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What Are the Implications of the “Very Possession” of Nuclear Weapons Being “Firmly Condemned”?

What Are the Implications of the “Very Possession” of Nuclear Weapons Being “Firmly Condemned”?


By Tobias Winright


On November 10-11, 2017, I attended an international symposium on “Prospects for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament” at Vatican City. Sponsored by the the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and hosted by the its prefect, Cardinal Peter Turkson, invited attendees and participants included UN and NATO officials, 11 Nobel Peace Prize laureates, activists, and academic experts. It was the first major international gathering on disarmament following the UN’s “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons” from earlier in July that calls for the total elimination of these weapons of mass and long-term destruction. 

Several theological ethicists were also present. From the US, in addition to myself, theological ethicists included Georgetown University’s Drew Christiansen, SJ, who was one of the presenters, as well as Laurie Johnston of Emmanuel College, Margie Pfeil of the University of Notre Dame, and James Patrick O’Sullivan of St. Joseph’s University. Some of us have been working together in recent years as part of the Project on Revitalizing Catholic Engagement on Nuclear Disarmament that “is helping to empower a new group of Catholic bishops, ethicists, and young professionals to contribute to the current ethical and policy debate on nuclear disarmament, particularly in the United States.” The Project is co-sponsored by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, in collaboration with: the Office of International Justice and Peace, US Conference of Catholic Bishops; the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Georgetown University; and Boston College; with support from The Nuclear Threat Initiative. We have met at Stanford University, at the USCCB headquarters in Washington, DC, and at the House of Lords and the University of Notre Dame’s campus in London. San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy has also been a regular participant, and he too gave a presentation at the Vatican meeting.


A highlight of the symposium was an audience in Clementine Hall with Pope Francis, during which he stated:

“Nor can we 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.  For they exist in the service of a mentality of fear that affects not only the parties in conflict but the entire human race.  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, which must rather be inspired by an ethics of solidarity (cf. Message to the United Nations Conference to Negotiate a Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, 27 March 2017).  Essential in this regard is the witness given by the Hibakusha, the survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, together with other victims of nuclear arms testing.  May their prophetic voice serve as a warning, above all for coming generations!”

Indeed, a Hibakusha was one of the speakers during the symposium, and she was the only one to receive a standing ovation afterwards by everyone in the auditorium.

But Pope Francis’s bold remark about nuclear weapons also attracted our attention, specifically: “the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.” As I noted in a short piece at Sojourners , this reflects a development in Francis’s position on nuclear weapons “compared to his predecessors.” 

Previous popes, from John XXIII to Benedict XVI, criticized nuclear weapons, but the possession of nuclear weapons as deterrence was conditionally accepted as an interim ethic by Pope John Paul II, who said in a message to the UN in June 1982 that the system of deterrence could be regarded as “morally acceptable” as “a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament.”

As Bishop McElroy interpreted Pope Francis’s position now, however: “Deterrence was accepted in a specific set of conditions; namely, that the nations of the world, individually and together, would be moving toward disarmament. That has not happened.” McElroy added, “The condition under which there was a limited acceptance … those conditions have evaporated.”

Prior hints of this development surfaced in December 2014 when Pope Francis questioned deterrence. As Archbishop Silvio Tomasi, who at the time represented the Holy See at the UN (and who also participated in the gathering on Nov 10-11), explained, “…the use of deterrence was accepted as a condition for avoiding worst results, but not as a value in itself.” Tomasi added that not only the use but also “the possession” of nuclear weapons “is not at all acceptable.” 

It is therefore urgent that Catholic theological ethicists around the world reexamine the question of nuclear weapons. Given the current situation with North Korea, wherein US Defense Secretary, and former Army general, H. R. McMaster has said that the international community now faces “what might be our last best chance to avoid military conflict,” we need to address this issue with the energy and rigor that our teachers and colleagues employed — with significant effect — during the 1980s. One of the areas that now needs attention, for instance, is what the implications of Pope Francis’s remarks are for Catholics — especially those who serve in the military, or those, like me, who pay taxes in countries possessing nuclear weapons. Indeed, this was a topic of much discussion among us theologians, bishops, and clergy during breaks and meals at the symposium. The traditional framework for moral reasoning having to do with the cooperation with evil, I think, is highly relevant here, as I began to suggest at Sojourners. How can Catholics who live in the US, the UK, and other nations with nuclear weapons serve in their military without formally or immediately-materially cooperating with evil, either of which are morally illicit? 

Another important thing to note from the symposium and from Pope Francis’s statement is the connection with “integral development.” The end of the symposium’s title provides a clue about what I have in mind here, “integral disarmament.” As Pope Francis noted, it is the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio, which “set forth the notion of integral human development and proposed it as ‘the new name of peace'” (no. 14). In his closing remarks to the symposium, Stephen M. Colecchi observed, “Integral disarmament and integral development are connected.” He especially loved an insight another attendee shared, namely, that a “world without nuclear weapons is not the present world minus nuclear weapons.” To me, this echoes Gaudium et spes‘s “Peace is not merely the absence of war; nor can it be reduced solely to the maintenance of a balance of power between enemies;… Instead, it is rightly and appropriately called an enterprise of justice.” Indeed, I think a better, more positive way of naming “integral disarmament” would be “integral peacemaking” as I proposed a year ago or, as I have more recently suggested in connection with Pope Francis’s call for “integral ecology” in  Laudato Si’, “integral peacebuilding” in a new book edited by Daniel DiLeo on the encyclical. Perhaps a new moral framework for Catholic teaching on war and peace, which another gathering held at the Vatican called for in April 2016 , should integrate the best insights and practices of nonviolence and just war theory under such an “integral peacemaking” umbrella, thereby developing further Vatican II’s call for us to “undertake an evaluation of war with an entirely new attitude” (Gaudium et spes, no. 80). 

As we Catholic theological ethicists prepare to convene together in Sarajevo, where war and peace comes immediately to mind, I look forward to seeing contributions from my colleagues from all around the world on these urgent matters.