Morality and the MX

By Claude Sitton

Vol. 6, No. 3, 1984, pp. 18, 20

Self-appointed guardians of the nation's morals on the radical right usually fall silent when the arms control issue comes up. I have in mind the Reagan administration's supporters of moral majoritarian stripe--the Jerry Falwells, the Jesse Helmses and the like.

How can these radicals work themselves into a lather over food stamps, sex on TV and abortion while ignoring a nuclear arms race that could cut short humanity's earthly tenancy and turn the world into a cinder? Their moral priorities seem a bit skewed.

In May, the US House of Representatives approved construction of fifteen MX missiles to be added to twenty-one already being built. Never mind that our nuclear arsenal, as is true of that of the Soviet Union, has tripled since 1969, when each nation had enough firepower to destroy the other no matter which launched the first strike.

The events that could suck the two countries into a nuclear conflict grow more common. Those of recent weeks suggest how real the danger is.


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The Iranians and Iraqis began a new round of attacks on oil tankers and appear determined to turn the Persian Gulf into a lake of fire. The influential International Institute for Strategic Studies announced in London that US relations with the Soviet Union had sunk to their lowest point since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Hostilities in Central America and US overt and covert involvement there grew apace.

No one has a sure way to halt this rush toward mutual annihilation. President Reagan's approach hasn't worked. if anything, it has pushed the world nearer the brink by the massive, and costly, weapons buildup. But an alternative was suggested the other day to by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Chicago, in a commencement speech at Emory University in Atlanta.

Bernardin headed the informal committee of Catholic bishops last year that issued the pastoral letter "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response." Unlike the radicals of the political right, he thinks moral purpose has a vital role to play in this area.

To ignore the moral dimension of foreign policy, says the cardinal, is to erode both the religious and constitutional heritage of America. The first provides for moral assessment of public policy through the insights given us by religious pluralism. The second supports such moral values as respect for life and reverence for the law.

"In the past," says the cardinal, "war was used as a last resort to protect key political values. In our time, the use of nuclear weapons would threaten all our values--political, cultural and human. Such an acknowledgement drives us to the conclusion that the prevention of nuclear war must be given primacy in the political process."

Bernardin represents no peace-at-any-price faith. Catholics, as he points out, have had a long and painful experience with communism, in Lithuania, Hungary and Poland, for example.

"We cannot be naive," says the cardinal. "Some cold realism is needed, as we stated in our pastoral letter. But the depth and seriousness of US-Soviet divisions on a whole range of issues should not make us lose perspective concerning a central moral and political truth of our age:

"If nuclear weapons are used, we all lose. There will be no victors, only the vanquished; there will be no calculation of costs and benefits because the costs will run beyond our ability to calculate."

Bernardin thinks that giving first priority to prevention of use of nuclear weapons requires that arms control be insulated from other US-Soviet differences, an end to the policy of "linkage" pursued by the Reagan administration. Without that separation, he argues rightly that there always will be enough division to block arms control.

No doubt the cardinal shares the concern of the moral majoritarians over sins of the flesh. But his concerns reach far beyond their narrow perspective. Unlike them, Bernardin knows that Americans no longer live in a world in which war can be used as a tool of foreign policy, for that could lead to the most immoral of all acts, the destruction of humankind.

Claude Sitton is editor of the Raleigh News and Observer