Few people would mistake Baltimore's Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien for a naïve idealist about war.
A man of imposing stature, he served as a chaplain with a U.S. Army Airborne Division during the Vietnam War, flying by helicopter through the jungle to serve the spiritual needs of Catholic soldiers. Later, he served a decade as head of the U.S. Archdiocese of the Military Services, taking care of 1.5 million Catholic military personnel, overseas government employees and 170 Veterans Administration hospitals.
But last month, at a symposium in Omaha, Neb., hosted by the U.S. Strategic Command, he made a forceful moral case for the elimination of the world's nuclear weapons.
"A difficult road lies ahead," the archbishop told the assembled U.S. military gathering. "It is essential to translate the goal of a world without nuclear weapons from an idealistic dream or pious hope, to a genuine policy objective to be achieved carefully over time, but not postponed indefinitely. The horizon for a nuclear-free world should not recede too far into the future. If it does, the goal risks losing moral urgency and relevance."
He acknowledged that some see trying to rid the world of nukes as a "dangerous, utopian dream." He identified "valid questions" about potential new risks involved in the process of reducing the world's nukes to zero: Will reducing the weapons increase the strategic value of those that remain, making it harder to stop proliferation? Would strategists be tempted to use a smaller stockpile as a deterrent threat against civilian populations rather than military targets?
Then there are daunting financial and logistical questions. According to the Global Security Newswire, the United States has a backlog of 4,200 nuclear warheads already slated for dismantlement that is expected to require 15 years to complete -- and that's not counting warheads likely to be scheduled for dismantling by the Obama administration. While there's no clear price tag, the total process is certain to cost many billions of dollars at a time when the federal government is allocating more than a trillion dollars in the hopes of just shoring up the economy.
For most people, the question of nuclear weapons is an emotional one. Many remember Cold War-era school drills and government instructions on how to build or locate a fallout shelter. Others remember World War II's terrifying show of civilian decimation in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, there is founded concern about rogue states or even non-state actors like terrorists obtaining and using nuclear weapon technology.
But Catholic opposition is not based solely on fear, or the ultimate danger of escalation of nuclear exchanges of "cataclysmic proportions." As Archbishop O'Brien noted, the use of nuclear weapons "is rejected in Church teaching because it cannot ensure noncombatant immunity and the likely destruction and lingering radiation that would violate the principle of proportionality."
Pope Benedict XVI, in his message for the World Day of Peace 2006, said of governments that count on nuclear weapons for national security: "One can state that this point of view is not only baneful but completely fallacious. In a nuclear war, there would be no victors, only victims."
Ridding the world of nuclear weapons will not happen any time soon. It will require an immense effort to achieve bilateral and multilateral agreement, and the concerted efforts of policymakers, experts and scientists.
But Catholics, fortified by the virtue of hope, must keep focused on the vision of a nuclear-free world. "When the stakes are so high and the consequences of failure so great," Archbishop O'Brien said, "persevere we must."