On Friday Nov 10, Pope Francis denounced the possession of nuclear weapons, in what appears to be a departure from the Roman Catholic Church’s position of conditional (and temporary) acceptance of nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction.
In a presentation to participants in a high-profile Vatican conference on nuclear disarmament, including representatives of Abolition 2000 member-organisations and affiliated networks, Pope Francis said that ‘humanity cannot fail to be genuinely concerned by the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental effects of any employment of nuclear devices. If we also take into account the risk of an accidental detonation as a result of error of any kind, the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.”
‘Pope Francis is taking a pro-active approach toward nuclear disarmament which is to be commended, celebrated and supported’ says Alyn Ware, Co-convener of the Abolition 2000 Interfaith working group and a participant in the conference. ‘This should give encouragement to people of all faiths – and also non-religious people – to feel new hope and to be inspired to act for nuclear abolition.’
Pope Francis did not directly criticize world leaders such as U.S. President Donald Trump, who has openly threatened nuclear war with North Korea over that country’s continuing development of nuclear arms. However, he remarked that “International relations cannot be held captive to military force, mutual intimidation, and the parading of stockpiles of arms. Weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, create nothing but a false sense of security. They cannot constitute the basis for peaceful coexistence between members of the human family.”
While previous popes have strongly called for the abolition of nuclear weapons, in general they also granted conditional moral acceptance to the system of nuclear deterrence. Pope John Paul II, for example, said in a message to the U.N. in June 1982 that the system of deterrence could be judged “morally acceptable” as “a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament.”
The exception was Pope Benedict XVI who also condemned the possession of nuclear weapons. ‘One can only encourage the efforts of the international community to ensure progressive disarmament and a world free of nuclear weapons, whose presence alone threatens the life of the planet and the ongoing integral development of the present generation and of generations yet to come’
Pope Benedict XVI. Cited in the Nuclear Disarmament Resource Guide for Religious Leaders and Communities
Jonathan Granoff, President of the Global Security Institute, proposed that Pope Francis turn his condemnation of nuclear weapons into church doctrine by including this in a papal encyclical. The encyclical Pacem in Terris released by Pope John XXIII, accepts nuclear weapons as a deterrent. The encyclical Laudato si, released by Pope Francis in 2015, notes the risks of nuclear weapons but does not condemn possession outright.
“The church should be saying the ethic of nuclear deterrence is not morally warranted any longer,” said San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, who also serves as a member of the U.S. bishops’ committee on international justice and peace. McElroy pointed to the fact that the conditional acceptance of deterrence was given with the understanding that the nations of the world would gradually move to disarm.
The Vatican conference, brought together Nobel Peace laureates, government representatives, religious leaders, United Nations officials, academics, and non-governmental representatives.This included leaders from ICAN, which is the 2017 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for their actions to promote and achieve the treaty.
Cardinal Peter Turkson, the head of the Vatican dicastery, said that the participants at the event had gathered “for a very candid conversation about how to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons. This conversation is urgently needed, given the current tensions among nuclear weapons states and given the tensions between nuclear weapons states and states seeking to become nuclear weapons states.”
The new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was a key topic at the conference. Many of the participants commended the Vatican for being one of the three signatories that have already ratified the agreement. However, it was also recognised that none of the nuclear powers and no NATO members have signed on to the measure.
Mexican Ambassador Jorge Lomonaco, one of the leaders of the initiative to achieve the treaty, said that the treaty was one of the ‘jigsaw pieces of the framework required to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world.’ He noted that this is a contribution that non-nuclear States have made. He urged everyone to move beyond divisions about the treaty – to end the debate on whether one supports it or not – and work now on the other pieces of the jigsaw, especially those pieces requiring action by the nuclear-armed and allied states.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, told the conference their considerations were taking place during a “decidedly disheartening state of affairs” across the world.
‘In such a fractious and uncertain world there are many voices that contend the time is not ripe for disarmament and that weapons provide security. There is an insinuation that disarmament is a utopian dream,’ said UN High Representative Izumi Nakamitsu. ‘However, I believe that quite the opposite is true. In a fractious and uncertain world, more than ever we need disarmament as a diplomatic key to unlock the door to peaceful solutions.’
Cardinal Parolin noted that 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum progressio, which proposed that the world’s governments set aside a portion of their military spending for a global fund to relieve the needs of impoverished peoples. Paraphrasing the encyclical, Parolin stated: “Is it not plain to everyone that such a fund would reduce a need for those other expenditures that are motivated by fear [or] stubborn pride? Countless millions are starving. We cannot approve a debilitating arms race.”
“Nuclear armament is never an appropriate policy to achieve a long-term basis for peace,” said Cardinal Turkson. “And true security is not found in the size of our military or the number of weapons we possess, but when every human need for food, for housing, for healthcare, for employment and dignity is met — that’s when we begin to fashion peace.”
A number of Abolition 2000 member-organisations are active in the Move the Nuclear Weapons Campaign which acts to cut nuclear weapons budgets and re-direct these resources for social, environmental and economic needs. This includes actions in legislatures of the nuclear-armed States to slash nuclear weapons budgets. It also includes actions that can be taken by governments, cities, churches, universities, banks and others to end investments in corporations manufacturing nuclear weapons See Abolition 2000 working group on Economic Dimensions of Nuclearism.