Extracts from a Thomas Merton essay,

“We Have to Make Ourselves Heard,”

first published in the June 1962 issue

of The Catholic Worker


It would be legitimate and even obligatory for all sane and conscientious people everywhere in the world to lay down their weapons and their tools and starve and be shot rather than cooperate in the war effort. If such a mass movement should spontaneously arise in parts of the world, in Russia and America, in China and in France, in Africa and in Germany, the human race could be saved from extinction….

How would it be possible to know when and how it would be necessary to refuse cooperation? Can we draw a line clearly, and say precisely when nuclear war becomes so dangerous that it is suicidal? If a war of missiles breaks out, we have at the most thirty minutes to come to our momentous conclusions—if we ever know what is happening at all. The time to form our conscience and to decide upon our course of action is now.

It is one thing to form one’s conscience and another to adopt a specific policy or courses of action. It is highly regrettable that this important distinction is overlooked and indeed deliberately obfuscated.

To decide, in the forum of conscience, to avoid actions that would contribute to a worldwide disaster, does not mean that one is committed necessarily to absolute and unqualified pacifism. One may start before from moral principle, which is repeatedly set before us by the Popes, and which cannot be seriously challenged, and one may then go on to seek various means to preserve peace. About these different means, there may be considerable debate.

It seems to me however that the enormous danger represented by nuclear weapons and the near impossibility of controlling them and limiting them to a scale that would fit the traditional ethical theory of a just war, makes it both logical and licit for a Catholic to proceed, from motives of conscience, to at least a relative pacifism, and to a policy of nuclear disarmament….

In a word, there are three things to be considered: 1). Christian moral principles, which by their very nature favor peace, and according to which nuclear war remains, if not absolutely forbidden, at least of exceedingly dubious morality; 2). The facts about weapons systems and defense policies. Our moral decision, and the morality of our participation in the economic and the political life of a society geared for nuclear war, demand imperatively that we realize the real nature of the military policies to which we contribute by taxation and perhaps also by our work in industry. Everything in our national life is today centered on the greatest arms race in the history of man. Everything points to the fact that these frightening works of destruction must and will be used, most probably on the largest scale. 3). We must finally consider factors by which these military policies are dictated….

What started the First World War? What started the Second World War? The answer is simply, the rabid, short-sighted, irrational and stubborn forces which tend to come to a head in nationalism.

Christopher Dawson has said: ‘The defeat of Hitlerism does not mean that we have seen the end of such movements. In our modern democratic world, irrational forces lie very near the surface, and their sudden eruption under the influence of nationalist or revolutionary ideologies is the greatest of all dangers that threaten the modern world… It is at this point that a need for the reassertion of Christian principles becomes evident… Insofar as nationalism denies the principle of higher order and divine justice for all and sets up the nation and the national state as the final object of man’s allegiance, it represents the most retrograde movement the world has ever seen….’

Dawson then goes on to quote Pope Pius XII who distinguishes between ‘national life’ and ‘nationalistic politics.’ National life is a combination of all the values which characterize a social group and enable it to contribute fruitfully to the whole polity of nations. Nationalistic policies on the other hand are divisive, destructive, and a perversion of genuine national values. They are ‘a principle of dissolution within the community of peoples.’

This then is the conclusion: the Christian is bound to work for peace by working against global dissolution and the anarchy due to nationalist and revolutionary ideologies. A world-wide spirit of confusion and disorder is breaking up the unity and the order of civilized society….

We must orient our efforts toward world unity and not towards world division. Anyone who promotes policies of hatred and of war is working for the division and the destruction of civilized humankind.

We have to be convinced that there are certain things already clearly forbidden to all, such as the use of torture, the killing of hostages, genocide (or the mass extermination of racial, national or other groups for no other reason than that they belong to an ‘undesirable’ category). The destruction of civilian centers by nuclear annihilation bombing is genocide….

It is no longer reasonable or right to leave all decisions to a largely anonymous power elite that is driving us all, in our passivity, towards ruin. We have to make ourselves heard.

Every individual Christian has a grave responsibility to protest clearly and forcibly against trends that lead inevitably to crimes which the Church deplores and condemns. Ambiguity, hesitation and compromise are no longer permissible. We must find some new and constructive way of settling international disputes. This may be extraordinarily difficult. Obviously, war cannot be abolished by mere wishing. Severe sacrifices may be demanded and the results will hardly be visible in our day. We have still time to do something about it, but the time is running out.

Re-published as “Bound to Work for Peace” in The Catholic Worker (December 2018), 5.