by Rev. Paul Lansu
Pax Christi International Senior Policy Advisor
The continued existence of over 14.575 nuclear weapons[i] held by a handful of countries is one of the greatest moral challenges of our time. The Catholic Church has taken critical positions right from the beginning in 1943 questioning the possible violent use of nuclear energy. In the midst of the Cold War (1982), the Holy See has taken the position of a conditional acceptance of nuclear deterrence. The current Church teaching since 2014 is condemning the possession and threat to use nuclear weapons. Nuclear deterrence has been classified as illegal and immoral. This latest has always been the position of Pax Christi International.
This reflection on nuclear disarmament is written in the context of Pope Francis planning a pastoral visit to Japan in November 2019, becoming the first pontiff to do so since John Paul II nearly 40 years ago. Pax Christi International is having its World Assembly in Hiroshima, Japan, in May 2020. A major focus of this Assembly will be on nuclear disarmament.
Catholic Social Teaching as a framework
Catholic social thinking (CST) provides a critical framework from where to search values and norms and to contribute to justice, peace and care for the Creation. The Churches have always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and interpreting them in light of the Gospel. The social ideas of the Church, which have developed over decades, offer an almost inexhaustible richness of points of reference for peace work. Especially concerning the four most prominent (international) areas of attention: peace/security, human rights, development and environment. Within the broader political framework, international law and especially international humanitarian law are applicable.
A persistent task in the constant peace work of Pax Christi International is the goal of complete nuclear disarmament or global zero. Our world has been confronted with the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 and since then the arms race in nuclear weapons, with ups and downs, did not stop. For nuclear weapon states, modernizing their arsenal is now a priority.
Pax Christi International and especially its national sections have been acting in the framework of the worldwide nuclear disarmament movement. Advocacy and campaigning has been done, mostly within national and international coalitions, towards the national political authorities and the international governmental organisations not at least the United Nations – but at the same time towards the Holy See or the Vatican which is also a sovereign state, one of the 193 states today. The Vatican has a diplomatic presence in most of the countries and apostolic missions at the multilateral organisations.[ii] That means that the thinking of the Holy See is also formulated in the context of international (humanitarian) law. The Holy See has been warning of the increasing dangers to humanity posed by nuclear weapons. Pax Christi International has been monitoring and influencing the thinking or teaching of the Holy See on nuclear weapons over the past decades.
Papal peace witnesses
Contemporary popes have continuously upheld the importance of collective responsibility as an essential part of the equation for establishing a world free from nuclear weapons. The concern for peace and disarmament entered into the social teaching.
Since World War II, all the Popes have consistently called for the abolition of these evil instruments of warfare that create both a false sense of security and foster distrust and disharmony. Papal peace witnesses support a world free from nuclear weapons. The contributions of all contemporary popes have been focusing on the moral evils manifest in nuclear weapons when directing their efforts to rid the world of these human-generated existential threats.
Based on scientific findings the Holy See urged the banning of the testing and deployment of nuclear weapons already in the 50’s. All weapons of mass destruction in the context of possible ABC warfare (atomic, bacteriological and chemical warfare) has been condemned. The Vatican advocated for international treaties to ban ABC weapons.
The Magna Carta of Pax Christi International is the 11 April 1963 Encyclical Letter Pacem in Terris or Peace on Earth,[iii] a few months after the Cuba Crisis of October 1962[iv]. This was the first encyclical addressed to all people of good will. Pope John XXIII called for the banning of nuclear weapons and mentioned several reasons why to do so: (1) the problematic possibility of accidental deployment; (2) the cost of arms racing while poverty exists in the world; (3) a condemnation of what is characterised as the misplaced notion that any balance of power in armaments could bring positive peace inclusive as a plausible justification for acquiring atomic weapons; and (4) the climate of fear created by nuclear weapons. Encyclicals are the most authoritative forms of teaching given by the Bishop of Rome.
The complete elimination of nuclear weapons is mentioned In Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Modern World of 7 December 1965[v]. The nuclear arms race is an utterly treacherous trap for humanity and one that injures the poor to an intolerable degree. Indeed, the immense resources spent on nuclear weapons could be devoted to the implementation and achievement of what we call today the “Sustainable Development Goals,”[vi] especially the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, which are basic factors of instability in our world.
Pope Paul VI wrote the encyclical Populorum Progressio on 26 March 1967,[vii] which addressed the urgent need for integral human development as a response to both direct and structural violence. He urged governments to work for an end to all weapons of mass destruction.
Limits of nuclear deterrence
During the Cold War, the Holy See gave limited acquiescence to the military strategy of nuclear deterrence on the strict condition that it would lead to disarmament measures. In a Message addressed to the General Assembly of the United Nations 7 June 1982,[viii] Pope John II saw nuclear deterrence as very limited in time and it should lead to nuclear disarmament, which not happened. Major powers have instead persisted in their reliance on nuclear deterrence and begun the modernization of their nuclear arsenals.
During the Cold War, most of the Pax Christi sections worked hard to approach their national bishops’ conferences, which resulted in pastoral letters from the bishops on war and peace, especially on nuclear disarmament. Nuclear disarmament was at the top of most politicians’ agenda and the international peace movement including Pax Christi International were able to mobilize large sections of the population in favour of disarmament. That period is in stark contrast to today’s day where many young people are of the opinion that a nuclear weapon must be part of their furniture!
Pope John Paul II mentioned on several occasions the importance of non-proliferation of nuclear arms and a complete ban on nuclear testing via effective and binding international agreements. The Non-Proliferation Treaty[ix] will soon be fifty years old, and no comprehensive negotiations for nuclear disarmament have ever taken place. It is the opposite, some Nuclear-Weapons States are modernisation their nuclear weapons.
Pope Benedict XVI situated an imperative for nuclear disarmament within the framework of a socio-ecological duty to care for the planet.[x] All efforts should be encouraged to ensure progressive disarmament and a world free of nuclear weapons, whose presence alone threatens the life of the planet and the ongoing integral development of the present generation and of generations yet to come. In his first World Day for Peace Message Benedict stated, that in a nuclear war there would be no victors, only victims.[xi]
Pax Christi International was present at the Third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Vienna, 7 – 9 December 2014. The Holy See takes on a leading role in abolishing nuclear weapons by focussing on the humanitarian consequences of weapons of mass destruction. In his message, Pope Francis questioned the doctrine of nuclear deterrence that was developed during the Cold War: “Nuclear deterrence and the threat of mutually assured destruction cannot be the basis for an ethics of fraternity and peaceful coexistence among peoples and states.”[xii] The Holy See affirmed the immorality of the use of nuclear weapons as well as the immorality of their possession, thereby clearing the road to nuclear abolition. Pope Francis repeated in many of his message the condemnation of nuclear deterrence.
Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
Thanks to the efforts of the Holy See, a significant number of non-nuclear states, diplomats and civil society groups were able to produce under the auspices of the United Nations the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons adopted at the UN Headquarters on 7 July 2017 [xiii]. The Treaty prohibits the use, threat of use, development, testing, production, manufacturing, and possession of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons have no legitimate role in politics. A major role has been played by ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) in which Pax Christi International and several of its national sections have been co-operating intensively.
Delegates of Pax Christi International have been present at the International Symposium on the Prospects for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament in the Vatican, November 2017. Pope Francis made clear at the Symposium that nuclear escalation is morally unacceptable. The Holy Father voiced concern over the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental effects of nuclear weapons use. The threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned [xiv].
Pope Francis was the first pope to call for a ban on nuclear weapons that extends to their possession based upon their supposed values as deterrents. The teaching of Pope Francis is completely in line with the policies of Pax Christi International.
Action is needed
The time has come to embrace the abolition of nuclear weapons as an essential foundation of collective security. A major task still to be done is encouraging all Governments of States who adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons to sign and ratify. Nuclear-Weapon States needs to end their production and modernisation programmes of increasingly sophisticated and destructive weapons. Billions are wasted each year to develop and maintain stocks that will supposedly never be used. Moreover, existing treaties such as the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF)[xv] have to be respected.
Pope Francis’ visit to Japan in November 2019 and the World Assembly of Pax Christi International in May 2020 in Hiroshima could be a renewed time for action. It is expected that Pope Francis in listening careful to the Hibakusha[xvi] and the victims of the nuclear bombings of 1945 and that he is pleading again strongly in favour of a complete ban of all nuclear weapons.
We need a worldwide dialogue, including both the nuclear and non-nuclear States and the burgeoning organizations that make up the civil society, to ensure that nuclear weapons are banned finally to the benefit of our common home. It is hoped that a renewed awareness can be created in which Churches, NGO’s, academia, think tanks, and popular movements can be committed to a world without nuclear weapons.
The role of Pax Christi International is vital to not let hope die, to not let cynicism and realpolitik take over. Pax Christi International believes that an ethic rooted in solidarity and peaceful coexistence is necessary for the future of humanity.