Pope Francis has issued strong backing to calls to ban nuclear weapons entirely, including as a deterrent. On a flight back to Rome from Bangladesh on 2 December 2017, he declared, “Today we are at the limit”, because the dangers from nuclear arsenals were now so severe that they risked destroying “the great part of humanity”.
Shortly before this, on 10 November, Pope Francis had condemned not just the threat to use nuclear weapons, but also “their very possession”. Addressing a Vatican symposium Perspectives for a World Free from Nuclear Weapons & for Integral Disarmament, he said nuclear weapons exacerbate “a climate of fear” which affects the whole of humanity. He said that “weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, create nothing but a false sense of security”, and cannot constitute the basis of peaceful coexistence among nations. He said use of nuclear weapons, even as an accident or in error, would result in “catastrophic humanitarian and environmental effects … The threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned”.
Fearing a new arms race, Pope Francis gave the keynote address to 350 participants at the Vatican symposium, organised by the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development 10-11 November 2017. Its sponsors included the German and Japanese bishops’ conferences, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Georgetown University, and the University of Notre Dame, and attracted 11 Noble Prize laureates, experts in nuclear arms, and international scholars.
Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, applauded the Holy See for being one of the first of 122 nations to sign the Treaty to Ban Nuclear Weapons on 20 September 2017, approved by the United Nations in July. Though she said she was not a religious person herself, she thought it very important for religious movements to push for nuclear disarmament, and was delighted Pope Francis and the Vatican had made this a priority.
Francis said there was a growing climate of instability and conflict, with a new arms race modernising arms, including nuclear weapons, at great expense, while “the real priorities” were relegated to second place – “the fight against poverty, the promotion of peace, undertaking educational, ecological and healthcare projects, and development of human rights”.
The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El Baradei, added that the current situation was “highly perilous”. “The entire landscape is frightening and shameful. It shows no genuine commitment whatsoever to nuclear disarmament.” The USA and Russia together have 14,000 out of the 15,000 nuclear weapons, with 2000 still on high alert.
Some participants asked Pope Francis to write an encyclical on nuclear weapons as a companion to Laudato Si’, while others asked that such a document also include non-violence. Pope Francis had anticipated this, in part, by devoting his 2017 World Day of Peace message to Non-violence: a Style of Politics for Peace, calling for a renewed global ethic of nonviolence in all decision-making.
Earlier church views on nuclear deterrence
Previous popes, including John XXIII, have urged nuclear disarmament, as outlined in the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (Article VI), but no pope had condemned the very possession of such weapons as immoral. In 1982, Pope John Paul II gave nuclear weapons only limited acceptance as a deterrent, “as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament”, but certainly did not condone their use.
The morality of nuclear deterrence was hotly debated in the lead-up to the US bishops’ 1983 statement, The Challenge of Peace. The bishops decided that the policy of deterrence could only be tolerated as a “strictly conditional moral acceptance” until the international community took the necessary steps to verifiable nuclear disarmament. The bishops firmly condemned any use of nuclear weapons, but were left with the moral dilemma about the threat to use them, implied in the whole policy of deterrence.
One of the leading US social commentators, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, said Pope Francis had decided that the risks from a nuclear war were now so great and the effect so devastating that he had condemned the possession of such weapons, “regardless of the intention” to keep them as a deterrent.
Though nuclear armaments have been reduced by 80% in recent decades, the lines between conventional and nuclear weapons have become blurred, and there has been no progress in reducing medium range nuclear weapons.
The implications of this shift
What are the implications, however, of Pope Francis hardening church opposition to possessing nuclear weapons and the whole policy of deterrence which arguably helped prevent nuclear war until now? Francis insisted that the world “can achieve the utopia of a world free of deadly instruments of aggression, contrary to the criticism of those who consider idealistic any process of dismantling arsenals”.
Clearly, this will not happen quickly, and would involve major changes in international relations and domestic politics. Yet, other weapons systems, such as land mines and chemical weapons, have been banned internationally, with strong compliance mechanisms in place.
As the director of Catholic Peacebuilding Studies at the University of Notre Dame Gerry Powers wrote, “The Vatican’s position has always been that you need a mutual, verifiable treaty of global disarmament”.