by Marie Dennis
Pax Christi International Co-President
In November 2017 during a private audience with participants in a Vatican symposium on nuclear disarmament, Pope Francis definitively condemned the “very possession” of nuclear weapons. Panelists during the Vatican conference, which brought together members of the Catholic hierarchy, diplomats, politicians, civil society leaders, religious communities, students, theologians, and other Catholic leaders, repeatedly called for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen said it clearly: “We should cease to imagine nuclear weapons as tools for us to manage, but rather as a curse we must banish.”
Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, captured the determined atmosphere of the gathering. Humans, she said, “harnessed the power of science to build these weapons; we have harnessed the power of faith to stop them.”
But does the opinion of the Catholic Church—even of Pope Francis—have any impact on public opinion or shift attitudes among world leaders toward nuclear disarmament?
Those already concerned about a growing threat from continued reliance on and proliferation of nuclear weapons paid very close attention to Pope Francis’ definitive statement in November 2017. They had done the same in December 2014 when the Holy See shifted from a strictly conditioned moral acceptance of nuclear deterrence toward the outright condemnation of nuclear weapons in its important contribution, “Nuclear Disarmament: Time for Abolition,” at the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons.
The Holy See subsequently played a very important role in negotiations for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Faith-based communities and other religious institutions did likewise during both the Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) and the ban treaty negotiations. They observed the negotiations, made interventions, held side events and prayer vigils, met with government delegations, sent messages to their governments encouraging them to participate, and educated the public about the importance of the treaty. On September 20, 2017 the Holy See was one of the first states to sign and ratify the treaty, and religious groups have remained central to getting 60 countries (thus far) to sign and 14 to ratify…