As many of you may know, I have defended what I believe to be Church teaching on this matter and have taken the position that these acts were immoral and unjustified according to Catholic moral theology and particularly just war thinking. My many papers about that topic can be found on my War and Peace page.
I even lost a friend during the original debate, because he couldn't handle disagreement without making it scathingly personal and distorting both my position and what he wrongly perceived as my opinion of his views, character, motivations, etc. Many attempts at explanation and reconciliation over several months failed, which was a sad thing, because the man never understood even what my true position was. When he refused to even read my explanatory, conciliatory letters anymore, I gave up. His was a quixotic, tunnel vision, knee jerk battle against several straw men. But I tried, and (out of charity and a desire to avoid scandal) removed all the exchanges between us from my site (whereas his blistering personal attacks remain online to this day, over four years later). Please pray for him and pray for me, too. Thanks.
The following evidence seems to suggest that our present Holy Father opposes this act as unjustified, just as several previous popes have done. But as so often with papal pronouncements, there always seems to be a dispute about the exact words used, and the proper translation. The quotation comes from his homily on Pentecost Sunday: 31 May 2009. Here is how the Holy See web page English translation renders it:
The other image of the Holy Spirit which we find in the Acts of the Apostles is fire. I mentioned at the beginning the comparison between Jesus and the mythological figure of Prometheus which recalls a characteristic aspect of modern man. In possessing himself of the energies of the cosmos "fire" the human being seems today to assert himself as a god and to wish to transform the world excluding, setting aside or even rejecting the Creator of the universe. Man no longer wants to be an image of God but of himself; he declares himself autonomous, free and adult. Of course, this attitude reveals a relationship with God which is not authentic, the consequence of a false image which has been fabricated of him, like the Prodigal Son in the Gospel parable who believes that he can fulfil himself by distancing himself from his father's house. In the hands of such a man "fire" and its enormous potential become dangerous: they can backfire against life and humanity itself, as history unfortunately shows. 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.
Catholic News Service (2 June 2009) gives a variant English version:
One writer seized upon the phrase "used for bellicose ends" as a pretext for bashing the Holy Father, as if he were some sort of blind anti-American who only dimly understood the realities of war.
"In the hands of a such a person, 'fire' and its enormous potential becomes dangerous: It can be turned against life and humanity itself as history unfortunately has demonstrated. A perennial warning comes from the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where atomic energy used for bellicose aims sowed death in an unheard-of proportion," Pope Benedict said.
Zenit (31 May 2009) provides a third variation:
Fire is the other image of the Holy Spirit that we find in the Acts of the Apostles. I compared Jesus with the mythological figure of Prometheus at the beginning of the homily. The figure of Prometheus suggests a characteristic aspect of modern man. Taking control of the energies of the cosmos -- "fire" -- today human beings seem to claim themselves as gods and want to transform the world excluding, putting aside or simply rejecting the Creator of the universe. Man no longer wants to be the image of God but the image of himself; he declares himself autonomous, free, adult. Obviously that reveals an inauthentic relationship with God, the consequence of a false image that has been constructed of him, like the prodigal son in the Gospel parable who thought that he could find himself by distancing himself from the house of his father. In the hands of man in this condition, "fire" and its enormous possibilities become dangerous: they can destroy life and humanity itself, as history unfortunately shows. The tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which atomic energy, used as a weapon, ended up bringing death in unheard of proportions, remain a perennial warning.
The question is whether there is a distinct moral condemnation of the act. The key clause is the description of how atomic energy was used. Does it condemn the underlying motivations, and/or assert an intrinsic immorality of the act?:
1) Holy See website English translation: ". . . atomic energy used for the purposes of war . . ."
2) Catholic News Service: ". . . atomic energy used for bellicose aims . . ."
3) Zenit: ". . . atomic energy, used as a weapon . . ."
I suppose we should consult the original Italian version of the homily (which is what the pope normally speaks in the Vatican). Perhaps that can resolve the interpretational difficulties. The homily is available in English, Italian, French, Portugese and Spanish, so I shall cite all of them (but the Italian must be regarded as the primary source, since that was the language of the homily in question):
A perenne monito rimangono le tragedie di Hiroshima e Nagasaki, dove l’energia atomica, utilizzata per scopi bellici, ha finito per seminare morte in proporzioni inaudite.
Como advertencia perenne quedan las tragedias de Hiroshima y Nagasaki, donde la energía atómica, utilizada con fines bélicos, acabó sembrando la muerte en proporciones inauditas.
Como perene admoestação permanecem as tragédias de Hiroxima e Nagasáqui, onde a energia atómica, utilizada para finalidades bélicas, semeou morte em proporções inauditas.
Les tragédies de Hiroshima et de Nagasaki, dans lesquelles l'énergie atomique, utilisée à des fins belliqueuses, a fini par semer la mort dans des proportions inouïes, en représentent une mise en garde constante.
Clearly, "used for bellicose aims" -- which was the Catholic News Service rendering, follows the original literally, whereas the other two versions ("purposes of war" and "as a weapon") are a bit less literal. The Spanish, Portugese, and French versions all have cognates for the Italian scopi bellici -- as seen in the highlighted red portions above.
But (the plot thickens) when I entered in the Italian section to the iGoogle Italian-to-English translator, it resembled the Holy See English translation:
A constant reminder of the tragedy remains of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where atomic energy, used for war purposes, has come to sow death in unprecedented proportions.
Babylon Translation, on the other hand, came out more like the Catholic News Service version, which appears to be the most literal:
For the eternal warning remain the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where Atomic Energy Agency, used for belligerent purposes, has finished to sow death in unprecedented proportions.
But the differences aren't all that great, because bellicose in English (derived from the Latin bellicōsus) has to do directly with warring and battling. Bellona was the Roman war goddess. Hence Dictionary.com provides the following definitions:
inclined or eager to fight; aggressively hostile; belligerent; pugnacious.
(Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2009)
adj. Warlike or hostile in manner or temperament. See Synonyms at belligerent.
(The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
Copyright © 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Company)
With all this etymology and examples of various translations in mind, how are we to interpret the Holy Father's words? I don't think the word bellicose alone (scopi bellici) can resolve this issue. The larger context of the paragraph involved might, however, give a clue as to his intent. If we highlight key portions of it (from the Holy See translation), one might argue from the context that it looks like a direct moral condemnation of these acts:
In possessing himself of the energies of the cosmos "fire" the human being seems today to assert himself as a god and to wish to transform the world excluding, setting aside or even rejecting the Creator of the universe. . . . this attitude reveals a relationship with God which is not authentic, . . . In the hands of such a man "fire" and its enormous potential become dangerous: they can backfire against life and humanity itself, as history unfortunately shows. 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.
Personally, I'm inclined to think it is a condemnation, but there is enough ambiguity to cause me to be reluctant to make any hard and fast statement. You, the reader, can make up your own mind.
Perhaps there is another clue, uttered just yesterday by Pope Benedict XVI:
He also addressed "a group of survivors of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki," and prayed "that the world may never again witness such mass destruction of innocent human life."
Is not "mass destruction of innocent human life" a moral condemnation? If the same phrase were used in referring to abortion, it would unquestionably be regarded as that, would it not? So I say that it is most reasonable to apply such an interpretation in this instance, too. But I grant that it is not absolutely clear cut, in such a way that a person defending the acts could have no possible counter-reply.