A short addendum to last week’s column in which I sought to expound a bit on Pope Francis’ recent efforts to eliminate the use of the death penalty.
One of my parishioners reminded me of St. Maria Goretti, a young Italian girl who was stabbed resisting sexual assault by an 18-year-old man named Alexander, adamantly stating that she would rather die, believing that to submit would be to sin grievously. She did die the day after, but in finest Christian charity forgave her murderer/attempted rapist on her deathbed, knowing the inestimable value of his—and every—human soul.
Convicted and imprisoned, Alexander remained unrepentant for years. But after a dream in which he saw Maria offering him lilies—symbolizing purity—which burned as he took them, he repented and became ardent in the Catholic Christian faith. After 27 years in prison, he was released and went to Maria’s mother to beg forgiveness … which she gave, telling friends: “If my daughter can forgive him, who am I to withhold forgiveness?”
During the investigation of Maria for possible canonization, Alexander testified to Maria’s fidelity to God and later would even attend her canonization Mass in Rome—her converted murderer honoring her as a saint. Maria would no doubt rejoice at his conversion, reminded of Jesus’ own words: “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7)
Though Alexander was likely an exception, it DOES provide a memorable example of one of the main reasons Pope Francis seeks to eliminate the death penalty: to provide precious time for the wrongdoer to repent and reconcile with God, and thus come to eternal salvation—the hope of every Christian for every soul upon the earth.
Now, going to a completely different topic … of course, the anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were this last week, and we had the perennial disarmament demonstration here in Los Alamos. Well-meaning folks, of course; can’t blame them for wanting the peace we all desire. But though Los Alamos is the birthplace of “the bomb”, attaining that capability was inevitable; war simply sped up its realization.
Many criticize the U.S. use of the atomic bomb to end the WWII, but war pursued in ANY manner is a horror. Yet, it plagues us nonetheless, as history shows so starkly. As Dr. T. Douglas Reilly recently noted in his editorial letter, it was estimated that millions of Japanese and hundreds of thousands of Allied troops would have perished in an invasion of Japan, and that fire-bombing of Japanese cities had killed at least as many as did the atomic bombs. Had not the atomic bomb been used, that firebombing would have continued. Only the shock of the immense power contained in a single bomb—and the uncertainty about how many such bombs the U.S. possessed—convinced the Japanese emperor to break the ruling council’s deadlock in favor of surrender and peace.
As a student of history, I often muse on what would have happened if one of the other technologically-capable nations had developed the bomb first? If one of the Axis powers or the Soviet Union, very likely world conquest and even many millions more dead; neither Hitler nor Stalin reverenced human life when it stood in their way. Japan may have continued to march through Asia and the Pacific. Even Great Britain—weary of years of war and suffering and indiscriminate bombing of the Blitz—may have been tempted toward lessened restraint.
What if the bomb had been developed during peacetime? Had nations stockpiled these weapons without ever having had experienced the real results of their destructive capability, would they have been more ready to utilize them? Recollection of the results of such weapons has kept them from being utilized again to this very day … even 73 years later. And it seems hardly disputable that the deterrent effect of U.S. capability over the decades—maintained in large part by dedicated personnel of Los Alamos National Laboratory—has been a major determinant in that restraint.
What would result in our unilateral disarmament? It’s hardly likely that nuclear-capable nations would be struck in admiration and desire to imitate us if the U.S. did so; on the contrary, a worldwide nuclear free-for-all might very well ensue. How about a pacifistic wholesale surrender to “save lives”? Well, it might for a time … but the “absolute power corrupts absolutely” adage comes to mind, and genocide is always a possibility when rulers weary of the helpless ruled.
Even the Catholic Church’s thought on this topic is somewhat mixed. While lamenting arms races and urgently exhorting ever-increasing efforts for lasting peace and disarmament, the Church nevertheless recognizes the right and duty of nations for effective self-defense of its citizens. The bishops of the world stated at the Second Vatican Council: “To be sure, scientific weapons are not amassed solely for use in war. Since the defensive strength of any nation is considered to be dependent upon its capacity for immediate retaliation, this accumulation of arms…likewise serves, in a way heretofore unknown, as deterrent to possible enemy attack. Many regard this procedure as the most effective way by which peace of a sort can be maintained between nations at the present time.” (Gaudium et Spes, 81)
There’s no easy solution, else it would have been pursued already. The bomb exists, and the nuclear genie as it’s often called is not going back into the bottle, and so must be dealt with realistically. Nuclear capability will be pursued in the world whether we like it or not. Yes, an ideal may be “No Nukes!”… but until the day arrives in which such disarmament and its verification is possible, the mission of LANL seems not only valid, but essential, to maintaining nuclear restraint throughout the world.
In a world of continually-expanding nuclear proliferation, we strive and pray ever more ardently for peace among nations … remembering that “…to us a child is born, to us a son is given…and his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,’” (Isaiah 9:6) … and that “Nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37)