Towards a world free from nuclear weapons
In January of this year, Pope Francis told journalists that he was afraid of an ill-considered nuclear attack. At the time, the conflict between the presidents of the USA and North Korea, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, was escalating. Since then, relations between the two nations have calmed somewhat, but that does not mean that the danger of nuclear weapons being used somewhere in the world has vanished for good. The Near East, for example, is another powder keg at present. It is not unreasonable to fear that other states in the region besides Israel could not only continue to stockpile conventional weapons, but could also develop nuclear weapons of mass destruction. For some time now there has been a renewed arms race between the USA and Russia with the so-called modernisation of nuclear weapons. New weapons with greater capabilities have been, and continue to be, developed on both sides. NATO member states, even those who do not possess their own nuclear weapons, are caught up in the nuclear deterrence system, a strategy that provides an option for a nuclear “first strike” in the case of danger.
The Church’s opinion on the arms race
The position of the Catholic Church on nuclear weapons of mass destruction has recently taken a remarkable direction. After the horrific experiences of the First World War, the call for military disarmament has formed an essential element of the Pope’s teachings on peace, reinforced by the immeasurable suffering caused by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan at the end of the Second World War. At the second Vatican Council, this position was endorsed by a large majority of the bishops present (cf. Gaudium et Spes 80-82). One of the arguments was that the arms race is not only destructive if it comes to an “emergency”, but is destructive in any case because the cost of the weapons is at the expense of the poor.
Approval of a limitation period for the doctrine of mutual deterrence
The 1980s saw an intensive ethical debate within the Church in the context of what was known as the NATO Double-Track Decision. Pope John Paul II warned forcefully that in view of the “refined” weapons systems, it was absolutely clear that modern warfare no longer presented a feasible means of resolving conflicts between nation states. Given the arsenal of nuclear weapons held by what were then the two major world powers, the USA and the USSR, an “emergency ethic” was put forward by several bishops’ conferences: the strategy of mutual deterrence could only be sanctioned as morally responsible for a transitional period subject to the proviso that proposals for specific disarmament measures between the states are put forward and implemented.
A significant step in this direction has been taken recently. At the United Nations conference on 7 July 2017, the 124 participating Member States adopted by an overwhelming majority the “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons”, which goes substantially further than the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970. The treaty prohibits the development, testing, acquisition, stockpiling, transport, deployment and use of nuclear weapons. The nuclear powers and the other NATO states, with the exception of the Netherlands, did not take part in the negotiations and are boycotting the Treaty.
The transitional period has expired
However, the Treaty has found a committed advocate and driving force in Pope Francis. He has made every effort to support its introduction and ensured that the Holy See was among the first signatories. This is a topic close to the Pope’s heart, as demonstrated by the organisation by the Vatican’s “Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development” of a high-calibre symposium in Rome in November 2017 on “Prospects for a world free from nuclear weapons and for integral disarmament”. In his Address to the participants of this symposium, Pope Francis went well beyond what had hitherto been the Church’s official position: it was not only the use of nuclear weapons, but also the threat of using them and their possession that should be firmly condemned. The Pope declared that the transitional period for the limited moral approval of the doctrine of nuclear deterrent, as expressed in the aforementioned pastoral letters from the early 1980s, had expired.
Emeritus Professor for Practical Theology and member of peace movement Pax Christi
Translated from the original text in German
The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.