Pope Francis seems to delight in playing the role of denouncer in chief. Moral outrage at the perceived injustices of the world is the default mode of the current pontiff, often substituting blanket moral condemnation for nuance, subtlety, or practicality. Whereas one would hope the head of the Catholic Church would exercise some restraint in his comments about nuclear weapons and deterrence, as former pontiffs have, he seems to have a Trump-like glee in hyperbole and moralizing.
In the pope’s recent pronouncements at a memorial service in Japan remembering the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in standard Francis-style, he denounced the bombs as “demonic” and the possession and use of nuclear weapons as immoral. Parting ways with previous popes who made their peace with nuclear deterrence, Francis has decided it’s all just immoral.
So much recent Christian ethics across the theological spectrum substitutes concrete moral guidance in the real world for idealistic, impossible, and morally pure actions in some other world. These moral denunciations dress themselves up in the cloak of moral righteousness, but in fact are just exercises in moral fantasy.
Ethics is about the actual decisions and actions that are available to us to pursue in any given situation. When faced with a problem on a personal level we do not have infinite options to choose from. They are limited, and sometimes there is no clearly moral solution to the problem. A basic rule of discriminating moral reasoning is that we are only obliged to do an action that we are able to do. That is, an ought implies a can.
When politicians and policymakers in Washington, DC, are faced with a particular problem, there are often only a few options that are actually possible for the government or military to take. We are hedged in by constraints of all sorts that limit the actual options we can pursue. What the critics of President Harry Truman’s decision to drop the bomb have failed to do is articulate a realistic alternative to dropping the bombs that would have been more moral.
The only other real option on the table was an all-out assault on the Japanese mainland that, even by the most conservative estimates, would have involved significantly higher casualties among the US and Allied forces as well as the Japanese military and civilians, who had already formed militias that planned to fiercely oppose the Allied forces no matter the cost.
Francis decries the use of nuclear weapons and the policy of nuclear deterrence, but he does not offer us any concrete moral guidance on what we ought to have done instead. As is often the case with the critics of nuclear weapons and deterrence, they are long on moralizing but short on practicality.
Father Wilson Miscamble, a professor of history at Notre Dame and a Catholic priest, has written one of the most comprehensive histories of the decision to drop the two atomic bombs, The Most Controversial Decision. He concludes dropping the bombs was the best and most moral option, given all the available options and all the issues Truman faced.
Dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki remains controversial. The scenes of destruction from these weapons should shock us. But not dropping the bombs would also have had grave consequences for the war against a brutal and vicious Japanese regime. In fact, the invasion of the mainland would have been long, expensive, and more destructive. One could imagine, as Truman did, an Okinawa-style scorched earth campaign from one end of Japan to the other.
If Francis was realistic, he would acknowledge the complexity of this issue and the tragic nature of the choices President Truman faced. There were no good choices. Only bad and worse ones. In retrospect, I am thankful Truman made the decision that he did, even though I lament the deaths that resulted. Too often in our partisan world, we imagine decisions in a black-and-white fashion. The hard decisions our political leaders face are not so simple. Instead of indulging in moral outrage, Francis would serve the faithful better by helping them understand the price that defeating the Japanese incurred. It was a price worth paying, even though it was costly.