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“Perfectionist Prophecy, Imperfect World”

Matthew P. Cavedon

I recently wrote about Patrick O’Neill, a Catholic activist convicted of vandalizing a nuclear submarine base. The number of connections I have to his case is so high that this article could almost just be my list of disclosures. Here it goes: In 2016-17, I served as a law clerk to the Hon. Lisa Godbey Wood, the federal judge who presided over the case. I know one of the law clerks to the Magistrate Judge who issued pretrial rulings in it. I was classmates at the Candler School of Theology with Bernadette Naro, one of Mr. O’Neill’s eight children. I am a former intern of the U.S. Attorney’s Office that prosecuted Mr. O’Neill, and hold in high personal regard two of the case’s lead attorneys, Karl Knoche and Greg Gilluly (I do not know the third, Channell Singh). I consulted with Bill Quigley, lead attorney for most of Mr. O’Neill’s co-defendants, before one of the sentencing hearings. I am a former subscriber to the Catholic Worker newspaper, and regularly read contributions from co-defendant Carmen Trotta. And I am marrying into a family that includes a guard at a nuclear facility.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that this case would make it onto Conviction. Just as inevitably, given my background, I have complex opinions regarding it. Let me go where I promised I would at the end of the first post: What is the role of perfectionist prophecy in our imperfect world? My Catholic faith sets up two rhythms in thinking about this case in light of that question. One is just how wicked nuclear weaponry is. It is the most destructive force humanity has ever invented. It has the capacity to extinguish all life on this planet. It is undiscriminating once unleashed. It does not merely kill people, it pulverizes them – if they are fortunate enough to die quickly. Otherwise, their own cells become their mutated executioners. An atomic weapon does not merely disfigure whatever squares of creation it falls upon. It renders them uninhabitable. Incapable of sustaining life. To make things even worse, the only two times nuclear weapons have ever been deployed, they were dropped onto cities. Not remote fleets in the sea, not armies crossing a desert. Cities. Full of people. Less than 2000 feet away from the Nagasaki detonation was a cathedral full of Catholics attending Mass. (Not that this makes things particularly worse.) It is hard to conceive of anything more worthy of that Old Testament epithet “abomination before the Lord” than a nuclear bomb.

What is prophecy if not using the perfect standards of the world as it should be to confront the messiness of the world as we know it?

Obviously, no such device exists in a perfect world, like Heaven. Or like this world, as I believe it will be on the far side of Christ’s Second Coming. And what is prophecy if not using the perfect standards of the world as it should be to confront the messiness of the world as we know it? What is Mr. O’Neill, then, but a prophet, recalling before this world’s powers that their actions work a horrible disfigurement on creation? Reminding us that the real city on a hill is the place where children and snakes and lions and lambs will frolic together – not a country armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction?

And yet, that prophetic rhythm joins in my mind with a prudential one. The world we meet every day is not, in fact, that idyll. I believe it’s coming. But that doesn’t mean I’m about to put my hand into a snake’s den. Sure, I hope that determined international cooperation and skilled diplomacy can lead us to a nuke-free era. But I don’t know that America’s unilateral disarmament is the surest, safest way there. And, contrarily to Mr. O’Neill, I am of the just war school of thought, not the pacifist one. I think there are times this side of Perfection when fighting is necessary. Having granted that bullets and smart bombs can sometimes be morally permissible, and even occasionally urgently needed, I doubt I can categorically exclude all nuclear weapons. My personal take is close to that of the International Court of Justice. That tribunal found that intentionally targeting civilians and inflicting unnecessary harm on combatants are both war crimes. It urged the need for nuclear disarmament. But it stopped shy of banning nuclear weapons outright.

Besides, regardless of whether nuclear weapons should be dismantled immediately or not, society can’t leave that decision to any old group of private people. Maybe Mr. O’Neill is right and Matt Cavedon is wrong. But if America is to continue as a society, it must have procedures for deciding questions as weighty as this. Those procedures cannot be that whoever exercises more force wins – the person trying to break in and disarm nuclear bombs, or those trying to maintain them. It is entirely legitimate for a society to leave decisions like these to free debate and representative deliberations, as America does.

Mr. O’Neill wanted his trial to center on the ultimate morality of nuclear weaponry. He and his co-defendants asserted a right to practice their religion by destroying the government’s arms. The court, quite reasonably, ruled against them on both issues. In doing so, it upheld collective decision-making by the nation’s elected representatives. It refused to surrender America’s answer to one of the greatest moral questions of our time to the judgment of a few private people.

Mr. O’Neill may be right. But he has no right to be a dictator. I therefore have no legal qualms with his conviction.

We live in an imperfect world. Precisely for that reason, we need, and can only ever have, laws that sort things out imperfectly. But I also believe that our world is subject to the perfect God, Whose perfect reign is on the way.

And yet. And, yet. I am a Christian. I believe God is a troublemaker. One Who – as a private person – grabbed a bundle of cords and whipped the moneychangers out of the Temple. This was surely not the sort of behavior a society’s laws can countenance. (Indeed, any society that condoned assault would be guilty of injustice before the very same God!) But, just as surely to me, this deed was divine action.

My old classmate Bernadette told me she believes her father’s getting arrested and going to prison “is a vocation.” I can believe that. I can believe that God told Mr. O’Neill to do what he did. Just as readily as I can believe that God sanctioned the federal government’s prosecution of him. I can believe it acted within its rights, while still believing, with great confidence, that what he professes is ultimately right and just.

We live in an imperfect world. Precisely for that reason, we need, and can only ever have, laws that sort things out imperfectly. But I also believe that our world is subject to the perfect God, Whose perfect reign is on the way. So we also need prophecy that relentlessly interrogates the imperfect using the perfect as the standard. Prophetic hearts touched by warm breezes blowing from beyond the horizon of our present messiness. Prophetic words that drip, drip, drip away at the heavy stones we cannot currently move, but that may someday crumble away from sustained efforts at justice.

It is only reasonable that the American government convicted Mr. O’Neill. But it is no less – rather, by my best lights, even more – reasonable to believe prophetic souls like him will someday “judge nations and rule over peoples.” Disarming nukes. Beating swords into plowshares. ♦

Matthew P. Cavedon is a criminal defense attorney in Gainesville, GA. He graduated from Emory University in 2015 with a law degree and masters of theological studies.

Recommended Citation

Cavedon, Matthew P. “Perfectionist Prophecy, Imperfect World.” Canopy Forum, March 1, 2021.