Catholics, Anabaptists and the Bomb

by Rodney Clapp

Rodney Clapp is a senior writer for Christianity Today. He lives in Oak Brook, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 2, 1988, p. 979. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


A discussion of the nuclear deterrent versus the pacifist position concerning nuclear arms. Surprising parallels are to be found in the writings of a Roman Catholic thinker like John Finnis and a theologian in the Anabaptist tradition like John Howard Yoder.

The bomb paradoxically represents both humanity’s limitless ingenuity and its all too-limited ability to protect itself from the effects of that ingenuity. Perhaps this accounts for the strange things that many people do and say regarding nuclear weapons. It is strange that military strategists try to be sane and sober about the business of building and maintaining a defense strategy that they self-consciously label MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) It is strange that Americans profess a compassion for Russians deprived of human rights and then claim to promote the same Russians’ human rights by aiming missiles at them. And it is truly strange that, in face of the nuclear peril, some Roman Catholics are beginning to sound like Anabaptists.

The evidence for the latter is a recent book, Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism (Oxford University Press) , co-authored by John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, Jr., and Germain Grisez, three Catholic thinkers. Finnis summarizes the argument of the book in a recent essay in the New Oxford Review, "Nuclear Deterrence, Christian Conscience, and the End of Christendom." Reduced to its essence in this essay, the argument is strikingly similar to the position of Mennonite John Howard Yoder, today’s leading proponent of Anabaptist thought.

Finnis begins his New Oxford Review essay by quoting Jacques Maritain on the "normal" hope of Christians for a new Christendom. For Maritain, the temporal mission of the church has as "its most comprehensive aim the ideal of building either a better or a new Christian civilization." But Finnis disputes this mission. He considers it a "philosophical and theological mistake," at least for our place and time. "The facts" convince him that at present a new Christendom, even in highly religious America, "is firmly blocked."

Later Finnis clarifies what he sees as the necessary as well as viable mission of contemporary Christians. "Society and polity are never identical with the church," he explains. In fact, "only the church has a comprehensive goal -- the kingdom of God, which is not of this world, though it is in this world such that its materials are assembled and the divine construction of it mysteriously begins." Thus Christians cannot depend on a general human ethics, or any ethics surreptitiously promoting the "future of whichever worldly society or state one happens to be concerned for." Instead, "there is a specifically Christian ethics because there is a specifically Christian horizon -- the kingdom and its building up by choices to follow in the way of the Lord Jesus."

Finnis’s basic orientation, then, leads him to shift the locus of Christian mission from society as a whole to the church. Like Yoder, he focuses on the church because he sees the church as the unique witness to God’s kingdom. In The Christian Witness to the State Yoder calls it idolatrous to think that a "given civilization or nation is the bearer of the meaning of history." Rather the church, "as aftertaste of God’s loving triumph on the cross and foretaste of His ultimate loving triumph in His kingdom," has been given that task. Moreover, as Yoder puts it in The Politics of Jesus, the church "is the primary social structure through which the gospel works to change other structures."

Accordingly, Yoder agrees with Finnis that "there is a specifically Christian ethics." For Yoder, Jesus is "normative for a contemporary Christian social ethic." As a faithful Catholic, Finnis has probably not given up on any and all formulations of natural law. But he concurs with Yoder in that he affirms a uniquely Christian ethics based on the revelation "consummated in Christ."

Consequently Finnis can view nuclear deterrence with little sympathy. For one thing, Christians have a specific end to their ethics -- witnessing to the kingdom of God, never absolutizing a nation or national principles. For another, certain intentions are true to that end, while others are not. Much of Finnis’s essay is devoted to a demonstration that intentions matter and that intentions in the case of nuclear deterrence are thoroughly non-Christian.

Finnis asserts that it is impossible to plan to light even a limited nuclear war "without threatening one’s adversaries with indiscriminate mass slaughter should they overstep the limits." He cites annual reports made to Congress by the secretary of defense to show this is the case and he recounts a statement by President Reagan on behalf of the Strategic Defense Initiative, confirming that at present "our only real defense" remains "a policy of mutual destruction and slaughter of civilians." (Senator William L. Armstrong [R., Colo.], speaking for SDI to a gathering of evangelicals in 1983, also boldly declared, "Every possible Christian value that bears on this subject seems to me violated by reliance on our current strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction.")

Finnis recognizes that some Christians attempt to make nuclear deterrence palatable by arguing that it is only a bluff, a "threat that is not backed up by any corresponding intention, choice, or willingness." He is signally unimpressed by this claim. "Few, save Christians, ever seriously advance this notion." Even granting that a particular president is personally bluffing and would never press the nuclear button, those who design, build and sit ready to deploy nuclear weapons are not bluffing. Engineers have not, after all, intentionally designed bombs that would never actually detonate and technicians have not placed dummy warheads in missiles. These people and others, as links in the nuclear chain, can choose "only to do now, or not to do now, their bit for the effecting of the proposal, the maintenance of the system, the performance of the vast and ongoing public act."

Finnis’s response is multipronged and again mirrors Yoder’s position. First, Finnis asserts that some means are simply beyond the pale of Christian conduct. Christians are always to consider how their choices bear on the national commonweal, "knowing that they can make no choice which participates in or itself supports a policy which, though indispensable for securing that common good against terrible disruption and damage by foreign, unjust, and anti-Christian forces, is simply excluded from Christian life because murderous." Similarly, Yoder believes the church’s witness to its faith will be visible in, among other ways, "her refusal to use means unfitting to her ends." For Yoder, "unfitting" includes any exercise of violence, let alone nuclear warfare.

Finnis next argues that consequences and their concomitant goods and evils are notoriously difficult to compare. "The attempts of philosophers to assess objectively the goods and bads involved in the alternative options -- maintaining the deterrent at the risk of nuclear holocaust, or renouncing it with the probability of unjust subjugation -- have made it plain that there is no balance, no metric, to give rational form to the hazy metaphor of balancing human goods and harms of such radically disparate kinds." Furthermore, sophisticated moderns too easily forget how little control human beings actually have over consequences. Finnis reminds his readers that consequentialist ethics originated in the "hubris of the Enlightenment," when "men began to forget that providence is God’s," and he suggests that "consequentialist methods of Christian moral judgment confuse human responsibility with God’s."

Likewise, one of Yoder’s most prominent themes is the illusion of human control over the course of history. Christian faithfulness, "guided by the kind of man Jesus was, . . . must cease to be guided by the quest to have dominion over the course of events. We cannot sight down the line of our obedience to the attainment of the ends we seek." Indeed, "the Christian community is the only community whose social hope is that we need not rule because Christ is Lord."

For Finnis and Yoder, it is imperative that Christians not simply assess and calculate the results of actions but recognize that intentions and actions affect the kind of people they are and will become. Finnis writes, "Our choices do not merely shape states of affairs in the world but also shape and constitute our character." And Yoder concurs: "We are marching to Zion because, when God lets down from heaven the new Jerusalem prepared for us, we want to be the kind of persons and the kind of community that will not feel strange there."

Finnis and Yoder do not possess unanimity on every point concerning nuclear deterrence. Finnis, a just-war theorist, thinks a "mere accident of technology" has put the church at such stark odds with the surrounding society; the pacifist Yoder considers the church mistaken to have ever thought it was not radically at odds with the ways of the world.

Either way, it is remarkable that the vicissitudes of history have brought proponents of two such contradistinctive Christian traditions into concordance about the church’s mission in the latter days of the second millennium.

In The Priestly Kingdom Yoder writes, "We call a nonviolent man ‘Lord’ and in his name rekindle the arms race. We call a poor man ‘Lord’ and with his name on our lips deepen the ditch between rich and poor. We call ‘Lord’ a man who told us to love our enemies and we polarize the globe in the name of Christian values, approving of ‘moderate repression’ as long as it is done by our friends. The challenge of civil religion is not a fact, to which we could choose whether to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’; it is an agenda. Is God, above all, our help? or are we God’s servants?"

In equally bracing words, Finnis concludes his essay with a quotation from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. "It is time that the Christian reacquire the consciousness of belonging to a minority and of often being in opposition to what is obvious, plausible and natural for that mentality which the New Testament calls. . . the ‘spirit of the world.’ It is time to find again the courage of nonconformism, the capacity to oppose many of the trends of the surrounding culture.

Finnis’s argument is not taking the Roman Catholic Church by storm. Most Catholics will find its corollary -- unilateral disarmament -- unpalatable, to say the least. Yet neither Finnis nor his Nuclear Deterrence coauthors Boyle and Grisez are extremists. All three are orthodox Catholics; Grisez has established a solid reputation as a careful ethicist and Finnis serves on the Pontifical Theological Commission convened by the Vatican. Though it is too early to predict the ramifications of their argument, it remains significant that mainstream Catholic thinkers are making an argument with unmistakable Anabaptist echoes.