A Time to Remember War and Recommit to Peace, August 2, 1995

Year Published
  • 2013
  • English

Most Reverend Daniel P. Reilly
Chairman, International Policy Committee
U.S. Catholic Conference

August 2, 1995

"World War II," Pope John Paul has said, is a "point of reference necessary for all who wish to reflect on the present and on the future of humanity."1 It is in that spirit that I offer these anniversary reflections on the moral and religious significance for today of the atomic bombings and the end of World War II.

On this anniversary we remember first the bravery and sacrifices of all those, soldiers and civilians, who lost their lives and suffered in so many ways. We pray for all those who suffered and who suffer still. We are grateful for the victory over an unprecedented marshalling of hatred in the service of militarism, totalitarianism, aggressive nationalism, and imperialism.2

A Warning of the Evil of Total War

As Americans, we are rightly proud of our successful defense against these grave threats to freedom and justice. But like every nation that fought in this war, we face continuing questions, symbolized most clearly by Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We can be confident that the cause for which we fought fifty years ago was just, but we must continue to assess and judge the morality of the means used and commit ourselves to a search for a lasting peace. In 1946, the U.S. Bishops expressed regret that our nation" used weapons which brought widespread, unspeakable suffering and destruction."3 Pope Paul VI called the atomic bombings "a butchery of untold magnitude."4 That this assessment is not universally shared is due in large part to a failure to understand clearly and reject one of the most tragic legacies of World War II: that of total war which knows no limits and does not distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot be understood in isolation, for they manifested prior departures from moral restraints on war. The Japanese bombing of Chinese cities in the 1930s, the German terror attacks on Coventry and London, the Japanese rape of Nanking, and the British and American firebombing of Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo were all products of a total war mentality. Pope Pius XII condemned such actions at the time as an abandonment of our tradition which insists that a just war must be limited in both its ends and its means.

A good end may not justify immoral means. As the Second Vatican Council stated so forcefully: "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation."5 As many ethicists then and now have argued, even though the cause was just and the war ended more quickly, the indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and other Japanese and German cities violated basic moral norms. The fact that our adversaries did not abide by these same principles did not free us from the responsibility to do so.

It is appropriate, therefore, to recall the appeal of the U.S. Bishops in their 1983 pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace: After the passage of nearly four decades and a concomitant growth in our understanding of the ever growing horror of nuclear war, we must shape the climate of opinion which will make it possible for our country to express profound sorrow over the atomic bombing in 1945.Without that sorrow, there is no possibility of finding a way to repudiate future use of nuclear weapons or of conventional weapons in such military actions as would not fulfill just-war criteria.6

A Time to Recommit to Peacemaking

We would like to believe that we have exorcised all the demons of World War II from history, but we know we have not. The physical, psychological, and spiritual wounds of fifty years ago persist to this day and, in some cases, continue to fuel new conflicts. Fratricidal wars, widespread disregard for basic human rights, and resurgence of extremism of all kinds offer ample proof that we retain our individual and collective capacity for violence, inhumanity, and ethnic hatred.

Yet in celebrating a victory over totalitarian aggression we know that, with the grace of God, the human hands that brought about such inhumanity are equally capable of building a just and lasting peace. To remember war is to commit oneself to peace. The end of World War II was a time of great hope that the world could build a new peace more secure than anything that had gone before it. We need to recover this sense of hope and recommit to building a more peaceful world, conscious of the warnings provided by the Holocaust, the atomic bombings, and other horrors of World War II.

  • Today, a commitment to peace means promoting respect for life, human rights, justice, and non-violent ways to resolve disputes as the only firm foundations of a just society and international peace.
  • Today, a commitment to peace means refusing to yield to indifference and isolationism in the face of war, starvation, injustice, and even genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, and elsewhere. The United States should use its influence, power, and values to help build a new kind of world based on cooperative security, the kind of world that so many hoped would rise out of the ashes of World War II but still remains to be built.
  • Today, a commitment to peace means opposing the racism, fascism, intolerance, totalitarianism, anti-Semitism, and extreme nationalism that threaten peace in many parts of the world.
  • Today, a commitment to peace means understanding and applying moral restraints on all types of warfare, especially noncombatant immunity and proportionality.
  • Today, a commitment to peace means, as Pope John Paul II has urged, that the leaders of nations "renew their commitment to disarmament and to the banishment of all nuclear weapons."7 As the only nation to have used nuclear weapons, we have a special responsibility to say "No" to nuclear war and say "Yes" to nuclear disarmament. As the U.S. Bishops said in The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace, "the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons is more than a moral ideal; it should be a policy goal."8
  • Today, a commitment to peace means more serious efforts on the part of the United States to reduce radically its dominant role in the world's scandalous trade in arms and to lead an effort to restrict and ultimately ban anti-personnel landmines.

In committing to peace in these and other ways we act in accord with the biblical concept of jubilee. The fiftieth year, according to Leviticus, "you shall make sacred by proclaiming liberty in the land for all its inhabitants (25:10)." Fifty years into the nuclear age, we must deal with the past, so that, with God's grace, we will be able to live faithfully in the future. This fiftieth anniversary is a time to recommit to fulfilling the simple, yet powerful plea of Pope Paul VI: "No more war, war never again!"9


1 Pope John Paul II, "Message for the 50th Anniversary of the End of the War in Europe," in Origins 25:3 (June 1, 1995): p. 35.

2 See also Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb, Chairman, Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, "Statement on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz," January 27,1995, in Origins 24:34 (February 9, 1995): 561-564.

3 National Catholic Welfare Conference Administrative Board, "Man and Peace!" November 17, 1946.

4 Pope Paul VI, World Day of Peace Message, January 1, 1976.

5Gaudium et Spes, no. 80.

6 National Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response, no. 302.

7 John Paul II, address to Japanese Bishops, February 25, 1995, reprinted in L'Osservatore Romano, March 8, 1995 (English edition): p. 6.

8 National Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace, p. 13.

9 Pope Paul VI, Address to the United Nations, October 4, 1965.

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