The Last Word: Reagan’s Defense

Editor’s Note: In light of the October summit in Reykjavik, Iceland — in which the matter of strategic defense was the chief bone of contention between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev — we thought it would be appropriate to identify once again the moral question that is at issue. In this month’s guest “Last Word,” Fr. Richard Roach, a moral theologian at Marquette University, situates the Strategic Defense Initiative within Catholic just war principles.

President Regan’s proposal for a Strategic Defense Initiative, misnamed “Star Wars,” perhaps the first morally sound proposal made by a president for the defense of these United States since before the Second World War. I fear that highly publicized theological dissent in this country since the Second Vatican Council has so confused us Catholics that we are failing to rise as one in a great chorus of support for this president’s proposals; we do not appreciate how “Catholic” they are.

Whether he knows it or not, Reagan has caught onto the very heart of what is misleadingly called “Just War theory.” It is really not theory. It is simply God’s law regulating the use of potentially and actually deadly force in defense of innocent persons, their property and rights. The military and their weapons are licit only in the defense of innocent persons, their property and rights. Therefore, the president wants us to build defensive weapons. God bless him; that is just what we should do.

Dissent is not the only thing that has muddied the waters for Catholics trying to understand licit defense and the proper use of deadly force. We have become hardened, and our moral reasoning desensitized, by our long acquaintance with MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). This so- called defense strategy was wrong from the start. The mistaken notion that it has been necessary, and the false impression that somehow it has worked, have understandably blinded some to our need for a real defense.

MAD is not now, nor has it ever been, a defense. It is simply an arrangement whereby two sides of a conflict hold each other’s innocent civilians hostage. It works something like this: Imagine two next-door neighbors, Julius and Titius. Julius loves cats and Titius loves dogs. Julius wants to get rid of Titius’s dogs and Titius wants to let his dogs get rid of Julius’s cats. Yet, in addition to being pet fanciers, they are both family men, and each dotes on his child. So, they set up a system whereby if Julius harms one of Titius’s dogs or Titius harms one of Julius’s cats, the other fellow’s child will automatically be killed. It makes no sense, does it? That’s MAD for you, as far as its moral structure is concerned.

Now, it would make sense if Julius harmed one of Titius’s dogs which was attacking his cat, or if Titius harmed one of Julius’s cats which was caterwauling outside his bedroom window at 2:00 A.M. That is defense. Thank God Reagan knows the difference; he is the first president in my adult lifetime who has given clear signals that he does. And by the way, even if the mad system to kill each others’ children had deterred Julius and Titius from ever letting their dogs or cats misbehave, it would not thereby have become moral.

Catholics have been talking a great deal recently about a “seamless garment” uniting all life issues. I believe the expression is intended to mean that human life issues are so interwoven that no one issue can be treated properly in isolation from the others with which it makes a complex whole. There is some limited truth to this claim; the difficulty is how one perceives the garment to be woven. The wrong weave is the simple notion that all killing is bad. The right weave is the conviction that all life issues are regulated by God’s law.

The directly intended killing of the innocent — as a means to any end, or as an end in itself — is always wrong. Not all use of deadly force is wrong. The difference is known only to those who observe the distinctions in God’s law. But those distinctions are not difficult to make. After all, the good thief could make the essential distinction while dying on the cross next to Our Lord: the distinction between directly killing innocent human life and killing the guilty or the aggressor. (Read Luke 23:39-43.) And Our Lord Himself invoked the distinction when He characterized the Pharisees as those who undermine God’s law. He accused them of circumventing a provision for capital punishment attached to a gross violation of the fourth commandment. (Read Mark 7:6-13 and Matthew 15:3-7.) Surely if, even while dying, St. Dismas (the good thief) could make the distinction between killing innocent human life — namely, killing Our Lord — and his own death; and if Our Lord, when trying to correct the Pharisees, could take the distinction between the killing of innocent life and the licit use of deadly force for granted; then we can be expected to make that distinction today.

If that distinction is applied to the defense of the United States, it is obvious that we ought to opt for authentic defense proposals and reject MADness. I hope that we Catholics, because we are Catholic, will rally to the support of the President, in principle at least, on this issue.


  • Richard R. Roach

    Rev. Richard Roach was a Jesuit and teacher of moral theology at Marquette University.

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