Throughout his 10-year pontificate, Pope Francis has made headlines on topics ranging from immigration to sexual abuse to the risks of modern technology. But one issue that has mostly flown under the media radar is the pope’s shift in church teaching on nuclear weapons.
In a nutshell, this pope has moved beyond the church’s provisional acceptance of nuclear deterrence as a morally acceptable strategy. Instead, he has repeatedly condemned the possession itself of nuclear weapons as immoral – perhaps most notably at a 2017 conference on nuclear disarmament, but on many occasions since then.
In a message last year, he summarized the church’s position:
Nuclear weapons are a costly and dangerous liability. They represent a “risk multiplier” that provides only an illusion of a “peace of sorts”. Here, I wish to reaffirm that the use of nuclear weapons, as well as their mere possession, is immoral. Trying to defend and ensure stability and peace through a false sense of security and a “balance of terror”, sustained by a mentality of fear and mistrust inevitably ends up poisoning relationships between peoples and obstructing any possible form of real dialogue. Possession leads easily to threats of their use, becoming a sort of “blackmail” that should be repugnant to the consciences of humanity.
Against the backdrop of the Ukraine-Russia war, these words garnered some attention in the global press. For the most part, however, the church’s changing position on nuclear disarmament has been ignored, both by governments and the media.
With this week’s commemoration of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Santa Fe Archbishop John Wester and Seattle Archbishop Paul Etienne are making a “pilgrimage of peace” to Japan, hoping to raise the issue of disarmament in light of the pope’s recent statements.
As Archbishop Wester said in a recent interview with National Catholic Reporter, it’s important for people to realize that nuclear deterrence is not an effective strategy, but a “dangerous game.”
Clearly the church is moving away from the position, expressed by Pope John Paul II in 1982, that nuclear deterrence is morally acceptable “not as an end in itself, but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament.” At that time, John Paul described this teaching as an “interim ethic.” Forty years later, as more nations are developing such weapons and major powers are upgrading theirs, it appears the interim is over. The church’s experts now view the strategy of nuclear “balance” as a major impediment to real disarmament.