Response to Deacon Jim Russell on Combatants and Double Effect

Deacon Jim Russell wrote an article, titled Combatants, Non-Combatants, and Double Effect, published August 10, 2017 at Crisis Magazine. The article is one of the worst pieces of Catholic moral theology I have ever read. It contains several serious errors in moral theology, which combine to make it seem as if the teaching of Jesus Christ and His Church can be used to justify the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

The article argues for the justification of these bombings, and then, at the very end, Russell tries to absolve himself from responsibility for his own arguments, by saying that this lengthy justification only proposes a possible answer: “Was there ‘proportionate reason’ to drop these apocalyptic weapons on Japan? Some say yes, some say no. I say it’s possible.” The article is wrong to propose that the bombings may be justified under the principle of double effect, wrong to present this question as if it remains unanswered by the Church, and wrong to portray children and the civilian population as a whole as enemy combatants.

This post will examine the errors in Russell’s article, and clarify the basic principles of ethics needed to understand the grave immorality of the use of nuclear weapons against civilian populations.

Ethics Is Not Accounting

The entire moral law is based on the love of God above all else, and the love of neighbor as self, just as the Gospel teaches. And this love was taught to us in word and deed by the life and sacrificial death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. So every principle of ethics is subservient to the principle to love God, neighbor, self.

Unfortunately, what happens in many articles on ethics, is a type of accounting system, where the author’s understanding of different ethical rules is applied like an accountant seeking the bottom line, or like a lawyer following the intricacies of an arcane series of regulations. Love is lost, and God remains distant in this type of ethics.

This article by deacon Russell does not mention Jesus Christ, or love, or the Gospel. And there are only two uses of the word God in the piece, a “thank God” and a “God only knows.” The article is devoted to applying the principle of double effect in order to justify the nuclear bomb attacks on two major cities. But the author of the article has badly misunderstood that principle, and intrinsic evil, and the three fonts of morality. He ignores direct statements made by recent Popes unequivocally condemning those bombings. And he goes so far as to suggest, in a roundabout way, that the children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can be considered enemy combatants, thereby justifying their deaths by means of nuclear weapons.

This approach of misusing the principle of double effect to justify intrinsically evil acts has become more and more common among Catholic commentators. It has been used to justify abortifacient contraception, which is also a type of mass murder. It is used to justify all manner of grave sins, which are popular among Catholics due to the influence of sinful secular society. But the teaching of the Magisterium on morality is clearly contrary to the distorted false teachings of unfaithful Catholics masquerading as teachers of the Gospel.

{1:5} Now the goal of instruction is charity from a pure heart, and a good conscience, and an unfeigned faith.
{1:6} Certain persons, wandering away from these things, have been turned aside to empty babbling,
{1:7} desiring to be teachers of the law, but understanding neither the things that they themselves are saying, nor what they are affirming about these things.

{4:3} For there shall be a time when they will not endure sound doctrine, but instead, according to their own desires, they will gather to themselves teachers, with itching ears,
{4:4} and certainly, they will turn their hearing away from the truth, and they will be turned toward fables.

Church Teaching

Russell admits that: “Time and time again over the decades, popes and other Church leaders have decried the carnage inflicted and the horror unleashed by the atomic bomb.” And yet he proposes to his readers that this horror may be moral. Russell claims that the “Church has never declared that the decision to drop the two bombs was itself unjust, immoral, or indefensible.”

To the contrary, recent Popes have unequivocally condemned those bombings as gravely immoral.

Pope Saint John Paul II: “Your country remembers the painful episodes of the Second World War that struck countless innocent victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Pope Benedict XVI: “The tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where atomic energy used for the purposes of war, ended by sowing death on an unheard of scale, serve as a perennial warning.”

Pope Benedict XVI: “I also greet the group of survivors of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I pray that the world may never again witness such mass destruction of innocent human life.”

The phrases “countless innocent victims” and “mass destruction of innocent human life” clearly indicate that the bombings were gravely immoral. They were not combatants, as Russell claims. The killing of countless innocents is mass murder, and murder in any form is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.

In addition, Bishop Venerable Fulton Sheen stated that our use of the bomb on Hiroshima was as an act contrary to the moral law. “Both obliteration bombing and use of the atomic bomb are immoral, Msgr. Sheen said, because ‘they do away with the moral distinction that must be made in every war – a distinction between civilians and the military.’ ” [Sheen in a sermon on April 7 in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York; thanks Matt]

Now the judgment of the Church that those bombings were gravely immoral is not a teaching, per se. It is a judgment about a particular case. But the teaching of the Church on this subject is also clear.

“The principle of humanity inscribed in the conscience of every person and all peoples includes the obligation to protect civil populations from the effects of war.” [Pontifical Council For Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, n. 505]

“Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2314; quoting Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes 80, n. 3]

So we have both a clear teaching from the Magisterium and a clear judgment from Church authority. Nothing else is needed. The Church does not need to make this judgment, condemning the mass murders at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, into an article of faith. But the condemnation of “indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants” is already an infallible teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

Russell further claims that the Church “teaches us that it is up to legitimate civil authority to make those determinations, not the Church.” This claim contradicts the teaching of the Church in the document of Pope Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctam — a document confirmed by the Fifth Lateran Council. There, Pope Boniface teaches that the earthly powers (secular governments) are subject to the spiritual power of the Church.

“For truth is the witness that the spiritual authority holds [the ability] to establish the earthly authority, and to judge if it might not have been good. And this, concerning the Church and the authority of the Church, the prophecy of Jeremiah verifies: “Behold, today I have appointed you over nations and kingdoms” [Jeremiah 1:10]”

It is contrary to Church teaching to claim that only the secular government has the role to make a moral decision — especially in such a grave matter as the destruction of two entire cities — and that the Church cannot judge or condemn that decision. The truth is that the Church has authority over the entire moral law, as well as over matters of faith. And any judgments made by a secular government are subject to the judgment of the Church as a higher authority.

After claiming that the Church cannot or ought not judge whether the bombings were immoral, Russell takes it upon himself to make that judgment. So, the Church can’t judge such a case, but a deacon of the Church can judge? I can’t decide if his claim is born out of arrogance or ignorance or pride. Maybe it’s all three.

It is absurd for Russell to claim that “it is up to legitimate civil authority to make those determinations” (about the morality of the bombings). So he is saying that the U.S. government, which decided to destroy two cities with nuclear weapons is the proper authority for deciding the morality of its own actions, and not the Church. What government is going to take any action during a war, and then declare its own actions immoral? To the contrary, no government is fit to be a judge in its own case.

And next Russell takes his ridiculous position on who may judge the morality of actions a step further: “Similarly, I’d assert that the evaluation of conditions for moral legitimacy of the individual decisions that comprise the ‘just war’ belongs not to armchair opinion-givers, but to those who are really responsible for those decisions.” So he thinks that neither the Church, nor individual authors, may judge the decisions of a government, whether to go to war, and whether the war is just. He says that only “legitimate civil authority” may judge such things. And then he spends the rest of the article making the very same type of judgment. So, other “armchair opinion-givers” may not judge, but he can do so. His words and deeds are self-contradictory.

Indiscriminate Actions

And just when the reader thinks that deacon Russell’s position can’t be any more absurd, it gets worse. He writes:

“The Church rightly condemns indiscriminate destruction of cities and civilian populations. But it never says that those who decided to drop the atomic bombs were guilty of that atrocity. The Church really couldn’t condemn the US leaders on that basis, because it’s clear that Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren’t acts of indiscriminate destruction. Like so many previous deadly attacks on Japan, the nuclear bombings were, rather, intentionally planned and targeted attacks—but of unprecedented destructive power.”

I don’t think deacon Russell knows what the word “indiscriminate” means, in the context of the Church’s moral teachings. The bombing of a mass center of civilian population is indiscriminate because the people are killed without discriminating between enemy combatants and non-combatants. But such acts are almost always intentionally planned. And if the civilian population is intentionally targeted, that fact makes it gravely immoral. But it is ridiculous to say that an intentionally planned and targeted attack on a city with a nuclear bomb is not an indiscriminate killing of the population.

Therefore, when the Church “rightly condemns indiscriminate destruction of cities and civilian populations”, we must conclude that the targeted intentional destruction of two entire cities during World War 2 fits that description and is therefore gravely immoral.

Now I am only partway through explaining the errors in deacon Jim Russell’s article, and already it is clear that his writing and his understanding of Church teaching on morality is thoroughly incompetent. He is teaching in an area where he lacks even the most basic competency one would expect from a student of moral theology. How common it is today for Catholics to go forth on the internet to teach, without first having learned. By a combination of ignorance and arrogance, they harm many souls, while pretending to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Are Children Enemy Combatants?

Deacon Jim Russell explains that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have been justified because the entire population, including children, were somehow enemy combatants.

First, let’s refresh our souls by reading from the Gospel of Jesus Christ:

{2:16} Then Herod, seeing that he had been fooled by the Magi, was very angry. And so he sent to kill all the boys who were in Bethlehem, and in all its borders, from two years of age and under, according to the time that he had learned by questioning the Magi.
{2:17} Then what was spoken through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled, saying:
{2:18} “A voice has been heard in Ramah, great weeping and wailing: Rachel crying for her sons. And she was not willing to be consoled, because they were no more.”

The mass killing of children, in the above case the holy innocents, is a very grave crime against humanity. For all little children are loved by God.

{18:1} In that hour, the disciples drew near to Jesus, saying, “Whom do you consider to be greater in the kingdom of heaven?”
{18:2} And Jesus, calling to himself a little child, placed him in their midst.
{18:3} And he said: “Amen I say to you, unless you change and become like little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
{18:4} Therefore, whoever will have humbled himself like this little child, such a one is greater in the kingdom of heaven.
{18:5} And whoever shall accept one such little child in my name, accepts me.
{18:6} But whoever will have led astray one of these little ones, who trust in me, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck, and to be submerged in the depths of the sea.

What Christian, who truly loves Jesus, can read the above teachings of Holy Scripture, and conclude that the mass killing of innocent children in two cities was justified because those children were enemy combatants? And yet that is what Russell suggests:

“The blurring of lines between combatant and non-combatant was likely never greater than on Japanese soil. The entire population was mobilized to support the war effort. Men, women, and children were to be prepared — and compelled by the Empire — to fight the enemy tooth and nail, if it came to it.”

“They were resolved to fight to the last man. And last woman. And even the last child, sad to say.”

“Two attacks, not just one, were ultimately needed to vanquish Japan’s resolve to fight to the last man, woman or child. Japan’s leaders surrendered only when it became clear that the United States really could effectively reduce Japan to that last man, woman or child.”

“The notion of a general population being viewed as and used as ‘combatants’ arose not from the United States but from the Empire of Japan.”

“In Japan, everyone was effectively considered a combatant.”

First of all, even if the end is good, such as “to vanquish Japan’s resolve to fight”, an evil means is not thereby justified. And killing “countless innocent victims”, including little children, is a very evil means.

Second, as reader Matt Z. points out: “Ask Deacon if the newborns and 2 years olds were combatants!?!” Little children, infants, and prenatals in the womb were indiscriminately killed along with the elderly. These persons are not capable of fighting at all.

Third, even if an adult were old enough and fit enough to put up a fight, they cannot thereby be considered enemy combatants. The moral teaching of the Church and every sane piece of moral theology on just war, distinguishes between combatants and non-combatants based on whether they are in fact fighting in the war, not whether they could put up a struggle, if they were attacked in their own homes.

Fourth, the fact that an adult provides some support for the war effort, does not make them an enemy combatant. If the dangerous and absurd ideas proposed by deacon Russell, concerning who is an enemy combatant, were applied to the U.S. during a war, many innocent citizens would fall into that miscategorization and would be in danger of death — if our enemies adopted deacon Russell’s claims about enemy combatants.

Fifth, even if “In Japan, everyone was effectively considered a combatant”, we are prevented by the eternal moral law and by reason and by the love of God from agreeing and from treating everyone in the nation as a combatant. The U.S. could not morally consider the entire population of any city, nor of the entire nation, as enemy combatants.

Moreover, the claim by Russell that “In Japan, everyone was effectively considered a combatant” is both dangerous and immoral. For such a claim implies the grave moral error that everyone in Japan could be killed, morally, during the war. Without realizing it, Russell is justifying genocide. For if the entire nation of Japan were combatants, then the door is open to claim that they can all be killed. During a just war, only enemy combatants can be killed. But it is NEVER the case that an entire nation or an entire race or ethnicity are enemy combatants. The soldiers attacking our troops or our nation are enemy combatants, but not the rest of their population, not even if most of the population is asked to participate in the war effort in some way.

The farmers who grow food for the war effort are not enemy combatants. The workers at the factory that makes clothing for soldiers are not enemy combatants. The authors who write articles supporting the war effort are not enemy combatants. The citizens who buy war bonds or otherwise provide financial support for their military are not enemy combatants. Adults who are fit for military service, but who are not in the military, are not enemy combatants, not even if they can be expected to fight when foreign troops invade their land — until and unless they do fight. Broadening the scope of who is considered an enemy combatant is dangerous and immoral.

Jim Russell: “With this knowledge, the United States leaders presumably would apply the same approach with the atomic bomb as had already been applied with prior conventional bombing. It was the Japanese government that was compelling its own population to embrace the ‘total war’ mentality, whether a citizen wanted to, or not. In a just war, how does a country like the United States defend against — and attack — a ‘total-war’ enemy like Japan?”

No, deacon Russell, the entire population of a nation are not enemy combatants! Such a claim is tantamount to justifying the killing of the entire nation, which would be genocide. Infants and little children are not enemy combatants. The sick and the elderly are not enemy combatants. Adults who are not soldiers are not enemy combatants. The entire population of a city are not enemy combatants. And the Church clearly teaches that “the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” The Church also condemns genocide. Deacon Russell’s claims are false, contrary to reason, contrary to the teachings of the Faith, absurd, and exceedingly wicked.

How could deacon Russell justify the killing of innocent children, justify the mass murder of the residents of two entire cities, and also claim that an entire nation is comprised only of enemy combatants? I think this is due to gross incompetence in his understanding of moral theology. He is entirely unqualified to write ethics, and obviously has not studied the subject area. I note that his version of the principle of double effect comes solely from one web article, which itself is poorly written and misguided.

Double Effect

Russell uses the principle of double effect to justify his claim that perhaps the mass murders of the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified. But he has misunderstood both the principle of double effect itself, and especially how to apply it to particular cases.

Suppose you went to a used car dealer, and he showed you a car that was badly mangled in a horrific multi-car crash, so much so that it barely resembled a motor vehicle at all. Then, the used car dealer tried to convince you that this car is not only drivable, but in perfect mint condition. That’s deacon Russell trying to convince his readers that his explanation of the principle of double effect and the morality of the atomic bombings is correct, when in fact it is a bloody wreck.

In order to explain the severe errors in Russell’s version of the principle of double effect, I must first review with the reader the basic principles of ethics taught by the Church (in Veritatis Splendor and the Catechism of the Catholic Church).

There are three fonts of morality — three and only three things which can make any human act moral or immoral. An act with three good fonts is necessarily a good act; it is at least morally permissible. An act with one or more bad fonts is necessarily a sin; it is an immoral act. The three fonts or sources of morality are as follows:

1) Intention — the intention or purpose, for which the choice is made; it is what motivates the person to act. When the intended end is evil, the first font is bad and the act is a sin, until and unless the intention changes.

2) Moral object — the end, in terms of morality, toward which the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered. The knowing deliberate choice of any act includes a choice of the concrete act, its moral nature, and its object. And the moral nature of the act is nothing other than the inherent ordering of the chosen act toward its moral object (the proximate end of the act itself). When the object is evil, the act is intrinsically evil and always wrong to knowingly choose. Nothing can change an intrinsically evil act into an act that is good or morally justifiable.

3) Circumstances — the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned. When the reasonably anticipated bad effects morally outweigh the reasonably anticipated good effects, the third font is bad and the act is a sin to choose, until and unless the circumstances change.

The principle of double effect is not an exception to the three fonts of morality. Rather, it is a type of act, subject to the three fonts of morality, in which the circumstances include both good and bad effects. The simplest case is an act with one substantial bad effect and one substantial good effect. The principle of double effect, properly applied, determines whether the act is moral despite the bad effect, or is immoral despite the good effect.

In every case, the three fonts of morality determine whether or not the act is moral. So for an act to be moral under the principle of double effect, the act must have only good in the intended end (which motivates the act), only good in the moral object, and the reasonably anticipated bad effects must not morally outweigh the reasonably anticipated good effects.

The first criterion for an act to be justified by the principle of double effect is that the act must not be intrinsically evil. And this is determined in the usual way, by considering the object(s) of the act itself.

It is NEVER the case that an intrinsically evil becomes justifiable by means of the principle of double effect. It is absurd to claim that an act meets all of the conditions for justification under the principle of double effect, and therefore cannot be intrinsically evil. For the first condition is that the act must not be intrinsically evil. You don’t use the principle of double effect to decide if an act is intrinsically evil. That’s backwards. You first decide if an act is intrinsically evil. If so, then it is not justified by the principle of double effect. If the act is not intrinsically evil, then it may or may not be justified by the principle of double effect, depending on the other criteria.

The other criteria for an act to be justified by the principle of double effect merely ascertain that the other fonts are also good: intention and circumstances. So another criterion of the principle of double effect is that the bad effect(s) of the act must not be intended. But in truth, any bad intention makes any act a sin. So if a person had a bad intention other than intending the bad effects, the act would also be a sin.

Since there are good and bad effects in the circumstances, the principle of double effect helps us discern the moral weight of those effects, to see if the font of circumstances is also good. And that is why the other criteria, apart from making sure the act is not intrinsically evil, and making sure that there is only good in the intention, regard the circumstances.

For a more lengthy explanation of the principle of double effect, see my past posts on the subject here. For now, this concise summary of the principle of double effect will suffice:

1. The object of the act must not be intrinsically contradictory to one’s fundamental commitment to God and neighbor (including oneself), that is, it must be a good action judged by its moral object (in other words, the action must not be intrinsically evil);

2. The direct intention of the agent must be to achieve the beneficial effects and to avoid the foreseen harmful effects as far as possible;

3. No other means of achieving those beneficial effects except this act are available;

4. The foreseen beneficial effects must not be achieved by the means of the foreseen harmful effect;

5. The foreseen beneficial effects must be equal to or greater than the foreseen harmful effects (the proportionate judgment);

6. The beneficial effects must follow from the action at least as immediately as do the harmful effects.

[Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis; Commission on Biomedical Ethics]

I would rephrase one of the usual criteria in the principle of double effect, that the good effect cannot be obtained by means of the bad effect. If the bad effect is only physical harm (such as the amputation of a limb by a physician), and is not morally bad, then the good effect (saving a life) can be obtained by means of the bad effect (loss of a limb). But if the bad effect is morally bad, then this criterion would apply (i.e. a good effect cannot be obtained by a morally bad means).

Double Effect Applied to Atomic Bombings

The first criterion of the principle of double effect is that the act have only good in the moral object, that is to say, the act must not be intrinsically evil. But the Church teaches that: “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” And the Popes have said that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had “countless innocent victims” (John Paul II ) and constituted the “mass destruction of innocent human life” (Benedict XVI). Therefore, the act of dropping nuclear bombs on those two cities was intrinsically evil and gravely immoral.

For the act was inherently ordered toward the indiscriminate killing of a vast area with its inhabitants, that is to say, of two whole cities, including very many innocents. The intended end, to shorten the war (or some other good goal) is in the font of intention, not in the moral object. The object of an act is inherent to the act itself, regardless of intention or circumstances.

The act of the nuclear bombing of two cities also has a second evil moral object, the maiming of innocent persons by radiation poisoning. The cities could have been destroyed by the use of massive amounts of conventional bombs, and such an act would still be mass murder (which is always intrinsically evil). But the use of nuclear bombs had another grave effect, the severe harm of persons who survived with bodies greatly damaged by radiation. And since this harm was done to countless innocents, it also makes the acts of bombing these cities intrinsically evil and even more gravely immoral.

I would also like to point out that, in so far as atomic bombs maim with radiation poisoning, apart from the effect of killing, these weapons are immoral to use even on enemy combatants. For a just war does not authorize the defending nation to use any means at all to harm combatants.

“The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. ‘The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.’ ” [CCC 2312; inner quote from GS 79 # 4].

The use of radiation (e.g. dirty bombs), chemical weapons, and biological weapons are gravely immoral, even against enemy combatants. For the harm done to human persons greatly outweighs the benefit of disabling them as combatants. And the use of these weapons is inherently contrary to the dignity of human persons, and gravely so. Just as torture cannot be used as a means to a good end by the military or law enforcement, so also these torturous weapons cannot be used. The end does not justify the means. Killing an enemy combatant has, as its moral object, the defense of the nation. But torturous maiming with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons far exceeds any defensive object of the act. It is morally similar to a severe punishment given to a person guilty of a lesser offense.

So already, the bombings are condemned, under the principle of double effect, as intrinsically evil and very gravely immoral acts. If we then consider the other criteria for the principle of double effect (#2 through 6), we find additional reasons to condemn the bombings.

“2. The direct intention of the agent must be to achieve the beneficial effects and to avoid the foreseen harmful effects as far as possible;”

Did the U.S. leaders intend to avoid the harmful effects of killing non-combatants? Not at all. They could have attacked the military targets at each city with conventional bombs and done sufficient damage to disable those military resources. They intended to kill the entire population in each city, which mainly consisted of non-combatants, including women, children, and the elderly. Did the U.S. leaders intend to avoid the harmful effects of radiation poisoning to non-combatants and combatants alike? No, for they could have used conventional bombs to attack military targets in each city.

“3. No other means of achieving those beneficial effects except this act are available;”

The beneficial effect of destroying the military resources in those cities was attainable in other ways. But the main beneficial effect sought in this action was to force the nation of Japan to surrender. And this effect could have been obtained by continuing the war effort, and by destroying all of the military resources of the nation, rather than by a nuclear attack on two cities.

“4. The foreseen beneficial effects must not be achieved by the means of the foreseen harmful effect;”

This criterion also condemns the action because the beneficial effect of demoralizing the nation and forcing a surrender were obtained by means of killing innocents. The good of the surrender of the nation was achieved by means of evil, and not only by the evil in the consequences, but also by means of the evil in the moral object, the mass murder of the entire population of two cities.

“5. The foreseen beneficial effects must be equal to or greater than the foreseen harmful effects (the proportionate judgment);”

The good effect was the surrender of the nation of Japan and the ending of the war, so that many lives were saved. But the bad effect was also of very grave moral weight, the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocents, and the horrific suffering inflicted on survivors, who were maimed by radiation poisoning. It is not obvious whether one outweighs the other. But in my judgment, the harmful effects, including long-lasting harm from radiation, are greater than the beneficial effect, which was a shortening of the war and the loss of fewer soldiers’ lives. Soldiers die during warfare. But innocent civilians should not have to die, even on the side of the enemy during a terrible war.

“6. The beneficial effects must follow from the action at least as immediately as do the harmful effects.”

This criterion is used because the moral weight of the consequences of any action increases when they more closely follow from the chosen action. In this case, the harmful effects were directly related to the bombing and were very severe: death and maiming of many innocents. The beneficial effect of forcing the nation to surrender was less immediate and less certain, and therefore had less moral weight. So this criterion also falls to justify the act.

The immediacy of an act and its effects is not measured by time, but by the connection of the act to the effects. If you speak false testimony under oath, causing an innocent person to be imprisoned, the act is closely related to the effect. If you spread a false rumor about someone, and eventually this becomes one cause of their imprisonment, the act is less closely related to the effect, regardless of how much time passes.

Based on the above considerations, and under all six criteria for the principle of double effect, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are unjustified and very gravely immoral.

Now let’s consider the train wreck that is deacon Russell’s explanation and application of the principle of double effect.

First, he states “When an action being considered has both good and bad effects, it may be morally permissible to choose the action under certain conditions.” Yes, that is correct. Then he lists four conditions (borrowed from some poorly-written article on EWTN), as follows:

“1. The action must be morally good, or indifferent, as to object, motive and circumstances.
“2. The bad effect(s) may only be tolerated, not directly willed.
“3. The good effect must be caused at least as directly as the bad.
“4. The good effect(s) must be proportionate to compensate for the bad effect(s).”

The first criterion is entirely wrong. If an act is good as concerns motive, object, and circumstances, then the act has three good fonts and no further consideration would be needed. Motive refers to the first font, object to the second, circumstances to the third. So that is not a correct statement of the first criterion. Instead, the first criterion is that the act must not be intrinsically evil. Killing innocents is intrinsically evil, so the mass destruction of an entire city is intrinsically evil and gravely immoral.

The phrasing “directly willed”, in magisterial documents, refers to the font of object. So this criterion is misstated. The bad effects must not be intended, but only tolerated. However, the killing of the entire population was one of the intended ends, since, by that killing, U.S. leaders intended to force a surrender. Japan was not compelled to surrender by the loss of the minimal military resources in those cities. Thus, this criterion (misstated though it is) also indicates that the act is gravely immoral.

The third criterion above matches the 6th criterion in the more accurate description of the principle of double effect we discussed earlier. As already stated, though, the main good effect sought by U.S. leaders was the surrender of Japan, and that effect is more distant (less direct) from the act than the killing of innocents. For the nation did not surrender after the first bombing, and a surrender was only forced by means of the killing of innocents, making that end less direct than the killing. So under this criterion, the act is also gravely immoral.

The fourth criterion matches the 5th in the earlier listing. But, as stated earlier, the bad effects of killing hundreds of thousands of innocents and of maiming (by the horror of radiation poisoning) countless others outweighs the good of ending the war sooner. Soldiers sometimes are called upon to die for their nation, but innocents should never be.

The criteria listed by Russell lack the two other criteria in the better description of the principle of double effect discussed earlier, and are poorly stated. Even so, it remains clear that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not justified by the principle of double effect.

So then, how did Russell arrive at such a disordered conclusion? Let’s take a look.

Russell states: “First, it is utterly immoral to target innocent non-combatants. Obvious, right? Intentionally killing innocents is rightly called murder.”

Right. So the U.S. leaders sought to kill the innocents in two entire cities, in order to force a surrender. Their intentionally chosen act was the targeting of innocents. Russell should have immediately concluded that the act was intrinsically evil and gravely immoral. Recall from the papal quotes above the phrases: “countless innocent victims” and “mass destruction of innocent human life”.

Here’s how. Russell says: “So, the just-war question then becomes: is there a legitimate wartime target that the action under consideration is intended to neutralize? If so, there will be a ‘good effect’ to the action. Such a planned attack would be in itself a morally legitimate act of self-defense against the aggressor, according to the moral ‘object’ of the act.”

He confuses the three fonts of morality. The intended end is the first font. The object is the second font. The effects are the third font (circumstances). The intended end does not tell you if the moral object is good, and neither does the good effect. So a good intended end and a good effect do not make an act moral in itself (i.e. not intrinsically evil).

Russell claims that the killing of innocents was merely a foreseen bad effect: “Suddenly we are confronted with a foreseen bad effect resulting from the choice to bomb a legitimate wartime target. Innocent people could get killed, too.” But then he goes on to contradict himself by claiming that the entire population of each city were enemy combatants.

“In both cases, the bombs were targeting legitimate military targets—facilities key to the ongoing industry of wartime Japan. So there seems to be no justification for claiming that innocents themselves were targeted indiscriminately.”

He makes the baseless statements that the bombings targeted legitimate military targets and that innocents were not targeted. Those claims are false. Hiroshima had 40,000 troops in 5 anti-aircraft batteries, and Nagasaki had 9,000 troops in 4 anti-aircraft batteries (Wikipedia). These were defensive troops, guarding against the bombings of cities. There was no military reason for killing these troops, because they were in a defensive position and not positioned to have any substantial effect on the battle. The target was each entire city. The entire population was deliberately killed in order to demoralize Japan and force a surrender. The loss of a few anti-aircraft batteries cannot possibly have that effect.

Furthermore, those two cities were chosen by a Target Committee. “The Target Committee stated that ‘It was agreed that psychological factors in the target selection were of great importance. Two aspects of this are (1) obtaining the greatest psychological effect against Japan and (2) making the initial use sufficiently spectacular for the importance of the weapon to be internationally recognized when publicity on it is released.’ ” (Wikipedia). The military resources in each city were a minor consideration. The decision to target Hiroshima and Nagasaki was designed to kill and destroy indiscriminately, so as to motivate a surrender.

Killing over 100,000 innocents would not have been justified as a “side effect” of the bombings, even if these minor military targets were the target. Maiming countless others would also not have been justified. The very grave harm to countless innocents would outweigh the military targets. But Russell goes further astray from Catholic teaching with his next set of assertions. He claims that everyone in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and everyone in Japan were enemy combatants.

Russell: “At this point, one of the less-talked-about aspects of this moral equation must be considered: how did Japan itself define ‘combatant’ and ‘non-combatant’?”

That point is irrelevant, since ethics does not depend on how a government defines combatants, but how the eternal moral law defines it. Just as Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have said, the victims were countless innocents, not enemy combatants.

Russell: “The entire population was mobilized to support the war effort. Men, women, and children were to be prepared—and compelled by the Empire—to fight the enemy tooth and nail, if it came to it. In Japan, everyone was effectively considered a combatant…. In a just war, how does a country like the United States defend against—and attack—a ‘total-war’ enemy like Japan? … The notion of a general population being viewed as and used as ‘combatants’ arose not from the United States but from the Empire of Japan.”

If that were true, then the killing of everyone in the nation would seem to be justified. In other words, Russell’s analysis inadvertently justifies genocide by claiming that the entire population were enemy combatants. The only persons who can be killed in a just war are enemy combatants. So when Russell proposes that the general population were enemy combatants, who could be targeted and killed by nuclear weapons, he implies (without realizing it, I’m sure) that the genocide of the general population of Japan could be justified under the principle of double effect. What an idiot.

Russell: “Japan’s leaders surrendered only when it became clear that the United States really could effectively reduce Japan to that last man, woman or child.”

And now he admits that the target of the bombings were not military, but the population itself. Here, he contradicts his earlier claim that the targets were military and the killing of innocents was an unintended bad effect.

Russell concludes the following:

“In such a context, I would propose that it is conceivable that our US leaders could, in the framework of just war and via the principle of double effect, arrive at a morally defensible decision to drop the first and second atomic bombs…. Was there ‘proportionate reason’ to drop these apocalyptic weapons on Japan? Some say yes, some say no. I say it’s possible. I also say, thank God it wasn’t my prudential judgment that had to make that decision.”

The only way that Russell could arrive at the above conclusion is by ignoring the teaching of the Church against the mass destruction of entire cities, ignoring the pronouncements of two holy Popes that these attacks killed countless innocents, badly misstating the principle of double effect, failing to understand the three fonts of morality, and then also by the insanely wicked claim that the general population of Japan were combatants, including children.

But the problem here is not only that deacon Jim Russell is entirely incompetent in the area of moral theology. It takes a special kind of arrogance to claim that an entire population, including elderly, the sick, and little children are a legitimate military target because they are enemy combatants. Only by a combination of pride and ignorance could a Catholic deacon conclude that killing hundreds of thousands of innocents and maiming countless others with radiation is morally justifiable under the teaching of Jesus Christ and His Church.

Edited to add (8/17/17)
The Most Controversial Decision: Challenging Pro-Life Witness by Christopher O. Tollefsen also argues against the atomic bombings, based on their intrinsic evil:

“In fact, moral absolutes are framed, as I argued in my previous essay, in terms of intentional acts precisely because it is always possible to refrain from an action whose intention would be contrary to a human good. The deliberate killing of “the innocent elderly and the sick, women and children” is precisely such an action: always and deeply contrary to the good of human life, always and everywhere to be avoided in one’s choices and actions.”

A Final Word

Finally, and very sadly, I would like to point out that the above disgusting perverse article of badly mangled Catholic moral theology, written by a Catholic deacon, has received over 200 “Likes” and many positive comments. What kind of follower of Jesus Christ, who taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love our enemies, can read an article justifying the mass murder of over one hundred thousand persons, as well as the severe maiming of tens of thousands more by means of radiation poisoning, and not turn away in anguish and horror? What person, who considers himself or herself to be a loving Christian, can show support for an article that justifies these acts of overwhelming horror and suffering, sowing death on an unheard of scale? And how is it possible that a Catholic deacon would publicly suggest that the entire populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even the children, and perhaps even the entire nation of Japan were enemy combatants, who could therefore (supposedly) be morally killed? I’m concerned that there has been no outcry against this set of insane claims in this article of pretended moral theology.

{7:15} Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.

{6:26} Woe to you when men will have blessed you. For these same things their fathers did to the false prophets.

I tell you sincerely, many Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics today are spiritually gravely ill. Their beliefs on faith and morals include many severe errors. They cannot distinguish between the poison of heresy and the medicine of doctrine. They cannot distinguish between moral and immoral acts. And they are so filled with pride that they think themselves to be holy teachers of truth, when they are not fit even to be a student in an introductory course on any subject in theology.

{3:17} For you declare, ‘I am wealthy, and I have been enriched further, and I have need of nothing.’ And you do not know that you are wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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2 Responses to Response to Deacon Jim Russell on Combatants and Double Effect

  1. Bob says:

    Without entering into the morality debate, I would like to offer an opinion based on 41 years of military experience. Japan had totally lost the capability to wage war against the United States. The bombing were unwarranted even from a militaristic point of view.

  2. Tom Mazanec says:

    But the main beneficial effect sought in this action was to force the nation of Japan to surrender. And this effect could have been obtained by continuing the war effort, and by destroying all of the military resources of the nation, rather than by a nuclear attack on two cities

    Actually, continuing the war effort, as you suggest, would almost certainly have resulted in more deaths than the nukes did. Japan only surrendered after the second nuke, and almost did not surrender even then (there was an attempted coup by militarists who wanted to fight on until the population was annihilated, which almost succeeded). Mind, the nukes were still immoral, even if they saved more lives than they took…you can’t justify murdering 1000000 innocents to save 2000000 innocents. Also, in the anti-Catholic America of 1945, I would be surprised if any of the ten or twenty men involved in deciding whether and where to use the nukes were Catholic (I know Truman wasn’t) and Protestant theology on war may be different than Catholic. And even then, you can’t measure morality by saying 12.9 Mazanecs of good and 9.3 Mazanecs of evil.
    If I were running for President, I would announce that I would disarm America’s nukes and devote the money spent on nukes to Science and Technology, probably mostly Space exploration. Which, of course, is why I would never be elected.

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