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John Keown spoke recently about the ethics of nuclear weapons. In his lecture, “The Pope and the Bomb: The Ethics of Nuclear Deterrence,” Keown argued that the aiming of nuclear weapons at cities and intending to use them in order to deter enemy attacks is immoral. Keown’s moral reasoning involved a straightforward application of the Jesuit John Ford’s condemnations of counter-population obliteration bombing during World War II.

In the question-and-answer period after the lecture, Keown went beyond the ethics of war to address what might be called “the ethics of leadership.” He made an important distinction between what teachers—including, I would add, those who represent the Catholic Church—should advocate and what politicians can do. He noted that speaking the truth about the morality of nuclear weapons and doing something politically about the problem that this truth poses are very different activities. Keown’s distinction is useful, not only with regard to nuclear ­disarmament but also with regard to two other currently ­controverted issues: abortion and gay “­marriage.”

Let us begin with abortion. St. John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, provided the Church and the world with a principle that points toward an ethics of leadership. In §73 of Evangelium Vitae, John Paul says:

A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. It is a fact that while in some parts of the world there continue to be campaigns to introduce laws favoring abortion, often supported by powerful international organizations, in other nations—particularly those which have already experienced the bitter fruits of such permissive legislation—there are growing signs of a rethinking in this matter. In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality.

Acting for this reason, the person here mentioned does not give his official support to the illicit and unjust law; his just and opportune effort is introduced, rather, in order to hinder its specific unjust applications. Strictly speaking, the principle put forward by John Paul does not pertain to the more restrictive law posited—although, as we shall see, that too is important. It pertains rather to the moral character of the action performed by the elected official who does something—casts a vote in favor of a law, for instance—in the hope or expectation that fewer innocents will be killed.

Imagine, for example, a country in which the laws against abortion are virtually nonexistent because it is generally understood that human life begins at conception and that deliberately taking a human life is obviously immoral. Imagine, too, that in this country a politician proposes a law allowing abortion until the twentieth week of pregnancy. In such a situation, any effort in support of the proposed legislation would be immoral. By contrast, in a country that allows abortion until—or even shortly after—birth, an elected official’s support of a law formulated in exactly the same way (allowing abortions only until the twentieth week) would be moral and even praise­worthy. In a country with no limits on abortion, the likely result of any restrictions, however inadequate in comparison to full protection of the sanctity of life, would be fewer killings of innocent humans, especially if the law is accompanied, for instance, by measures in aid of pro-life pregnancy centers. The elected official’s effort would be an effort to save lives. And strictly speaking, what are at issue in Evangelium ­Vitae §73 are efforts: not the laws themselves, but acts of the will, directed at good (or evil) objects.

John Paul makes another important point regarding the type of activity that is permissible in such ­situations. Just before the passage quoted above, there appears in Evangelium Vitae §73 a line from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1974 “Declaration on procured abortion,” according to which it is never “possible to be a participant in a campaign of public opinion in favor of such a law”—that is to say (in words found elsewhere in that declaration), “a law which would admit in principle the liceity of abortion.” Such participation would strongly suggest that the person is in favor of the ­immoral law itself. Even if the person advocating the law harbors reservations, saying to himself that he favors the law only because it restricts abortions, he would likely be perceived as favoring the law itself. Nor is there any guarantee that all those subjected to such a campaign of public opinion would develop the same reservations as this advocate of the law.

The teaching of Evangelium Vitae §73 pertains to the issues relating to nuclear weapons. To begin with, we must set aside the question whether it is moral to use or to possess what are sometimes called “tactical nuclear weapons”: weapons to be aimed at military targets when the possibility of collateral civilian deaths is minimal. Such weapons raise questions regarding, for example, their possible use against other targets. But it would be distracting to discuss such weapons in the present context. They constitute a separate issue in the just war analysis of nuclear weapons.

Having set aside contested questions about the use of tactical nuclear weapons in special circumstances, we can note the parallel between the use of strategic nuclear weapons against enemy populations and abortion. Both involve—indeed, require—the deliberate killing of innocent human beings. Most people, following their innate comprehension of the natural law, condemn acts of terror, such as the bombing of restaurants or synagogues, because they target innocent human beings. For them to support the use of nuclear weapons against cities would be to contradict themselves. Nor could they support the intention to employ such arms against cities, since it is precisely the intention to kill innocents that makes acts of ­terror immoral.

Nuclear deterrence, as distinct from the use of nuclear weapons, certainly involves in some sense the intention to kill innocents. The possession of nuclear weapons is not a deterrent unless one country believes that the other country intends—or would intend, if provoked—to use the weapons it possesses in response to attacks. It is possible to imagine that a person holding supreme executive power in a country with deployable nuclear weapons might have decided on moral grounds that he would never launch a nuclear attack. But the executive power of non-despotic governments—and even eventually that of despotic governments—passes to other hands. So the threat of nuclear retaliation aimed at countless innocents, which is integral to the strategic consensus of the ­government, remains.

We might call this consensus an “­institutional intention.” Intention always involves rational beings, so an institution, as an institution, cannot intend anything. But it is also the case that no program sponsored by an institution comes into being or develops without the involvement of rational beings acting intentionally in various ways. The institutional intention to kill innocent persons enters into a political system in the allocation of funds to build or acquire nuclear weapons and the formulation of strategic policies to use them. It is impossible—or nearly impossible—to imagine a political system that develops or acquires nuclear weapons without at least the conditional intention on the part of some persons in the system that they be used. In any case, the nuclear capacity acquired—a capacity that has built into it the end of killing innocent persons—can always be used by someone with the pertinent executive power. It is this capacity in the hands of a series of human agents—this institutional intention—that supposedly deters the opposing political system or systems.

It must immediately be added, however, that the presence of the institutional intention necessary for nuclear deterrence does not entail that those authoritatively involved in the system necessarily have the intention (conditional or otherwise) to kill innocent persons. It is here that Keown’s distinction and the principle set out in Evangelium Vitae §73 become important. It is one thing to teach that nuclear weapons aimed at cities are immoral and that their stockpiling and upkeep are intrinsically tied up with the institutional intention to use them. It is quite another thing, as a public official, to attempt to reduce the number of such weapons as far as is politically possible. In order for the latter activity to be in order morally, it is necessary that the public official hold that nuclear deterrence is in itself not a good thing. He must hold that the better result would always be fewer such weapons in the world, until the point at which there are no such weapons. The efforts he makes to reduce a nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons for strategic defense, even if these efforts involve conceding political realities that prevent the total elimination of nuclear weapons of mass destruction, do not receive their moral character from the moral character of these weapons or their use.

One imagines that there are, or at least could be, not a few public officials responsible for such matters who might adopt this attitude toward nuclear deterrence and disarmament and act accordingly. The momentous 1986 agreement at Reykjavík and subsequent treaties led to significant reductions in Soviet and American nuclear arsenals. This was possible because the political leaders of the two major nuclear powers, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, recognized the immorality of all-out nuclear war.

Political efforts toward reduction of nuclear ­arsenals are to be applauded. But a serious ­problem—or danger—remains. It concerns those responsible for teaching the truth in these matters. There is a certain intellectual plausibility to the argument that nuclear deterrence is in itself good. There are even arguments, less plausible but still cogent in their way, that the choice to use nuclear weapons against cities can, in some circumstances, be a good one. But a society from which is absent the teaching that the use (and production and maintenance) of nuclear weapons is disordered is less likely to produce public officials with a proper moral revulsion against the use of nuclear weapons. It is more likely to produce public officials who think that nuclear deterrence and (in certain circumstances) the use of strategic ­nuclear weapons are morally acceptable. So, we come to a principle not of political leadership but of moral pedagogy. Those who teach must always speak the truth and never speak in favor of a counter-­population deterrent system itself—which only makes sense as what it is, insofar as it is aimed at the taking of ­innocent lives.

The prospect of gay “marriage” involves very different ethical issues than do abortion and nuclear weapons. But in view of the cultural and legal realities of the twenty-first-century West, the distinction between political actions and moral pedagogy is also relevant. What a teacher following the natural law ought to be saying about homosexual activity itself is clear: It is disordered because it makes use of the sexual organs in a manner that perverts their natural use. Like so many words today, the verb “­pervert”—and, even more so, the corresponding noun “pervert”—are subject to linguistic interdiction, not always unjustly. To call someone a pervert is not merely to employ a noun but to cast an aspersion. But the noun “pervert” can be used descriptively. Particular attention to its etymology is useful in explaining why homosexual activity is immoral.

The noun is related to the Latin adjective (or past participle) per-versus, which means to follow (per) a course which is turned (versus) the wrong way or askew. It refers to a turning away from a natural activity and toward an activity that subverts or skews that same natural activity. Language, for instance, is by its very nature for telling the truth. No one can reasonably believe that language emerged among humans with an ambiguous purpose with respect to truth and falsehood. A thought about a possible state of affairs is a coherent thought—that is, a thought that is in order linguistically and rationally—only if it depicts a state of affairs that could be the case: that might truly be. The capacity to tell lies is parasitic upon this capacity to think cogently and then speak the truth. Nor is the telling of a lie a mere failure to depict the truth: It is a “per-version,” precisely of the capacity to tell the truth. A similar thing can be said of homosexual activity. The human sexual organs are not ambiguous with respect to hetero- or homosexual activity. Nor is homosexual activity simply a failure to reproduce (as happens with sterile married couples). Rather, it is the use of what is designed for reproduction in a manner that looks like reproductive activity but is a skewing of that activity: turning it in a direction in which it was not meant to go.

Those who teach are obligated to honor the truth, which means they have a duty to speak truthfully about homosexuality. There are also a number of secondary reasons why those responsible for speaking the truth in the public square are obliged to teach clearly that homosexual activity is disordered. Some of them have to do with the psychological and social damage that such activity effects. And there is the problem that those who favor the institutionalization of homosexual relationships typically insist that homosexual pairings be recognized as marriage, and so force many of their fellow citizens to assert things they believe to be false. But we must set these matters aside for the moment. They concern the ethics of teaching, as it were. Our object at present is to depict the ethics of leadership in this matter. What can public officials do in order to organize society, to the extent possible, in a way consistent with the truth about homosexual activity?

As with abortion and nuclear deterrence, much depends upon the legal and cultural situation in which a public official finds himself. There is much talk globally these days about “civil unions” as a possible political compromise with those who desire official recognition of homosexual “marriage.” In a society in which the only officially recognized sexual pairings are those between one man and one woman, a public official could not morally, for instance, vote in favor of a law recognizing civil unions—a law recognizing, that is, homosexual “marriages,” absent only the very term “marriage.” To do so would be to perform an action incompatible with the natural law and so with practical intelligibility itself. Consider again the reasoning John Paul offers in Evangelium Vitae §73: When it is not possible to overturn a pro-abortion law, a legislator might licitly vote for a law that allows abortions, but fewer than does the original law. The existence of the abortion license means that the legislator’s intention in backing a more restrictive law stops short of approval of the immoral acts themselves. He is merely voting for a law and doing so with the good intention of reducing the evil of abortion. But when, in a society that recognizes only true marriages, a legislator casts a vote in favor of civil unions, the situation is different. Necessarily, he is voting for the immoral activity, just as voting for limited permission for abortion in a society where abortion is prohibited is necessarily voting for an ­immoral activity.

But this is not the situation in many Western countries today. Many lawmakers who have a sound understanding of the moral character of homosexual acts function in societies where gay “marriage” is already recognized. In these circumstances, a public official could act in favor of the abrogation of the law recognizing gay “marriage” and in favor of its replacement by a law permitting only civil unions of same-sex pairings. Such a law would reduce the evils that follow from recognition of gay “marriage.” It would eliminate the pressure on those who do not believe that homosexual pairings are marriages to assert (or imply) that they are. It would also likely reduce the initial attractiveness, especially for younger persons, of entering into sexually active same-sex ­relationships. Full legal endorsement tends to increase the number of corresponding acts, as we have seen throughout the world in the case of abortion.

Recently, proposals have been floated in favor of laws that would recognize civil unions involving any two adults who share domestic responsibilities in a permanent way, whether or not their relationship is sexual. Such unions would include, for instance, biological sisters sharing an apartment and other resources. Persons recognized as being part of such civil unions might receive the same financial benefits, visiting rights, and so on, as married couples. It has been maintained that laws recognizing such unions would be easier to defend from the objection that prohibiting homosexuals from marrying but allowing them access to civil unions amounts to the quasi-racist recognition of “separate but equal” institutions. Civil unions in which any sexual relationship between the parties is irrelevant could neither be viewed in a court of law as equal to marriage nor unjustly separate from it, since they would in substance be quite different from marriage.

So we return to the wisdom of John Paul. Endorsing such civil unions in a polity that recognizes only genuine marriage would be problematic. It seems unlikely that any such proposal—in whatever polity it might be put forward—could gain momentum except as a compromise with those who advocate gay “marriage.” So, in a polity recognizing only genuine marriage, support of such civil unions would in effect be support for the official recognition of same-sex ­couplings. Anyone arguing that support is being given only to non-sexually-defined civil unions would be characterized, quite rightly, as disingenuous. But, in accordance with the principle set out in Evangelium Vitae §73, there are circumstances in which it is morally licit to offer political support to laws that permit immoral activities but restrict them in a society that has given them license and endorsement.

In this respect, one certainly can imagine a legal environment in which a law recognizing civil unions defined independently of any sexual relationship might legitimately win the political support of those who hold that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. It would certainly be the case that advocating for such civil unions in order to lay the foundations for reversing legal endorsement of gay “marriage” would be morally licit, even if one foresees that the civil unions would be employed by gay couples. It is less evident but still plausible that a similar advocacy might be licit in a society poised to endorse gay “­marriage.” A lawmaker could lend support to measures in favor of civil unions when responsible observers maintain that, unless such a law is passed, political authorities will recognize gay “marriage.” In such an environment, a public official could act in favor of the less-than-perfect law.

John Keown’s implicit distinction between an ethics of leadership and the duty to teach the truth is sure to rise in importance in the coming years. The West has been overtaken by the sexual revolution and other dramatic changes in moral outlook. The time is passing when our duty as responsible citizens is to “hold the line.” More and more, both leaders and teachers—including leaders when they function as teachers—are called to remediate damage done to the sanctity of life, sexual relations, marriage, and other areas of life. This requires leaders to do what can be done politically to restrain wrongdoing. It requires teachers, in whatever capacity, to teach moral truths without compromise. 

Kevin L. Flannery, S.J., holds the Anna and Donald Waite Endowed Chair at Creighton University.

Photo by Red Cross Unit München-Nord 3 Harthof/Hasenbergl via Creative Commons. Image cropped.