Stalin is reported to have exclaimed “How many divisions does the pope have?” during World War II when Churchill raised the concerns of Polish Catholics. Moral issues and religious voices don’t count in international affairs, the tyrant contemptuously asserted. But moral values can play a significant role in shaping international policy, sometimes in surprising ways—as colleagues and I learned in a recent dinner conversation with a high ranking US diplomat.
Many people are aware of the landmark 1983 pastoral letter from the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, The Challenge of Peace. George Kennan called it “the most profound and searching inquiry yet conducted by any responsible collective body” into the relations of nuclear weaponry and modern war. Ten years later, however, the bishops issued another letter, The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace, which attracted much less attention and seemed to fall on deaf ears. Or did it?
The senior U.S. official reported during our recent dinner that the Harvest of Justice document received considerable attention within the State Department during the Clinton administration and helped legitimize the goal of denuclearization. The bishops’ call for disarmament helped lay the intellectual foundation for the National Academy of Sciences 1997 report, The Future of US Nuclear Weapons Policy, which advocated a global ban on nuclear weapons. Their letters also influenced the current drive for “a world free of nuclear weapons,” initiated by former Secretary of State George Shultz and other former government leaders, now endorsed as the official goal of US and international policy.
Religious statements have more power than we realize and can mobilize ‘divisions’ of believers. The Catholic bishops and other religious leaders remain deeply engaged and influential in working to reduce and eliminate the still bloated nuclear arsenals that continue to threaten our world.