The teaching of the Church has evolved from a conditioned acceptance of nuclear deterrence in the 1980s, to rejection of deterrence as an unacceptable moral rationalization for nuclear armament in the 2000s, to strong support for nuclear disarmament in recent years, leading to approval for the Ban Treaty in September 2017. Catholics have the right to ask, “Which position should I take?”
I would be less than candid if I did not report a degree of consternation among those serious about their Catholic faith that they have not yet received clearer guidance on how to address their civic and professional obligations with respect to nuclear weapons in light of the Church’s current teaching condemning “the possession and threat to use nuclear weapons.”
For their part, at this point, when many bishops hesitate to give a blanket answer to that question; they are prudently exercising their pastoral office until they have greater clarity about the issues involved. This hesitation is not unprecedented, for in past generations popes, bishops and councils often consulted theologians and canonists and waited for them to sort out issues before pronouncing on issues or intervening in a controversy.
To offer clearer moral advice, the pastors of the Church need to build consensus in the Church, wait for it to gather into a settled judgment on the part of moral theologians and bishops, and into a firm conviction in faith among the people of God. The response to the U.S. bishops’ multi-year, open process in drafting The Challenge of Peace during the first Reagan administration (1981-85) demonstrates that not just ephemeral public opinion but the more mature public judgment can move in the direction of Church teaching where there is wide and full engagement on the part of the faithful.