Citing the important work of previous popes and U.S. Catholic bishops over the past 60 years, Cardinal Robert McElroy, bishop of San Diego, led a discussion on the moral challenges of war and nuclear arms at the University of Notre Dame on Wednesday (March 1).
The Notre Dame Forum event, “New and Old Wars, New and Old Challenges to Peace,” featured opening remarks from University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., who set the tone for the conversation by quoting Pope Francis: “And together we must commit ourselves to building a world that is more peaceful because it is more just, where peace triumphs, not the folly of war.”
Father Jenkins went on to say, “The Catholic community also has a responsibility to know, live out and further develop the Church’s rich tradition of reflection and action on war and peace. Catholic universities have an important role here, working in collaboration with Church leaders and institutions such as Catholic Relief Services.”
Cardinal McElroy, who was appointed bishop by Pope Francis in 2015 and elevated to cardinal in May 2022, holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard, a master’s in American history and a doctorate in political science from Stanford and a doctorate in moral theology from the Gregorian University in Rome. He offered his reflections on papal encyclicals, such as Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in terris, Pope Francis’ Fratelli tutti, and the U.S. bishops’ 1983 peace pastoral.
The cardinal began the discussion with a sobering reminder of the fear and uncertainty experienced by Americans in the 1980s when the threat of nuclear war was an ever-present reality.
He spoke of the evacuation plans that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had created should there ever be an imminent nuclear attack, whereby half of a city’s cars would be allowed to leave at a time.
“That’s living with madness,” he said. “And I think this needs to be the context for how we think about the nuclear question now. If we get used to it, then we think, ‘Oh yes, this is normal.’ But it can’t be normal.”
When contemplating the Church’s position today on war and weapons, he said, “The Church must engage with the world in this moment in order to contribute the perspective of Catholic faith and tradition in a perilous age.
“If one were asked in 1983 to state what framework stood as the central point of reference for the Church on armed conflict, they would have correctly answered: the just war theory. If we are asked today to answer that question, we must answer: comprehensive nonviolence.”
Nevertheless, Cardinal McElroy noted that extreme cases, such as the war in Ukraine, “call out for military action against profoundly barbaric aggression.” In contexts like Ukraine, Cardinal McElroy noted, “the just war tradition [is] inadequate for decision-making” for two crucial reasons. First, it “does not include a realistic set of moral criteria for seeking war termination,” and second, it does not address “the moral obligations of other nations in minimizing a military conflict.”
He cited Pope Francis’ condemnation of the possession of nuclear weapons, and emphasized that “discerning the implications of this dramatic shift in Catholic teaching” is critical work for theologians, bishops, policymakers and Catholics who focus on ethics and nuclear weapons.
Cardinal McElroy concluded his remarks by first quoting St. John Paul II’s statement at Hiroshima, Japan: “Our future on this planet, exposed as it is to nuclear annihilation, depends on one single factor: The world must make an about-face.”
“May we all be a part of initiating that moral about-face, rather than simply waiting for a new moment,” he said.
Following the cardinal’s presentation, he was joined on stage by Notre Dame faculty Maj. Gen. (ret.) Robert Latiff, adjunct professor and chairman of the advisory board for Notre Dame’s John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values; Mary Ellen O’Connell, the Robert and Marion Short Professor of Law at Notre Dame’s Law School and concurrent professor of international peace studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies; A. Rashied Omar, associate teaching professor of Islamic studies and peacebuilding at Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs and Kroc Institute; and moderator Gerard Powers, director of Catholic Peacebuilding Studies at Notre Dame’s Keough School and Kroc Institute.
The faculty offered their perspectives on a wide range of topics including the effectiveness of nonviolence, the need for peacebuilding, the just war tradition, nuclear disarmament, defense systems budgets and the interpretation of international law prohibiting the use of military force. The discussion also focused on how these topics relate to the current war in Ukraine as well as to other conflicts throughout the world.
When asked by Powers about the criticisms of official Catholic teaching for being “functionally pacifist,” the cardinal said the better term was “active nonviolence.” Rather than taking a passive approach toward addressing violence, he said, there needs to be a way of action that “eschews violence in most circumstances and seeks to effect change.”
“That’s what should be at the centerpiece of how we handle conflict when conflict is serious in this society. That’s our first, second and third resort.”
A recording of the two-hour event is available on the Forum website.