), Peggy Noonan cautioned that “a great threat is of miscalculation, of misunderstanding a signal or overreacting to some chance event or mishap.” Given the current “high anxiety” and “inflammatory language” that is “more likely to provoke rather than inform,” she argues — quite persuasively — that what is needed from America is “calm, cool logic, not emotionalism.”
In keeping with this call for a calm and rational approach to the situation, it will be helpful to recall the words of the Catholic Bishops of the United States in their 1983 pastoral letter on war and peace entitled, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response. The writing of the pastoral letter was entrusted to a committee headed by Cincinnati Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, who would soon thereafter be named the new Archbishop of Chicago and elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope John Paul II.
The context of The Challenge of Peace was the Cold War nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. Today’s tensions between the United States and North Korea evoke similar concerns about the threat of a military conflict escalating into a more expanded and potentially destructive use of missiles and weapons, including nuclear bombs. Thus, The Challenge of Peace is pertinent to the situation facing us today.
In The Challenge of Peace, the bishops said that “Catholic teaching begins in every case with a presumption against war and for peaceful settlement of disputes. In exceptional cases, determined by the moral principles of the just-war tradition, some uses of force are permitted.” The Challenge of Peace affirms, “Every nation has a right and duty to defend itself against unjust aggression,” however, “Offensive war of any kind is not morally justifiable.”
With regard to the initiation of nuclear war, the bishops stated, “We do not perceive any situation in which the deliberate initiation of nuclear war, on however restricted a scale, can be morally justified.” With regard to limited nuclear war, the bishops said, “Our examination of the various arguments on this question makes us highly skeptical about the real meaning of ‘limited.’ One of the criteria of the just-war teaching is that there must be a reasonable hope of success in bringing about justice and peace. We must ask whether such a reasonable hope can exist once nuclear weapons have been exchanged. The burden of proof remains on those who assert that meaningful limitation is possible. In our view the first imperative is to prevent any use of nuclear weapons and we hope that leaders will resist the notion that nuclear conflict can be limited, contained or won in any traditional sense.”
In addressing issues of war and peace, bishops “speak as pastors, not politicians. We are teachers, not technicians. We cannot avoid our responsibility to lift up the moral dimensions of the choices before our world and nation. The nuclear age is an era of moral as well as physical danger. We are the first generation since Genesis with the power to threaten the created order. We cannot remain silent in the face of such danger.”
In the end, decisions about war and peace are made by governmental and military leaders, but their decisions must be informed by moral principles that weigh the pros and cons of military engagement in accord with the just war tradition. Such decisions must also be guided by prayer, remembering the “call of Jesus to be peacemakers in our own time and situation.”
May God give us this grace. Amen.