Why the “Catholic” “Pro-Life” Case for the Bomb Fails

No one who claims to be pro-life can say that women, children, the elderly, and indeed, the unborn of a nation may be legitimately targeted with death for the sake of the consequences, however beneficial.

The temptation to revisit past arguments is one usually best resisted. Once the lines of the dialectic have been laid down, there is often not much more to be said. So I might rightly be accused of returning one too many times to a familiar well if, having just already written another Public Discourse piece on the atomic bombings of Japan, I return to that issue one last time.

But it seems merited. In response to that piece, one reader sent a link to a recent video essay by Fr. Wilson Miscamble, with whom I have gone round on this issue before. Fr. Miscamble’s video adds no new information or arguments, beyond the striking visual of a Roman Catholic priest asserting, in his clericals, that the intentional killing of thousands of Japanese civilians was the least bad option. This despite a uniform tradition of Catholic teaching that innocents are never to be intentionally killed, regardless of the consequences.

As I noted in an earlier essay, in which I also registered my respect for Fr. Miscamble as a standard-bearer for the pro-life cause, Catholics and pro-lifers should be concerned about the integrity of their Church and cause when such a prominent defender of the innocent in one context is willing to justify their deaths in another because of the alleged value of the consequences. For the Catholic tradition and the pro-life cause more generally are steadfast in holding that the dignity of the human person neither waxes nor wanes, and that the lives of the innocent are always inviolable.

But Fr. Miscamble makes some points that have perhaps not been adequately dealt with. So I undertake here to draw attention to some claims of his that simply cannot be sustained and that, again, for the better defense of both truth and life, must be abandoned.

Fr. Miscamble closes his essay by saying that “The judgment of history is clear and unambiguous.” He then itemizes the outcomes achieved or prevented by the bombings, and concludes, “Given the alternatives, what would any moral person have done in Truman’s position?” The ending echoes the charges made at the beginning of the video, that those who “condemn” Truman do so on the basis of “limited historical knowledge.”

So the problem, and the solution, are to be found in historical knowledge. Here Miscamble echoes, perhaps deliberately, a seemingly parallel claim made by pro-lifers (including, most recently, Senator Marco Rubio). On the matter of abortion, and embryo destructive research, pro-life advocates of the unborn often advert to the importance of science and scientific knowledge. We, the pro-life cause, take ourselves to be at an advantage over the pro-choice side precisely because we acknowledge what scientists recognize: that the lives of individual human beings begin at fertilization, when an oocyte is penetrated by a sperm cell, both cease to exist, and a new single-celled organism comes into existence.

Some extraordinarily ignorant claims made by Senator Rubio’s critics aside, this is the truth—the scientific truth. And if that truth plays such a central role in the pro-life argument, then surely historical truth should play an equally central role in the argument about the atomic bombings. And that truth—the historical truth—may well be, as Fr. Miscamble holds, that the bombing saved a million or more lives.

Let us grant, provisionally, that this is indeed the historical truth. And let us return to the case of the human embryo or fetus, likewise conceding, as many pro-choice thinkers do, that this entity is indeed a human being. That matter of fact simply does not settle the issue at the end of the day. For, as Pat Lee, Robby George, and I explained yesterday at Public Discourse, what is needed for any moral argument, in addition to an awareness of the facts of the case, is also an adequate grasp of the moral norms that must be brought to bear in cases of this sort.

With the Catholic Church, and many thinkers in the natural law and just war traditions, I have proposed and defended the norm that “no innocent person may be intentionally killed.” I have defended this norm as a moral truth accessible by human reason which should govern the conduct all human persons.

Human persons are, as Pope Saint John Paul II put it in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, of incomparable worth, and beings with profound dignity. This “sacredness of life gives rise to its inviolability.” Moreover, the fundamental moral norm for Christians is that they must love their neighbor as themselves. Thus, the Pope concluded: “by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral.”

Every true defender of the unborn accepts this norm. And when taken in conjunction with the scientific truth that the human embryo or fetus is a human being, this norm leads to the conclusion that direct and voluntary killing of the unborn human being is always gravely immoral.

Those who fail to recognize the truth of this norm will, of course, judge otherwise. Some think that the norm is: act so as to maximize beneficial consequences. This norm is not workable, both because consequences cannot be clearly known, and because there is no intelligible sense to the expression “greatest good,” which is required for the norm’s application. Adherents of this norm, which is plainly part of neither the Catholic nor the natural law and just war traditions, will be in no position to recognize that the direct killing of the innocent is always and everywhere wrong.

Now return to the disputed question of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaskai (and before them, the fire bombings of Tokyo, of Dresden, and of other civilian centers) chosen in part because of their military significance, but also in part, and unquestionably, because of the high density of civilian population in the areas surrounding properly military targets. The targets were, as Secretary of War Stimson was later to describe them, “dual”: military and civilian. Let us take this too as a matter of fact; no recent participant in the debates over Hiroshima and Nagasaki has offered any plausible grounds to deny it, as far as I can tell.

And let us again grant that it is a matter of historical truth (though there are some grounds for doubt about this) that many more lives, American and perhaps Japanese as well, were saved by the intentional bombing of these dual, military and civilian, targets. Do the historical facts give us any grounds at all to conclude that “any moral person” would, like Truman, have approved the bombing mission?

Clearly not. For the facts give us no moral warrant for anything, just on their own. The idea of a “verdict of history” on a moral question is an error, unless it means no more than an appeal to what people through (recent, American) history have judged as a matter of morality. But Fr. Miscamble surely does not want to appeal merely to (recent, American) popular prejudice for moral verdicts.

It would be a far more interesting question to ask Fr. Miscamble this: given the facts we have granted, what conclusion is warranted by the norm, which he surely accepts as an underpinning of the pro-life cause, and which was solemnly affirmed by St. John Paul in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, that the “direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral”?

The answer should be clear: given that norm, and the fact that the intention included death for enough citizens to make “a profound psychological impression on as many of the inhabitants as possible,” then the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki must be judged gravely immoral.

Does that mean that America was stuck with only bad options? It is an unfortunate fact that sometimes unwillingness to do the wrong thing leaves us with nothing but unpleasant, indeed bad, options. Just ask St. Thomas More. But it is also a fact that often our willingness to embrace the immoral option as the quickest solution to a perceived “intractable” problem leads us to overlook more creative approaches to the difficulty, approaches not initially attractive, but superior to the one chosen precisely because they would have fallen within the boundaries of the morally permissible.

Whenever violation of a norm taught as absolute though the history of the Catholic or natural law tradition is justified by Catholics or natural lawyers with the claim that “otherwise, we would not have been able to accomplish X,” where X is some admittedly laudable goal, such as ending the war, or advancing the pro-life cause, we should be suspicious. Such claims sometimes reflect the facts, though not the moral facts, of the matter. But frequently they reflect a failure of imagination and creativity, failures obscured by commitment to the immoral solution and the advances gained by that solution.

Were a million casualties guaranteed in every possible alternative actually open to Truman? We are surely not in a position to say so. Such casualties were perhaps guaranteed by adherence to a demand for unconditional surrender. But that demand was not itself an inevitability, and was, indeed, almost certainly immoral. A country fighting in the belief that their entire political and cultural life might be dismantled in its entirety is indeed unlikely to surrender without a fight. But no one—no one—can say with certainty that Japan would not have responded appropriately to a more reasonable set of demands.

And no one—no one—who claims to be pro-life can say that women, children, the elderly, and indeed, the unborn of a nation may be legitimately targeted with death for the sake of the consequences, however beneficial. Fr. Miscamble’s video saddens me precisely to the extent that it finds any approval at all amongst members of the pro-life cause.

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