Address to the National Catholic Educational Association

To my mind, one of the most important stories in the life of Jesus for us as Christian educators is that found in the tenth chapter of Mark’s gospel. As you recall, Jesus and his disciples had had a long, hectic day. Some people brought their children to the Lord, seeking a blessing. The disciples told them to go away. But when Jesus noticed this, he became angry with his followers and said, “Let the children come to me. Do not try to stop them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as they. I tell you, whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all.” And the story concludes with one of the most touching word pictures in the entire gospel: “And he took the children in his arms and laid his hands on them and blessed them.”

That is really what we are all about as Catholic educators. That story, in the translation I used, has only 88 words. It is amazing how much the writer could pack into those few words. For the few moments I have with you today, I would like to unpack some of the implications of that event as it bears on our work, particularly in the area of promoting justice and peace.

First of all, the story captures the two sides of the same reality of what it means to be a child. The disciples saw the children as an unwelcome intrusion, the last thing in the world they needed at the end of a busy day. Like us so often, those overworked people probably had their hearts set on finding a comfortable chair, a good meal and a chance to unwind and relax. But Jesus saw the other side of the story. He saw it as an opportunity to respond to a profound need both within the hearts of the children and within the souls of their parents.

Anyone who works with children knows the difference between being “childish” and “childlike.” Being childlike is a beautiful quality. As Jesus reminds us, it is a key to the Kingdom of God. But being “childish” is not very attractive. It is immature, frustrating, petty, discouraging. Those two qualities capture the dual reality of children. As educators we attempt to help youngsters grow beyond childishness. We struggle to teach them honesty and respect for the truth. We help them to learn to share things with others, to develop a sense of compassion, to avoid the cruelty and selfishness which can hurt their classmates so deeply.

Coping with and building on this complexity can be very trying at times. We all have seen new teachers enter the field with immense good will and a gleam in their eye. But the first year is often a very difficult one. Some make it. Many do not. What is the difference? I think much of it has to do with this dual reality we are talking about. There is a profound, humbling process of coming to grips with the “childishness” and “childlikeness” in the students and in ourselves.

But let us not forget that wonderful quality of being childlike. Since you work with young people more than I, you could probably describe that quality much more thoroughly. But let me give it a try, if I may.

First, it involves a sense of wonder, of curiosity, of questioning. Children see the world with fresh eyes. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out like shining from shook foil . . . There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Children often see that deep beauty and help us to see it also. Parents and teachers often chuckle about the impossible questions which children ask: Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet? And yet when you think about it, some of our children’s questions are like the “koans” or riddles which the Zen Buddhists use to stretch their imaginations and keep their minds attuned to life’s freshness.

Second, to be childlike means to be open to new information, new knowledge, new ways of looking at things. Sometimes as we grow older, we become set in our ways. We have things figured out. We know most of the answers. We no longer enjoy surprises. We have invested ourselves in certain theories, procedures, philosophies, approaches. They may not be perfect, but they work reasonably well enough and we are not too eager to look at other possibilities. So often, by saying “yes” to one possibility, we are almost automatically forced to say “no” to so many others. But children have not yet done that, and their openness is a reminder to us of the validity of other viewpoints.

Finally, to be childlike means to be playful. A pediatric nurse once described a course she had to take as part of her work on a Master’s degree. The instructor told her to go to a school playground at recess once a week for a five week period. She was to sit there and observe carefully what went on. She was not to intervene unless an emergency situation developed. And she was to note her impressions of what went on. Originally, the nurse thought this a rather foolish assignment. But she discovered it to be fascinating: the enormous variety of ways in which children play, the ever changing patterns of groups and subgroups, the creativity coupled with set ways of doing things. Somehow, as Jesus points out to us in that story recorded in Mark’s gospel, it is a key to God’s Kingdom. We adults want our God to be predictable. We tend to say, “Tell me the rules. Tell me what you expect. Then I will know how to deal with you, God.” But God refuses to be boxed in, or stereotyped or reduced to a computer printout. He is playful, vigorous and full of surprises. He resists our efforts to figure him out. He is, in the best sense of that word, childlike. And as you will recall, at the end of Mark’s brief story, Jesus embraced all of that and blessed it. I think he is calling us to do the same.

It is in that context that I wish to speak to you about the proposed pastoral letter of the American Bishops, entitled “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.” The first and second drafts of this document have already made a considerable impact, both within the Church and in the broader community, on the public debate relative to the nuclear arms race. The third draft will become public this week and will undoubtedly give rise to another round of intense discussion.

I believe that to understand and appreciate properly the pastoral and to be able to present it to others in an integral, credible way, we all must approach it with some of those qualities which are inherent in “childlikeness”: a certain freshness; an openness to new information, new knowledge, new ways of looking at things; a willingness to assume responsibility for a degree of creativity, going beyond the totally predictable which, alas, is not always so promising. This, I believe, was what the II Vatican Council had in mind when it said that “a completely fresh reappraisal of war” was needed. (The Church in the Modern World, No. 80)

In these remarks on the pastoral letter, I will focus briefly on three points: (1) the perspective and authority of the bishops; (2) the positions taken on policy issues; and (3) the follow-up which will be needed.

I. The Perspective and Authority of the Pastoral

We have written this pastoral from the perspective of American Catholic Bishops; each term in this description has shaped our perspective and I will try to explain the effect of each.

We write first as bishops: the fundamental meaning of the pastoral letter for us is that it is an exercise of our teaching ministry. We speak in this letter as teachers of religious and moral principles. We believe that the Catholic moral teaching on warfare has always had two distinct but complementary purposes: (1) to provide pastoral guidance for the Catholic conscience; and (2) to help set the right terms for public debate on the morality of war. Following this tradition, we have directed our pastoral letter to two distinct but overlapping communities: the community of faith in the Church and the wider civil community of which we are a part as citizens of our country.

We write specifically as Catholic bishops: we seek to bring to bear upon both the ecclesial and the civil discussion of modern warfare the moral-religious heritage which has been developed in the Catholic Church from the Scriptures through the statements of Pope John Paul II. The pastoral letter tries both to summarize the content of this Catholic heritage and to apply it to specific questions which have arisen in the nuclear age. In this way, we seek to illustrate the continuing validity of the moral teaching of the Church and to confront the new issues which face us in this generation.

In moving from moral principles or formal Church teaching to applications, we are aware that our specific judgments and recommendations do not carry the same moral authority as in our statement of moral principles. It is necessary, therefore, that the pastoral letter be read with the understanding that there are different levels of moral teaching expressed in the letter. This is very clearly stated in the pastoral: “When making applications of these principles we realize — and we want readers to recognize — that prudential judgments are involved based on specific circumstances which can change or which can be interpreted differently by people of good will (e.g. the treatment of “No First Use”). We will do our best to indicate, stylistically and substantively, whenever we make such applications.”

We write finally as American Catholic bishops: this means we must exercise our teaching ministry in a very specific setting. The United States is one of the few nuclear nations, one of two nuclear superpowers and the only nation ever to use atomic weapons. We are conscious of the fact that two superpowers generate the arms race today, and that the nuclear arsenal of the Western nations exists in large measure because of the history and conduct of Soviet policy. We must not be naive about this. But this fact does not relieve us of our responsibility to address ours government on the content of this defense and foreign policies. In this regard, one of the most gratifying results of our work thus far has been the way it has been received as a catalyst and a contribution to the wider public discussion in the United States.

II. The Positions taken on Policy Issues.

Guided by this three dimensional perspective, we began the process of drafting the pastoral letter in July, 1981. Recognizing the complexity of the task, we established two objectives: to maintain the position of moral teachers, but also to avail ourselves of the relevant technical data on the question of modern warfare by drawing on the disciplines of political science and military strategy as well as the experience of established experts in these and other relevant fields.

For the first year of our work, therefore, we spent much of our time hearing from 35 witnesses, including representatives of the Administration, who appeared before our Committee for extensive discussions. After a year of this form of consultation, we prepared a first draft of the pastoral and circulated it, in June 1982, to all our bishops and to about 150 experts in the United States; we also sent it to several episcopal conferences for comment, and, of course, to the Holy See. In response, we received about 700 pages of commentary.

During the summer of 1982, in the light of all the materials we have received, we prepared a second draft of the pastoral for discussion at the November general meeting of the Episcopal Conference. The bishops debated the contents of the letter in small groups and in general sessions. After the November meeting, we received another 300 or more papers of written suggestions. We also had two more meetings with representatives of the Administration. Finally, we took part in a meeting convened by the Holy See, January 1983, to give us an opportunity to discuss the pastoral with a number of episcopal conferences of Europe. This latter meeting was particularly helpful in the preparation of the third draft which will be discussed by the bishops in Chicago on May 2-3.

The section of the pastoral letter which has attracted the most public attention is the policy section. In it we address questions about the use of nuclear weapons, about the strategy of deterrence and about arms control negotiations.

The policy section is based on the premise that nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy constitute a qualitatively new moral question. They have not changed the nature of international relations but they have refashioned the way the use of force is understood. The dominant moral tradition of the Church, and of the pastoral letter, has been the “Just War” or “Limited War” tradition. Essentially, this position holds that some uses of force can be morally justified and may be politically necessary for a nation’s self-defense in an international system devoid of effective political authority. Precisely because this tradition affirms the legitimacy of some uses of force, the challenge posed by nuclear weapons is a radical one.

The destructive capability of most nuclear weapons, even in the conservative estimates, raises severe doubts whether their use could ever be contained within the moral limits set by the principles of non-combatant immunity and proportionality. Even the weapons of much smaller yield raise the question of whether the step across the nuclear divide can be justified in light of the high probability of escalation.

We find that the moral premise of our letter is corroborated in much of the best technical literature on nuclear weapons. The famous quotation from Bernard Brodie’s pioneering work, The Absolute Weapon, has, if anything, more validity today than when he wrote the following: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.”

Both the moral and the strategic analysis of the nuclear arsenals of our day leads us in the pastoral letter to endorse the conclusion of a study done on the medical consequences of nuclear war by the Pontifical Academy of Science at the request of Pope John Paul II. The study asserts: “An objective examination of the medical situation that would follow a nuclear war leads to but one conclusion: Prevention is our only recourse.”

Proceeding from this premise, the pastoral letter considers three cases of possible use of nuclear weapons: (1) counter-population use; (2) .first use; and (3) limited nuclear exchange. Before saying a word on each case, allow me to characterize the posture we assume on the use question. The pastoral letter is skeptical to a point bordering on disbelief regarding the controlled use of nuclear weapons. We recognize the theoretical possibility of single isolated cases of use being contained, but we are much more impressed by the evidence that strongly suggests that even small scale use may quickly escalate to horrendous proportions. We never say that every contemplated use of any nuclear weapon would ipso facto be immoral. But we are close to that position because of the severe risk factor involved.

In the first case, counter-population warfare, as would be expected, we rule out directly intended attacks on civilian populations. Such a policy would violate the principle of non-combatant immunity. It is possible in Catholic theology to rule out such action absolutely; the prohibition does not admit of exception. Our pastoral reaffirms the teaching of the II Vatican Council on this point: “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.” (The Church in the Modern World. #80)

We make a different kind of judgment in evaluating strikes on military or industrial targets within populated areas. The relevant moral principle here is proportionality. Essentially, the argument contends that even unintended collateral damage following from such attacks can be significant enough to prohibit such attacks. The conclusion, adopted in the pastoral, cannot be stated with the same finality as the first judgment since, in this instance, we are making a very specific prudential judgment.

The second case of use also involves a prudential judgment: the deliberate initiation of nuclear war is an unjustifiable moral risk. We state: “We abhor the concept of initiating nuclear war on however restricted a scale. Because of the probable effects, the deliberate initiation of nuclear war, in our judgment, would be an unjustifiable moral risk. Therefore, a serious obligation exists to develop defensive strategies as rapidly as possible to preclude any justification for using nuclear weapons in response to nonnuclear attacks.” In taking this position, we recognize that we enter a larger debate now afoot in the strategic literature. We are moved to support the “No First Use” pledge by a desire to build a multi-dimensional barrier — political, strategic, psychological and moral — against resort to nuclear weapons. We realize the debate presently is about declaratory policy and recognize it would take time to implement the idea if adopted. Of course, a contrary position to ours could be advanced, also on political-moral grounds, arguing that our position may increase the risk of conventional war even as we seek to decrease the risk of early nuclear use.

The third case of use involves the concept of limited nuclear war in Central Europe. In line with the doubt about controlled use I cited above, the pastoral expresses serious skepticism that such an exchange could in fact be “limited” and places the entire burden of proof on those who would argue it is a politically feasible and morally justifiable strategy. Those arguing such a case find little support in the pastoral.

Turning to the strategy of deterrence, the judgment of the pastoral letter is one of “strictly conditioned moral acceptance.” Each term of the phrase is necessary to understand our position. The basic position, shorn of all modifiers, is acceptance rather than condemnation of the deterrent. But acceptance is conditional: only as a transitional strategy designed to reverse the arms race and reduce it rapidly. This posture of conditional acceptance corresponds, we believe, to the judgment of Pope John Paul II, expressed in his message to the United Nations in June, 1982. At that time he stated: “In current conditions `deterrence’ based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable. Nonetheless in order to ensure peace, it is indispensable not to be satisfied with the minimum which is always susceptible to the real danger of explosion.”

The pastoral seeks to demonstrate what it means by conditional acceptance through a series of specific recommendations concerning deterrence policy. Basically, we mean that acceptance of the idea of deterrence does not imply acceptance of every program, policy or weapons system proposed in the name of deterrence. Hence, the letter opposes the quest for superiority in the arms race; it resists strategies for prolonged periods of repeated nuclear strikes and counter-strikes, or “prevailing” in nuclear war; and it opposes proposals which blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons. Similarly, while not identifying with any specific political initiative for a nuclear freeze, the pastoral does support “immediate, bilateral, verifiable agreements to curb the testing, production and deployment of new nuclear weapons systems.” Moreover, it supports the kinds of deep cuts in the arms race embodied in the START and INF proposals. We also recommend support for early and successful conclusion of negotiations of the comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In summarizing its case, the pastoral letter says: “These judgments are meant to exemplify how a lack of unequivocal condemnation of deterrence is meant only to be an attempt to acknowledge the role attributed to deterrence, but not to support its extension beyond the limited purpose discussed above.”

In these remarks, I have highlighted some of the judgments and recommendations the pastoral makes relative to policy decisions. The reason is that this is the part of the pastoral which has received the most attention in the media and will, I suppose, continue to do so in the weeks ahead. However, I would like to emphasize that there is a very significant section of the pastoral entitled “The Promotion of Peace: Proposals and Policies.” “Catholic teaching,” as we wrote in the precis of the pastoral, “has always understood peace in positive terms. In the words of Pope John Paul II, ‘Peace is not just the absence of war … Like a cathedral, peace must be constructed patiently and with unshakable faith.’ (Coventry, England, 1982) “Peace is the fruit of order, and order in human society must be shaped on the basis of respect for the transcendence of God and the unique dignity of each person, understood in terms of freedom, justice, truth and love. To avoid war in our day we must be intent on building peace in an increasingly interdependent world. (In the final section) of this letter we set forth a positive vision of peace and the demands such a vision makes on diplomacy, national policy and personal choices.” Unfortunately, the lack of time makes it impossible for me to give an overview of this section.

III. The Follow-up

My hope is that the pastoral letter will not end up as a document gathering dust on the shelf. I hope that we will be able to develop ways of communicating its concerns and questions, its insights and conclusions, through our parishes, our schools, our universities. I hope that the process of doing that will involve all of us with the unique skills and talents with which we have been gifted. I hope also that this is not experienced as something imposed from above as the final word on the subject, but as an invitation to enter into a continuing process of sharing and learning, pondering and praying about a most complicated, but most crucial aspect of modern life. But most of all I hope it is approached with the spirit of Jesus in the passage I cited from Mark’s gospel: Jesus dealing with those children and parents in a patient, loving, straightforward and compassionate manner.

To accomplish this, it is necessary to remember that dual reality about which I spoke earlier: that dual reality which we find in young people and which distinguishes between “childlike” and “childishness.” This same complexity is involved in the role of Catholic schools and other educational endeavors at all levels. We are to pass on the accumulated wisdom of the generations which have gone before us. But we are also to be open to new insights, new discoveries, new information. We are to be guides for the young in their process of adjusting to the needs and expectations, the rules and regulations of our society; and yet we are also to critique, to correct and improve that same society. We are to protect and preserve the established order and unity of communal life; and yet we are to foster diversity and freedom of expression. We are called upon to transmit faithfully the treasures and wisdom of our Catholic tradition; and yet we are to assist with the process of applying it to entirely new situations and circumstances. In Old Testament terms, we have a priestly role of celebrating all that is good and noble in our culture and in our nation, and we also have the prophetic role of identifying and confronting that which is exploitative, manipulative and unjust in our society. That is a big order. But what is impossible for humans is not impossible for God. We are not alone. His Spirit works with us and in us and through us — if we are open to the Holy Spirit, if we yearn for and pray for and patiently wait for the Spirit, who breathes where he wills and comes in sometimes surprising ways.

In challenging our students to wrestle with the gospel’s teaching on justice and peace, we are ourselves challenged to be deeply respectful of the truth, deeply respectful of each child’s freedom, deeply respectful of the gospel. We are challenged to walk the tightrope between timidity and excessive caution on the one hand, and rash oversimplifications and even the most subtle and well- intentioned manipulation on the other. We are challenged to be sensitive to the movement of the Spirit within the entire process.

In 1945, Albert Einstein, a great student and teacher, wrote the following: “Since I do not foresee that atomic energy is to be a great boon for a long time, I have to say that for the present it is a menace. Perhaps it is well that it should be. It may intimidate the human race into bringing order into its international affairs which, without the pressure of fear, it would not do.” (Atlantic Monthly article, November, 1945)

My hope is that in some modest way, we — you and I — can be a part of that process of “… the human race bringing order into its international affairs…”: I, as a bishop, voting on that pastoral letter next month in Chicago; you as teachers, administrators, educators in your schools and classrooms, attempting to open your students to the gospel’s teachings on justice and peace and all the many aspects of human life; all of us imitators of the tired, but patient Christ, who so many years ago in a dusty village in Israel took time for the children who needed to be close to him.


  • Joseph Cardinal Bernardin

    Joseph Louis Bernardin (originally Bernardini) (April 2, 1928 – November 14, 1996) was an American Cardinal of the Catholic Church. He served as Archbishop of Chicago from 1982 until his death, and was elevated to the cardinalate in 1983.

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