On nuclear weapons, Pope Francis goes beyond all previous papal teaching
Once again Pope Francis has ventured into new territory in Church teaching, with his November 10 November 10 condemnation of nuclear weapons. The Church has frequently lamented the existence of nuclear armaments, and Vatican II clearly condemned the use of any weapons that would destroy civilian population centers. Each successive Pontiff of the nuclear age has wholeheartedly endorsed the quest for disarmament. For 70 years, the leaders of the Catholic Church have pleaded for nuclear disarmament, decried the arms race, cautioned against the intentional targeting of civilians, and encouraged the exploration for new ways of ensuring peace. But until last week, Church leaders had stopped short of condemning the possession of nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons—like many other weapons, including a police official’s gun—are intended primarily for their deterrent effect. World leaders do not intend to launch their nuclear-tipped missiles. Indeed it is a salient fact that although thousands of nuclear devices have been developed in my lifetime, not one has been used in combat. Many strategists agree that nuclear deterrence, problematical though it may be, prevented the outbreak of a massive global conflict during the Cold War, and if that is true, it is no small achievement.
In their famous pastoral letter of 1983, The Challenge of Peace, the US bishops decried the arms race, but they did not demand immediate disarmament. They acknowledged, reluctantly, the difficulty of eliminating nuclear weapons—a difficulty born of the fact that if one side disarms, it is immediately at the mercy of its rival.
But Pope Francis took the decisive step in his address to participants in a conference on disarmament. He denied the value of nuclear deterrence, saying that the fearsome weapons “create nothing but a false sense of security.” He stated that “the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is firmly to be condemned.” [Emphasis added]
If the possession of nuclear weapons is “firmly to be condemned,” regardless of the circumstances, then is the Pope claiming a moral imperative for unilateral disarmament? If that is the Pope’s intent, it is a radical suggestion—or perhaps I should say a radical directive, since the Pontiff allowed no room for differences of opinion.
The Pope’s statement did not attract the worldwide attention that it might have deserved, perhaps because the world has grown accustomed to Vatican calls for disarmament. But there was something new in this papal address. This was not merely a call for a change of heart (although that was certainly included in the Pope’s speech); it was a clear and sweeping statement of policy.
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