The Pope, The Press, and Nuclear Deterrence

IT IS SAID that Pope John Paul II once declared that if St. Paul were around today, he’d be on NBC. We might add, if he was lucky.

The tremendous confusion regarding the position of the Holy See on nuclear weapons is no doubt exacerbated by the American press’ determination of what is “news.” Clearly, a person of stature calling for a change in government is more “newsworthy” than a person of stature calling for the status quo. In June of this year the Holy See spoke on the matter. Yet the voices heard were those of the most radical Catholics speaking as private citizens. The papal words on disarmament and deterrence were stong, yet they were not carried over local or national news media.

The Papal Secretary of State, Agostino Cardinal Casaroli, delivered the papal message to the Second Special Session on Disarmament of the UN at 12:30 p.m. on a hot Friday June 11, 1982. Two-thirds through the speech, which was delivered in French, Cardinal Casaroli read: “Dans les conditions actuelles, une dissuasion basee sur I’equilibre, non certes comme une fin en soi mais comme une tape sue la voie d’un de’sarmement progressif, peut etrejugee comme moralement acceptable.” There was no rumble in the press gallery, for it was almost empty, as the Pope’s message stated that “deterrence based on balance … may still be deemed to be morally acceptable.” (UN translation) In the admittedly hard to get unofficial translations, the crucial sentence read as clearly: ‘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.’

While the Papal trip to Argentina was front page news in The Washington Post (June 12, 13), the Los Armeies Times (June 12, 13, 14) and The Wall Street Journal (June 11, 14), none of these papers carried anything about the Pope’s UN message, nor did The New York Times or any other New York metropolitan or regional newspaper. United Nations Television included two minutes and 35 seconds of the speech in its highlight package for the day, sent to London-based Visnews, Italian RAI Channels One and Two, Japanese NHK, and the UPI and CBS television syndication services, but no American local or national television station had its cameras operating during the speech.

A part of the reason for non-coverage could be the tendency of UN reporters and others to drown in the floodtide of words emanating from the building. The tenth and last page of the UN’s June 11 morning summary softened the statement to “might still be judged morally acceptable,” and the press release from the Holy See Mission itself, while it was sent to 10 local and national, 8 Catholic, and 5 foreign media outlets, as well as to L’Observatore Romano and Vatican Radio, provides a long biography of Cardinal Casaroli but no details on the speech itself. In addition, unofficial translations of the speech were not generally available in the UN press area, although they were handed out by Holy See representatives at the 4:30 p.m. press conference that afternoon. Stories on the speech were carried by the Religious News Service, which omitted the crucial paragraph, and by National Catholic News Service, which included it. Two weeks later, however, Origins, the documentary service of National Catholic News Service, ran a wholly new and different translation from any previous. The speech had been released simultaneously in French in Rome, and the NC News Service Rome bureau supplied Origins with an independent translation done by their Firman O’Sullivan. The tragi-comedy of errors has been and will be repeated; a Washington research group nearly published the Origins translation as an official document, not noticing that the language had been softened to “dissuasion based on equilibrium.”

The Papal statement said much more than that, of course, no matter how worded. In addition, a later press conference clarified the position on “deterrence” as well as recommendations on clerical participation in political actions. Yet nothing, not the reaffirmation of the morality or self-protection via deterrence, nor the discomfort with public clerical pronouncements in support of specific political actions (especially the “freeze”), nor the suggestion that participation in the next day’s march to Central Park might be inappropriate, appeared in any major medium.

The American Bishops gathered June 12 in Collegeville, Minnesota for their private examination of the role of the bishop, and videotapes of both the speech and the press conference were available there, but it is impossible to gauge how many actually saw them. Papal documents are available in Ada Aposiolicae Sedis in their original languages (in this case French) but publication is sometimes as much as a year after the fact.

What is of concern especially here is that the Holy See has once again presented its continual position: that nuclear weapons are horrible but, in certain cases, necessary — but only as deterrents. The message the media, be they liberal or conservative, continue to give is one of Roman Catholic nuclear pacifism and acquiescence to one or more questionable “freeze” proposals. Church teaching is often overlooked when the teaching Church — the bishops – ignore the historical reasoning of both theologians and the Holy See and espouse specific political praxis without considering the consequences

What becomes abundantly clear is the fact that the world no longer hangs on every word from a head of slate, including the Pope, and that messages which are designed to be heard perhaps ought not be delivered in a vacuum.

From Vol. 1, No. 1 of the original “Catholicism in Crisis”, published November 1982.


  • Phyllis Zagano

    When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

tagged as: Church media NBC UN

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