On November 10, Pope Francis issued an unequivocal condemnation of nuclear weapons during a two-day conference on nuclear disarmament hosted by the Vatican.
“Weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, create nothing but a false sense of security,” Pope Francis said. “They cannot constitute the basis for peaceful coexistence between members of the human family.” Moreover, the Pope went on to lament the “climate of instability and conflict” nuclear weapons create while also expressing disappointment that the global arms race continues in contravention of international law.
The Pope’s Position Not a Novelty
Unlike Francis’s recent remarks concerning the inherent immorality of capital punishment—remarks which appear to conflict with traditional Catholic teaching—his stance on nuclear weapons is in continuity with the magisterium. Following the introduction of nuclear weapons by the United States into modern warfare through its devastating attacks on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the Church was compelled to weigh-in on the matter.
“When the harm wrought by war is not comparable to that caused by tolerating injustice, we may be obliged to suffer injustice,” declared Pope Pius XII in his Address to the World Medical Association on October 19, 1953. In other words, Pius XII held that the human and natural damage wrought by a nuclear strike was out of proportion with any aggression whatsoever. Indeed, in response to the aforementioned nuclear bombings of Japanese civilians, Pius XII declared that “every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast inhabited areas is a crime against God and man.”
Post-Pian Papal Teachings
During the height of the Cold War and the advent of the arms race, the Church was forced to wrestle with the issue of nuclear deterrence. In 1982, Pope John Paul II observed:
in current conditions, a deterrence based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself, but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable."
That is to say, John Paul II envisioned a future period where deterrence would give way to disarmament. This deterrent-based position in no way altered Pius XII’s condemnation of nuclear weapons nor expressed any approval for the indiscriminate use of such weapons, particularly against civilians.
Indicating a shift to the stricter Pian position, Pope Benedict stated the following in 2006:
What can be said, too, about those governments which count on nuclear arms as a means of ensuring the security of their countries? Along with countless persons of good will, one can state that this point of view is not only baneful but also completely fallacious"
Where Do We Go from Here?
While it is admirable that Pope Francis has pledged the Church’s support for nuclear disarmament, clearly that is not enough. Multilateral and bilateral disarmament agreements have been in circulation for decades, but to little avail. Countries, including the United States, are still committed to maintaining significant nuclear stockpiles in the name of national security. At the same time states such as Iran and North Korea are also pursuing nuclear weapons of their own, thus further complicating this grave issue.
In a world which continues to distance itself from the indefectible teachings of the Catholic Church and refuses to recognize Christ’s social kingship, the chances of full nuclear disarmament at this point are slim. This is why Catholics must continue to make sacrifices and pray to Our Lord and Our Lady for the conversion of the nations once again to the True Faith and the sure moral guidance it provides.