[su_frame class=”guest”][/su_frame][specialbox]By John Gillespie, M.Ed., MLA

This is Part 3 of a serial publication on Thomas Merton’s influence on the Catholic Church’s Pilgrimage to Pacem in Terris. You can read Part 1, and Part 2. To get the remainder of the series delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to subscribe.[/specialbox]

Ecclesia Militans

Inclusion in the new consensus was predicated upon being a committed cold warrior. Both the United States and the Soviet Union spend billions on the development of nuclear weapons.

Americans constructed bomb shelters in the backyards in preparation for the coming nuclear Armageddon. To suggest that a peaceful solution to the deepening conflict with the Soviets was even possible was to place one under suspicion of disloyalty.

Many Christian Evangelicals even discerned the hand of God guiding the arms race. Two days after Truman announced that the US had lost atomic monopoly, a revivalist preacher in Los Angeles declared his city to be among the primary targets of the Soviet Union. It was neither a strategic or political target, according to the preacher. Rather, God himself has earmarked the City of Angels as “meriting destruction as much as another Sodom and Gomorrah.”

And because God would soon judge the evil residents of L.A., any discussion of nuclear disarmament or limitation was tantamount to questioning God’s providence. “The emerging peace program is not God’s program,” scoffed one Baptist minister in 1947, “but only a variation of man’s international plans, which always come to naught.”

Some within the Evangelical camp not only shunned peace movements as nonsensical, but even seemed to welcome the fiery end-of-it-all, interpreting the onset of the atomic age as a sure sign of Jesus’ imminent return. If one carefully read the signs, paid attention to the headlines, and considered everything in light of the Bible’s teachings, God’s plan would become evident.

The mysterious “Gog” mentioned in the book of Ezekiel was readily identified with Russia since both are geographically situated “in the north” and both “possess a mighty army” And because Gog is destined to attack Israel (variously interpreted as a reference to either the modern nation state of Israel or simply a reference to God’s people) with such “fiery” ferocity, one must deduce that the Soviet Union would therefore launch a nuclear attack on the United States.

But God’s people need not fear: “Although Armageddon will be an awesome and terrifying experience for the world,” declared one pastor from Iowa, “it should be welcomed by the child of God as the day of vindication.”

According to one reading of Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, the faithful would be “raptured” away above the clouds, where they would have a bird’s eye view of the righteous destruction of nonbelievers, atheists, and communists.*

Whether one expected to watch the exploding mushroom cloud from above the clouds with Jesus or below them with the rest of doomed humanity, was a point of theological minutia. The Christian was to be, quite literally, a foot solider in the ranks of the Ecclesia Militans – the militant church.

Americans, who stood for democracy and capitalism, stood on the side of God.

The Soviets, the “disciples of Lucifer,” as the famous evangelist Billy Graham described them, were bent on spreading their “satanic religion” to the utter destruction of both Christianity and the United States.  Graham declared that

Western culture and its fruits had its foundation in the bible, the word of God, and in the revivals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Communism, on the other hand, has decided against God, against Christ, against the bible and all religion.

Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism

Other thinkers, notably the Protestant theological Reinhold Niebuhr, took a more balanced approach. Born to German immigrant parents, Niebuhr studied theology at Union Theological Seminary where he gained a reputation as a socialist, a pacifist, and an advocate for the working poor.

But when confronted with the Soviet-Nazi “non-aggression” pact of 1941, as well as the postwar exposure of Stalin many atrocities, Niebuhr, like many other Leftists, became disillusioned with what he called his former “idealism.” Dismissing what he believed to be the naïve optimism of traditional Christianity, he framed an approach known as Christian Realism, which today, is one of the formative influences on mainstream Protestantism.

Realism denies that human indefectibility is possible, at least on this side of Heaven. Noting that even the best of intentions to perfect human society have often resulted in the reverse, Niebuhr wrote to a pacifist friend: “Your difficulty is that you want to try to live in history without sinning … our effort to set up the Kingdom of God on earth ends in a perverse preference for tyranny, simply because the peace of tyranny means, at least, the absence of war.”

For Niebuhr, the communist experiment in the Soviet Union only proved his point.

The Marxist’s greatest flaw was his promise to bring about perfection through an economic system. In this futile pursuit, its proponents had abandoned God and turned to science, which as Niebuhr pointed out, was easily manipulated in the hands of power-hungry totalitarians.

The Christian Realist, while hoping for the best, prepares for the worst.

Jesus had assured his disciples that his kingdom was “not of the world,” and therefore, Niebuhr thought, it was foolish expect anyone to behave as it if was. When sharing a planet with the likes of Hitler and Stalin, turning the other cheek was perhaps admirable, but unlikely to affect substantive change.

Nevertheless, nonviolence was an “asset for the Christian faith” because it reminded one of the greater ideal. One should always pray, as Jesus prayed, “Thy kingdom come,” but one need not hold one’s breath waiting for it.

The arms race was a gamble that in the end, was morally justifiable. “We have to risk a nuclear war in order to escape capitalization to Communism,” Niebuhr frankly told an interviewer in 1958. Yes, we hope. Yes, we pray. Yes, we keep the lines of communication open. But “we must, meanwhile,” he insisted, “keep our powder dry.”

Just War Theory

Neither the evangelical nor the Realist proposition easily fit into the Catholic scheme, which was burdened with the weight of tradition as well as Tradition, and which accepted reform only after years, if not decades, of studied contemplation.

If the use of atomic weapons was justified, it had to be reconciled with the Just War Theory, first articulated by St. Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century.

To wage a war within Christian parameters, Augustine taught, the combatants must represent a legitimate government; they must never intentionally target noncombatants; and the intended good must outweigh the intended harm.

While the doctrine contains enough loopholes through which have slipped armies of Crusaders, conquistadores, and colonizers – of both Catholic and Protestant persuasions – the Just War Theory remains a hallmark of Western intellectual thought.

On the issue of war, even nuclear war, American Catholics appeared to differ little from their Protestant counterparts. The Church’s only recognized peace organization, the Catholic Association for International Peace (CAIP), founded in 1927, considered its chief duty the propagation of the Just War Theory among the faithful.

Given the political milieu, this meant offering uncompromising support to the effort to halt international communism. CAIP opposed pacifism and isolationism as contrary to Christian morality and papal teaching, supported NATO, and called for the United States to expand its nuclear capacity.

For readers of this article who have come of age since the Second Vatican Council, imagining most Catholics – or a majority of any kind of Christian for the same matter – behaving in such a way in unthinkable.

But Catholics, who in the early 1960s had just begun to tread onto the margins of social respectability, found it advantageous not to rock the boat. Many chose to either remain silent on issues that may be construed as pro-communist, or to quietly cast their lot with the Red-baiters.

Only a small minority of Catholic publications ever questioned the infamous McCarthy hearings or gave their readers any reason to believe they were anything but loyal.

The supercharged fidelity to God and country that characterized the postwar Church was not grounded in doctrinal certainty. It was about finally being welcomed to the table.

A Seat at the Table

No one epitomized the desire to fit in more than the Jesuit priest John Courtney Murray.

Arguably the most influential American Catholic theologian of the twentieth century, Murray was a sort of Roman Catholic Henry Clay; he sought to expand the middle ground on which Protestants and Catholics now stood while maintaining a distinct Roman identity.

In his famous series of essays, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, Murray called for increased Catholic “participation in the American consensus, by retelling American history form the Puritans forward, with an emphasis on points on which Catholics agreed with what he considered the broader American “consensus.”

Much of his work was given to an analysis of communism, the arms race, and a justification for why Catholics must denounced the former and support the latter. Murray straddled the Augustinian and Niebuhrian positions creatively: because nuclear war was a very real possibility, adequate preparation was a necessity.

He gave no quarter to pacifists. What good would a Gandhi-like response be against an enemy who could annihilate his opponent instantly, thus robbing the resister of any chance of victory? For Murray, the eventual use of nuclear weapons was practically inevitable; the only remaining question was how and when.

Murray found support at the highest level. In his Christmas sermon of 1956, Pope Pius XII declared that during an international conflict, when all possible stages of mediation had passed, and a belligerent nation has issued a “threat to use atomic bombs,” the defending nation is obligated to defend itself with proportional force.

Although the pope never explicitly approved the use of nuclear weapons in retaliation, Murray concluded the absence of a prohibition where one would clearly (perhaps hopefully) expect one to appear, justified their use. Insofar as governments employ them within the framework of the Augustinian theory, nuclear weapons were fair game. Furthermore, and most ominously for pacifists, Pius refused the right of Catholics to “invoke his own conscience in order to refuse those duties which the law imposes.

Understood as such, nuclear weapons were, as John Foster Dulles put it, simply another weapon that one may employ in their war against communism. Murray agreed in principle: war is war and weapons are weapons. Even the pope said that should the Soviets strike first, the United States would be well within its rights to return their attack in kind.

Nuclear weapons are not, Murray insisted, mal in se, nor does their use present the enemy with an unprecedented or unique problem. As for conscientious objectors, Murray placed the burden of proof on them: they must demonstrate that the state’s case for war was unjust; otherwise, they must follow the law of the land.

Murray furthermore denounced as a “false dilemma” the proposition that nuclear war would necessarily lead to a “world catastrophe.” If controlled properly, nuclear war could be “limited,” that is, an attack could somehow be halted at some proscribed stopping point.

Murray added however, that although the Pope had authorized the right of nuclear self-defense, he certainly could not be called upon to justify everything that goes on at Cape Canaveral or Los Alamos.”

But what if deterrence fails? What if a nuclear exchange escalated beyond the “limits” originally intended?

To this question, Murray soberly replied, “we have no policy after that, except stubbornly maintain that it is up to the enemy, and not us, to surrender unconditionally.”


*The premillennial doctrine of the “rapture” is unknown to traditional Roman Catholic, Anglican, or Lutheran Christianity. Based on a particular reading of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, first articulated by the renegade Anglican priest John Darby around 1830, the idea that believers would be spared the final judgement quickly caught on in Protestant circles in America around the time of the Second Great Awakening (1820 – 1850) and has been gaining popularity among American Christians ever since.


[su_note note_color=”#fdfdfd” text_color=”#000000″ radius=”7″ class=”guest-post-author”] John Gillespie holds a M.Ed. from the University of Houston and an MLA degree from the University of St. Thomas. A 17 year veteran of the classroom, John has taught high school and college History, as well as courses in English, Government, and Philosophy. John is currently on the faculties of Lone Star College and San Jacinto College in Houston, Texas. Currently, John is a student in Faulkner University’s PhD program in the Humanities. He has published on religion and spirituality in the Episcopal Cafe, and presented at numerous academic conferences focusing on both the liberal arts and education.[/su_note]

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