Michael Novak, the brilliant scholar and Catholic theologian, died on February 17, 2017 at the age of 83. A liberal turned conservative, Novak, who had earlier studied for the priesthood, authored more than twenty books, represented the United States on the United Nations Human Rights Commission and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, held the Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute, and served as Religion Editor for National Review.

He sought through his writings to explain how Catholicism and Christianity were consistent with and reinforced by capitalism, most prominently in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982). Less remembered was his brilliant defense of American national security policy, especially its nuclear force posture and strategy, in “Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age” (Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), which was first published in Catholicism in Crisis in March 1983, and reprinted in National Review in early April 1983.

National Review devoted an entire issue to Novak’s article, which was a response to early drafts of the Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter on war and peace. The article appeared during an important debate both here and in Europe about the efficacy of the American nuclear deterrent and the morality of waging or threatening to wage a nuclear war. Liberals both here and abroad were calling for a nuclear “freeze” and a greater commitment by the Reagan administration to disarmament. Four members of the American foreign policy establishment—George Kennan, McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, and Gerard Smith—had written a widely discussed article in Foreign Affairs urging President Reagan to adopt a policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons. Some on the far Left urged unilateral U.S. disarmament. Early drafts of the Bishops’ pastoral letter called into question the morality of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

Novak in his introduction to this lengthy essay conceded that the bishops “have a right and duty to express the truth of the Gospels entrusted to them and to restate the Catholic tradition for our time. On these matters, they, and only they, in their vocation as teachers, have full authority with respect to the Gospels and the Catholic Faith.”

He cautioned the bishops, however, to ensure that they approached the subjects of nuclear weapons, deterrence, and nuclear war within the concrete circumstances and realities of global politics. “In fulfilling the moral imperative to prevent unjust uses of nuclear weapons,” he wrote, “Christian citizens must exercise clear and sustained thought. Any flight of reason into panic must be quietly resisted, and every flight into illusion curbed … Neither slogans nor cold fear is a suitable substitute for prudent judgment.”

Novak’s guiding principles were laid out in the traditional Catholic just war theory:

The essence of just war theory lies in the conviction that wars are wrong and to be avoided, except under quite stringent conditions. These are seven in number: (1) Only a competent authority may declare a war for the common good and in the interests of the public order. (2) It must be inspired by a just cause: such as to defend against aggression, to protect innocent life and human rights from real and certain injury and to resist tyranny. (3) A right intention must guide the purpose, means, conduct, and aims of war in the light of the “just cause.” Violence may be chosen only (4) as a last resort, when all peaceful methods of negotiation have failed, and (5) with probability of success—so that irrational resort to force is not mandated in the name of justice. The nature of the war itself must manifest (6) proportionality: the damage to be inflicted and the cost incurred must not constitute a greater evil than the evil to be avoided. (7) Just means which are both discriminate and proportional must be employed.

Prudence demanded, he explained, that the bishops recognize that the Soviet Union was an aggressive totalitarian power that was seeking a “first strike” nuclear capability in an effort to “Findlandize” our allies in Western Europe and Japan and thereby undermine the defensive alliances that had likely prevented the outbreak of a third World War and preserved freedom and liberty in many parts of the globe. “Religious leaders who wish to influence public policy by influencing public opinion,” Novak explained, “owe a special debt to democratic states, and incur an obligation to defend them against those who would destroy them.”

He continued:

When an unjust aggressor injures human dignity, to stand aside is a form of complicity and collusion. To resist an unjust aggressor with proportionate means is demanded by justice. Thus, human dignity is the cause both of just peace and of just war. As there are wars which are unjust, so also there is peace which is unjust.

The “peace” the bishops should be seeking is not the “peace of totalitarianism,” but instead the “peace of liberty and justice.” He noted that Pope John Paul II said that while peace is possible, “a totally and permanently peaceful human society is unfortunately a utopia, and that ideologies that hold up that prospect as easily attainable are based on hopes that cannot be realized, whatever the reason behind them.” “History,” Novak wrote, “is full of ambiguities, contingencies, and complex patterns of fact. No two people perceive world affairs in identical fashion. Interpretations even of the simplest events radically diverge.”

Pacifism was not the answer, at least not for statesmen who are responsible for the lives of others. Novak invoked Reinhold Niebuhr and C. S. Lewis, who understood that in choosing pacifism as individuals, we should honor the liberty of others to choose differently. He reminded the bishops that “widespread pacifism in churches anduniversities during the 1930s helped convince Hitler and the Japanese that the Western democracies lacked the resolve to defend themselves, and encouraged the dictators and militarists to launch World War II.” St. Augustine taught, Novak wrote, that “the command of love [is] to demand a just defense of the innocent.” St. Augustine understood that “the world of history is in part evil, and that action to restrain evil is an essential component of justice.” “Peace is sometimes unjust; war is sometimes morally imperative. In clarifying such paradoxes, the traditional just war teaching has stood the tests of time.”

Novak explained that use and possession of nuclear weapons have had important political effects:

More than once in our lifetime, superior nuclear force has obliged weaker nations either to surrender (Japan) or to abandon projects in which they were engaged (USSR in Cuba) or otherwise to moderate their intentions and actions. The possession of nuclear weapons seems also to have moderated actions which might in other times have led to confrontation by force of conventional arms. In this sense, while nuclear weapons constitute a grave threat to justice, liberty, and peace, their possession has also had pacific effects.

Deterrence must not be judged against utopian ideals, but instead by its usefulness in preserving peace and protecting liberty and human dignity. “Preserving peace and defending justice are political tasks,” he explained, “and politics [is] always ambiguous and imperfect.”

Disarmament and arms control were not panaceas. “The record of arms control negotiations during the past hundred years,” Novak wrote, “has been, for the most part, a record of deception on the part of the cynically ambitious and of self-deception on the part of those who thought peace might be bought cheap.” Parchment barriers would not restrain the Soviet Union and would not prevent nuclear war.

The moral imperative, Novak wrote, was that the U.S. nuclear force posture and strategy be sufficient to deter aggression. “To abandon deterrence,” Novak concluded, “is to neglect the duty to defend the innocent, to preserve the Constitution and the Republic, and to keep safe the very idea of political liberty. No President by his oath of office can so act, nor can a moral people.”

Novak’s article later appeared in book form with a Forward by Rev. Billy Graham and an Introduction by William F. Buckley, Jr. In June 1983, Commentary published a brilliant piece by Albert Wohlstetter entitled “Bishops, Statesmen, and Other Strategists on the Bombing of Innocents,” which implicitly sided with Novak and his criticism of the Catholic bishops.

Events proved Novak right. The Reagan administration resisted efforts, including by the Catholic bishops, to weaken Western deterrence. Reagan’s strategy of “peace through strength” combined with the Soviet empire’s economic and structural weaknesses resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union and prevented nuclear war. Indeed, we now know that as early as October 1986, Soviet leader Gorbachev expressed to his Politburo colleagues that without a genuine arms deal with the United States, “we will be pulled into an arms race that is beyond our capabilities, and we will lose it because we are at the limit of our capabilities.… If the new round [of an arms race] begins, the pressures on our economy will be unbelievable.”

The Catholic Bishops, alas, have not changed their position even as the world faces the growing Chinese and North Korean nuclear arsenals, a resurgent Russia with thousands of nuclear weapons, and an emergent Iranian nuclear threat. Earlier this year, Bishop Oscar Cantu, Chairman of International Justice and Peace for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged American officials to forego the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal with the goal of total disarmament, neglecting Novak’s prudent and moral advice that resisting unjust aggressors by proportionate means “is demanded by justice.”  

Francis P. Sempa is the author of books including Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.