Vatican makes case for nuclear disarmament

In August, it will be 70 years since the United States dropped two relatively primitive atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, immediately killing at least 129,000 people, most of them noncombatants, and in effect bringing World War II to an abrupt conclusion. Since then, nuclear weapons have become vastly more powerful as at least eight other nations — Russia, Great Britain, France, Israel, China, North Korea, India and Pakistan — have joined the United States as their possessors.

America and other nations currently are laboring to reach an agreement with Iran that would slow down that country’s progress toward joining the nuclear club. But the agreed-on framework for a final deal, released before Easter, is provoking heated controversy. Western critics say it goes dangerously easy on Iran and, instead of reducing the likelihood of its becoming a nuclear-armed power, actually increases it.

If that happens, several other countries with the capability of making nuclear weapons are thought likely to do so. The international nuclear nonproliferation regime, to which 190 states have subscribed since 1968, appears at risk of breaking down.

Against this background, and with a previously scheduled five-year review of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty underway, efforts to halt and, if possible, reverse the spread of nuclear weapons have taken on new urgency.


The Catholic Church is playing a leading role in this movement. In his Easter message to the world, Pope Francis prayed that the framework for an agreement with Iran would prove to be “a definitive step toward a more secure and fraternal world.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops strongly seconded those sentiments. In mid-April, Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, New Mexico, chairman of the bishops’ international justice and peace committee, sent members of Congress a letter warning against making “a responsible multi-party agreement [with Iran] more difficult to achieve and implement.”

It wasn’t always so.

When the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, few American Catholic voices were raised in protest. Two who did speak up were Dorothy Day, co-founder of the pacifist Catholic Worker movement, and Jesuit Father John Ford, a prominent moral theologian who earlier had written against the saturation bombing of enemy cities by the United States and its allies. (Later, Catholic critics targeted the priest for upholding Church teaching on contraception as a member of the papal birth control commission advising Pope Paul VI on that issue.)

Moral reservations regarding nuclear weaponry grew and sharpened as the cold war dragged on. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World — its Latin title is Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope”) — expressed concern about weapons capable of causing “massive and indiscriminate destruction, thus going far beyond the bounds of legitimate defense” (No. 80).

Then, the document added: “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation” (No. 80).

Strong as this was, it stopped short of entirely rejecting either the use of nuclear weapons or their possession for deterrence.

Writing at the time, a young German theologian, Father Joseph Ratzinger — later known to the world as Pope Benedict XVI — said Vatican II had adopted an admittedly less than perfect “emergency morality” as the best it could do in the face of “radical unrighteousness.” The heart of it, he said, was the need of Western nations to defend themselves against an implacable nuclear-armed enemy, the Soviet Union.

Brushing up on terminology
Theory of deterrence (noun): The policy of developing military power in order to protect one’s own country from attack through the promise of retaliation and, in the case of nuclear weapons, possible mutually assured destruction.

Nuclear deterrence

As time passed, the reservations of Catholic thinkers moved beyond the use of nuclear weapons — more and more taken to be morally unacceptable in virtually all circumstances — to deterrence. In 1976, the U.S. bishops, in a collective pastoral letter called “To Live in Christ Jesus,” said of America’s nuclear arsenal: “Not only is it wrong to attack civilian populations but it is also wrong to threaten to attack them as part of a strategy of deterrence.”

In the early 1980s, with U.S.-Soviet tensions high, the bishops returned to the subject of nuclear weapons in their much-discussed pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace.”

During the document’s preparation, the drafting committee, chaired by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and including both hawks and doves as members, held highly publicized public hearings around the country and appeared to be challenging nuclear policies of the Reagan administration — an impression the administration abetted by criticizing the bishops.

From the start, Cardinal Bernardin assured his associates that he had no intention of condemning nuclear deterrence. In 1982, in a statement to the United Nations, Pope John Paul II provided the committee with a useful formula for expressing concern about deterrence while also tolerating it. Thus “The Challenge of Peace” ended up endorsing a nuclear deterrent that was sufficient to deter a potential aggressor — but no more than that — while adding: “Nuclear deterrence should be used as a step toward progressive disarmament.”


There is no evidence that deterrence has served that purpose since then. Recently, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Holy See’s observer at the United Nations, said Pope Francis had “pushed the moral argument against nuclear weapons” to include their possession for the purpose of deterrence.

“Peace and international stability cannot be founded on mutually assured destruction or the threat of total destruction,” the archbishop told an April conference which he hosted for representatives of interfaith and interreligious organizations.

Current efforts reflect a renewed emphasis on nuclear disarmament, starting with stepped up efforts on behalf of nonproliferation. According to news reports, the U.S. government is working with the Vatican to help bring this about.

Will it happen? Will the talks with Iran succeed in producing an agreement conducive to stability and peace, or will they either break down in bitterness and increased tension or else lead to a flawed pact that further destabilizes the situation? Will nuclear nonproliferation be strengthened or will it be swept aside as more nations rush to acquire nuclear arms? And if that happens, will it be possible to keep these weapons from falling into the hands of jihadist groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaida?

The only certainty is that 70 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world is now at a nuclear crossroads where things could go either way.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.