On nuclear weapons, Pope Francis goes beyond all previous papal teaching

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 13, 2017

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.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: fwhermann3492 - Nov. 16, 2017 7:23 PM ET USA

    As I understand it, there are hypothetical, albeit unlikely, uses for nuclear weapons other than for war--for example, deflecting an earth-bound asteroid. Again, highly unlikely but still within the realm of possibility.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Nov. 15, 2017 12:28 AM ET USA

    Pope Francis has his hands full trying to run the church, an area where he is supposed to have some competence. However, international defense in the nuclear age is not an area where he has any more competence than most of us and he has less competence than many people in the international arena.

  • Posted by: 1Jn416 - Nov. 14, 2017 8:05 PM ET USA

    Nuclear weapons are dangerous: Older weapon designs could detonate in an accident or if stolen by terrorists; unstable nuclear states could attack; we've nearly had at least 3 accidental world-ending wars with Russia. They are also stabilizing. No nuclear state has ever attacked another in a conventional war. The stakes are too high. It is not hyperbole to say nuclear weapons prevented WW3 to this point. Pakistan and India are at peace, and Israel and its neighbors. This issue is complicated.

  • Posted by: grateful1 - Nov. 14, 2017 7:46 PM ET USA

    Pope Francis is no doubt a profoundly holy man. But he would be an even holier one if he humbly resisted the temptation to pontificate (I use that word advisedly) on matters political, economic, and scientific -- about which he is profoundly ignorant.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Nov. 14, 2017 12:56 PM ET USA

    It's O.K.. He will be ignored. We're safe. Except just maybe from North Korea.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 14, 2017 12:55 PM ET USA

    As an SDI scientist, my position on having and using the best tools of self-defense possible seems at odds with some of Pope Francis' views on the priority of human life under the circumstances of war. However, my larger concern right now is his notion of "the development of human rights." What does it mean to "develop" human rights? Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution _recognize_ human rights as transcendent to any human authority, as does the Church. How do you improve upon God?

  • Posted by: garedawg - Nov. 14, 2017 1:04 AM ET USA

    So if using nukes is a sin, does fooling your enemy into thinking that you might commit the above-mentioned sin also constitute a sin? That's a tough one.

  • Posted by: feedback - Nov. 14, 2017 12:20 AM ET USA

    I could never grasp the logic behind "Gun Free Zone" signs on church buildings. No one has the right to attack, but everyone has the right to defend himself and his family, and yet those signs attempt to equally restrict the potential attackers and the attacked victims. Given the fact that no slogan was ever able to deter armed evildoers, and good people are most likely to obey signs on a church, they only make church congregations more vulnerable. The same is true on a large, national scale.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Nov. 13, 2017 7:02 PM ET USA

    It would have made sense for the leader of the Catholic Church to call upon Catholics to pray for God's help in putting the nuclear genie back into the bottle. Did Francis do this? I have not heard. Has the Church forgotten how to plead for God's help or do we no longer think that God will help us? Considering how the Bishops seem to lean towards political help versus Divine it appears that our leadership is losing or has lost the faith. God help us!