Among the many topics to be discussed here at this week’s 80th annual meeting of the National Catholic Educational Association (ncea) is one that has been hotly debated within the Catholic church in recent months: the moral and theological implications of nuclear war.
The controversy surrounds “The Challenge of Peace,” a “pastoral” letter to the nation’s Roman Catholics from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee on War and Peace. The letter is now in final-draft stage and will be completed at a special meeting of the bishops in Chicago early next month.
The pastoral letter is intended to provide “the moral and religious resources of the Catholic tradition as an aid in making the many choices which must be made on war and peace today.”
In the second draft of the letter, the bishops discuss the moral issues surrounding the idea of nuclear war, offer positions on concepts such as “just war,” “counterpopulation warfare,” “initiation of nuclear war,” and “limited nuclear war,” and discuss policy recommendations to reduce the danger of such war.
In the letter, the bishops provide no definite “answers” on some subjects, such as “limited” nuclear war, but among their conclusions is this statement on the issue of “initiation” of nuclear war: “We do not perceive any situation in which the deliberate initiation of nuclear warfare, on however restricted a scale, can be morally justified.”
At this week’s ncea convention, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago--chairman of the committee drafting the pastoral letter--will speak on “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.”
In his address, Cardinal Bernardin will focus on the pastoral letter’s implications for Catholic teachers.
Also speaking will be the Rev. Francis X. Meehan, a professor of moral theology at the St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia. His subject will be: “Catechesis for Peace: Challenge for Religious Educators in a Nuclear Age.”
In advance of the release of the final version of the bishops’ letter, some Catholic educators are beginning to look ahead to what the schools’ role should be in spreading the letter’s message to Catholic students, teachers, and parents.
“Peace-education” programs of a general nature are already common in Catholic schools, said Sister Veronica Grover, director of the Pacem Interris Institute in Charlotte, N.C., but programs dealing specifically with nuclear war are less so.
“Right now, I would say there are not many, perhaps not any, programs that deal specifically with the message of the [bishops’] letter,” said Sister Grover. “But there will be. There’s already a lot of prep work being done to deal with the letter when it comes out.”
“There will be a commitment to doing a major education push about the letter in this diocese,” agreed Cathrine Wagner, assistant director for the office of justice and peace in the Archdiocese of Detroit.
Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit and Sister Juliana Casey are serving on the bishops’ committee.
At this point, said Sister Grover, the type of peace-education programs that are in place in many Catholic schools and diocesan districts ''usually deal with the social teachings of the church in a general way, with applications of those principles to issues that might come at the moment, such as El Salvador.”
“Right now,” she said, “the ‘teachable moment’ is the bishops’ letter.”
Sister Grover, formerly director for justice and peace education at the ncea, formed the Pacem Interris Institute to help spread the church’s social teachings to diocese in southern states.
The first priority in the current “teachable moment,” she said, is to educate adults and teachers about the meaning of the bishops’ letter. “That’s where the education has to start,” Sister Grover said.
When the final draft of the bishops’ letter emerges this week or next, Sister Grover plans to develop an “educational packet” of background material for classroom use at various levels in elementary and secondary schools.
Over a year ago, the 32,000-student Archdiocese of San Francisco created a “nuclear-disarmament project” to provide adult, secondary, and elementary education, according to Pia Moriarty, director of the project.
“At the high-school level, we are particularly concerned with preparing people for the upcoming bishops’ statement,” Ms. Moriarty said.
The school board of the archdiocese recently voted not to allow a chapter on nuclear disasters--part of a new disasters curriculum created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency--to be taught in the district’s schools.
“The chapter on nuclear disaster teachers children that nuclear war is survivable,” Ms. Moriarty said. “The board thought that to teach them that is to teach them that nuclear war is a political and moral option.”
Father Meehan said that his ncea speech will deal with the “challenge” posed for Catholic schools by the bishops’ general thesis--that there is no justification for any use of nuclear weapons.
“This is a challenge for Catholic educators to take seriously,” he said.
“To take these principles and apply them with rigor, as the Bishops are doing, puts the church in a strong prophetic position,” he said.
“The schools are the most powerful intermediate institution that the Catholic church has,” he said, “and if the schools take this message seriously and integrate it into the curriculum, into parent-teacher meetings, then the teachings will surely reach the grass roots.”
Father Meehan acknowledged that there will be disagreement about taking the message of the letter into Catholic schools, but said, “If we do it correctly, we can avoid too much division. There is room for disagreement over particular strategies about what should be done.”
There are already books, films, and curriculum plans for Catholic educators, including some specifically designed for the discussion of nuclear war and the arms race.
For example, Pax Christi, a peace-education group in Erie, Pa., has developed a one-semester course based on its textbook, A Race to Nowhere: An Arms Race Primer for Catholics.
The theme of this week’s convention--the 80th annual meeting of the ncea--is “Catholic Education: The Choices and Challenges.” The Rev. Henri Nouwen, newly appointed professor of divinity and Horace De Y. Lentz Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, will address this theme in a keynote speech.
A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 1983 edition of Education Week as Catholic Schools, Officials Discuss Nuclear Issues