A new arms race is looming as the United States, Russia, and China continue to modernise their weapons systems, including tactical nuclear weapons. President Trump has announced that the US will withdraw from the Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, and has abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran which has carefully honoured its obligations under this treaty. In Australia there has been renewed discussion if Australia should acquire tactical nuclear weapons. The impact of climate change will undoubtedly further exacerbate sources of conflict in volatile parts of the world.
Pope Francis is warning about the widening effects of climate change sparking military conflicts or a wider war spreading from Asia or the Middle East, even resulting in nuclear war. On his flight back from Bangladesh on 2 December 2017, he declared ‘we are at the limit’ because of nuclear arsenals which risk destroying ‘the great part of humanity’. He urged that nuclear weapons be banned entirely.
At a Vatican symposium on nuclear disarmament on 10 November 2017, Francis warned in a keynote address of the ‘catastrophic humanitarian and environmental effects’ of nuclear weapons. Going beyond earlier Catholic views that nuclear weapons could only be tolerated as part of a deliberate process of nuclear disarmament, he declared that ‘The threat of use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.’ The Holy See was one of the first of 122 nations to sign the UN Treaty to Ban Nuclear Weapons on 20 September 2017.
Francis is further distressed that the new arms race is distorting spending priorities away from ‘the fight against poverty, promotion of peace, undertaking educational, ecological and health care projects, and development of human rights.’ He closely links these social priorities of the UN Sustainable Development Goals with the challenges of environmental sustainability and equality highlighted in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’. Everything is connected in his view.
Underlying concern about the ‘disastrous’ effects of climate change and the resulting economic turbulence lurk new threats to international security and world peace. Compounded by global warming, growing population pressure will increase competition for scarce resources, especially essentials like water, agricultural security, fisheries and energy.
We will also see unprecedented mass movements of people, seeking refuge from climatic extremes and rising sea levels flooding major megacities and the food bowls of the great river deltas.
Francis is pragmatic but strategic in indicating a way forward. First he is trying to mobilise the world’s religious traditions and spiritual impulses in support of determined efforts to promote the wellbeing of every person on the planet, with reverence for the natural world and its environmental limits.
Mobilising the world’s moral conscience for action
He is doing this in cooperation with people of goodwill whatever their beliefs, but especially with those of a religious consciousness. He wrote Laudato Si’ in collaboration with other Christian leaders, especially the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and in parallel with Muslim leaders in Istanbul. Francis also draws from the spiritual sensitivity of traditional peoples, as well as the yearning for justice and peace that non-believers also share.
He believes that the religious traditions encapsulate the best aspirations for peace and human wellbeing, deepen the moral wells of meaning, and strengthen motivation for solidarity in this moment of global peril. What does God want, but human flourishing for everyone, without exception?
Francis has continued the practice begun by Pope John Paul II of inviting leaders of world religions to Assisi to reflect and pray together for world peace and become ’artisans of peace’. Francis on 20 September 2018 spoke to the more than 500 participants at Assisi from nine major religions. He said they were united in their opposition to war and ‘every form of violence and abuse of religion which seeks to justify war and terrorism’. War leaves ‘a legacy of sorrows and hate. In war, everyone loses, including the victors.’
‘The one who calls upon God’s name to justify terrorism, violence, and war does not follow God’s path. War in the name of religion becomes a war against religion itself.’ ‘We never tire of repeating that the name of God cannot be used to justify violence. Peace alone, and not war, is holy!’
Empowering nonviolence movements in resolving conflict
Secondly, Pope Francis has been encouraging critiques of ‘just war’ traditions that have frequently been used as a spurious rationale for embarking on war instead of providing firm constraints against war. He devoted 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 social and political decision-making.
This emphasis on active nonviolence was highlighted in April 2016 in the Nonviolence and Just Peace Conference organised by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi International. The conference sought to ‘seek peace, deep peace rooted in justice, shalom – not a mere absence of war, but the fullness of life for all – that is the Christian vocation and way of life. It sought to follow ‘Jesus’ way of active, nonviolent, persistent, risky, creative peacemaking.’
The Pax Christi International co-president, Marie Dennis, said: ‘The truth is that modern wars have rendered the just war theory obsolete and minimalist. It had a negative focus, emphasising war and not peace. The distinction between just and unjust wars does not account for the massive indiscriminate violence of modern war.’
Some later commentators considered that such views unrealistic and instead defended just war thinking, arguing that it was not incompatible with nonviolence as a personal decision, but that in public policy recourse to just war principles was needed to assess the morality of conflict and war. Peter Steinfels in an article ‘The War against Just War’ argued that recourse to violence is at times necessary to resist aggression, and that one can support both just-war principles and nonviolent peacemaking.
In his address to the conference, Francis did not reject just war thinking, but stressed the need to find tools to fulfil people’s ‘aspirations for justice and peace, revitalising the tools of nonviolence, and active nonviolence in particular.’
These debates are important for Australia, as our government intends to expand arms production seven-fold, to make Australia one of the top ten arms supplies.
Join the conversation on remembrance day, Sunday 11 November, at an event A world at peace with itself: elusive dream, or achievable goal? at the Islamic Council of Victoria, 372 Spencer St., Melbourne West, 2.00 to 5.15pm.
Prof Allan Patience will speak on Australia: dependent middle power, or global citizen? Conversation will follow with Emeritus Prof Marilyn Lake, Mr Mohamed Mohideen Islamic Council of Victoria. and Prof John Wiseman Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute. Book here. $10, concession $5. Enquiries J.Camilleri@latrobe.edu.au.
Emeritus Prof Joe Camilleri will outline the April 23-24 conference on A just and ecologically sustainable peace.