Over the years, I’ve had several arguments with my fellow Catholics over the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. It cannot be said too clearly that America’s use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Japan were acts of intrinsic and grave moral evil, that there is never a just use for a weapon that produces civilian casualties out of all proportion to legitimate military aims, and that no hypothetical goods produced by the dropping of these bombs can in any way outweigh the reality that using them was deeply morally wrong.
Here’s an interesting bit on the Just War theory from About.com’s Scott Richert:
While the Catechism mentions that “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated,” it also states that “The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.” Here, the Church is concerned about the possible use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, the effects of which, by their very nature, cannot easily be confined to combatants in a war.
The injury or killing of the innocent during war is always forbidden; however, if a bullet goes astray, or an innocent person is killed by a bomb dropped on a military installation, the Church recognizes that these deaths are not intended. With modern weaponry, however, the calculation changes, because governments know that the use of nuclear bombs, for instance, will always kill or injure some who are innocent.
Because of that, the Church warns that the possibility of the use of such weapons must be considered when deciding whether a war is just. In fact, Pope John Paul II suggested that the threshold for a just war has been raised very high by the existence of these weapons of mass destruction, and he is the source of the teaching in the Catechism.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, went even further, telling the Italian Catholic magazine 30 Days in April 2003 that "we must begin asking ourselves whether as things stand, with new weapons that cause destruction that goes well beyond the groups involved in the fight, it is still licit to allow that a 'just war' might exist."
Furthermore, once a war has begun, the use of such weapons may violate jus in bello, meaning that the war is not being fought justly. The temptation for a country that is fighting a just war to use such weapons (and, thus, to act unjustly) is just one reason why the Church teaches that “The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating” the justice of a war.I have heard well-meaning Catholics say things like, “Well, my grandfather wouldn’t have survived World War II if we hadn’t dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” or “There weren’t any civilians in Japan, because all of them were prepared to fight against an invading army, so technically they were all combatants and could all be targeted.” These views, however understandable from the distance of history, are nonetheless very wrong.
And the danger of holding to those views is not merely the moral approbation given to immoral acts of the past for which one can’t be held responsible; the danger is that we will extend this moral approbation to gravely evil acts of war of our own times. We have seen this in Catholic calls for pre-emptive wars, for a dehumanizing view of people who live in countries with which we are in conflict, and in a tendency towards xenophobia generally, views which are not compatible with Catholic thought and teaching.
As we go forward, it is my hope that as Catholics we can stand united against unjust wars and work for peace in the world. We may on occasion find ourselves lining up with those we have tended to think of as our political enemies when we do this, but that should not be a cause for concern. Truth should be sought and embraced wherever it is found, and the truth is that weapons such as nuclear bombs are not the weapons of just warfare.