From hosting an international symposium on disarmament to ratifying a United Nations treaty on banning nuclear weapons, the Holy See under Pope Francis is reenergizing the Catholic Church’s long-standing opposition to nuclear arms.
“The Church’s position has been pretty straightforward. The pope is reemphasizing the tradition calling for the world to get rid of nuclear weapons, that these weapons are a violation of Church teaching,” said Maryann Cusimano Love, associate professor of international relations at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Love, who attended a November conference on disarmament at the Vatican and worked with the Holy See last year to negotiate the U.N. treaty on the prohibition of nuclear arms, told Our Sunday Visitor that Pope Francis is trying to help people to understand those weapons’ destructive nature and why they should be banned.
Addressing the international symposium on Nov. 10, Pope Francis did not just condemn the threat of using nuclear weapons. He categorically declared their very possession is immoral.
“They cannot constitute the basis for peaceful coexistence between members of the human family, which must rather be inspired by an ethics of solidarity,” Pope Francis said.
Conditions not met
At first glance, the pope’s words can be seen as a development, even a departure, from Pope St. John Paul II’s 1982 statement that possessing nuclear weapons for the purpose of deterrence can be morally permissible. However, that ethic of deterrence was always based on the condition that the nations in possession of nuclear arms intended to move forward from deterrence to disarmament.
More than three decades later, the world’s nuclear powers, including the United States, have not disarmed themselves. In fact, the U.S. is spending more than $1 trillion to modernize its nuclear stockpile.
“Billions have been spent on these weapons of mass destruction, which must never be used,” said Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace. Colecchi, who attended the Vatican symposium with Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego, told OSV that the Catholic Church under Pope Francis is rearticulating its position on nuclear weapons with a renewed sense of urgency and to move past the conditional ethic of deterrence articulated by John Paul II.
“The Holy See is trying to move the needle, to pressure the nuclear powers to take their responsibility seriously to get rid of such weapons,” Colecchi said.
Gerard F. Powers, coordinator of the Catholic Peacebuilding Network at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, told OSV that the Holy See has sought to delegitimize nuclear weapons, with the aim toward total disarmament, since the dawn of the nuclear age.
“Pope Francis’ statement was significant because it’s the clearest statement by a pope that explicitly condemns not only nuclear use but also the mere possession of those weapons,” Powers said.
Analyzing nuclear arms through the lens of the Church’s “just war” tradition, analysts told OSV that the use of those arms is immoral because they are so catastrophic. The “just war” tradition holds that the collateral damage to civilians must be kept at a minimum when engaging legitimate military targets.
But in any nuclear strike, millions of civilians would be killed, immediately or from the ensuing fallout. For example, a 2012 peer-reviewed study by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Physicians for Social Responsibility determined that the atmospheric fallout from a limited nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would set off a global famine that could kill 2 billion people.
Asked Colecchi, “What would success even look like in a nuclear exchange?”
In his 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”), Pope St. John XXIII called on the international community to simultaneously reduce nuclear arms under a suitable disarmament program with an effective system of mutual control. Nuclear weapons, he then wrote, “must be banned.”
John XXIII wrote his encyclical less than 20 years after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which prompted Japan’s unconditional surrender to end World War II. Those bombings resulted in at least 225,000 civilian deaths. Today’s nuclear weapons are much more powerful and would lead to millions being killed.
In 1981, John Paul II visited Hiroshima, where he said war destroys human efforts to build a world of peace. He also said that “to remember Hiroshima is to abhor nuclear war.” Pope Benedict XVI, in his message for the 2006 World Day of Peace, wrote that in a nuclear war, “there would be no victors, only victims.”
“The truth of peace requires that all —whether those governments which openly or secretly possess nuclear arms, or those planning to acquire them— agree to change their course by clear and firm decisions, and strive for a progressive and concerted nuclear disarmament,” wrote Benedict XVI, who added that the resources used for those weapons could then be employed for projects capable of benefiting all people, especially the poor.
Pope Francis ordered in December that a card be printed and distributed showing a photograph of a young Japanese boy carrying his dead baby brother’s body after the bombing in Nagasaki. The card bore the inscription, “The fruit of war,” above the pope’s signature.
Given recent nuclear missile tests in North Korea, and heated rhetoric between that regime and the United States, the Catholic Church’s warning about nuclear weapons remains as consequential as ever.
“The pope is reminding us that this is not a game,” Love said. “Lives are on the line.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.