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Updated: Feb 18, 2020

Pope Francis this week delivered his annual “state of the world” talk to the diplomatic corps at the Vatican. It was one of his more far-ranging speeches, and his comments touched on several topics of particular interest to the United States:

— North Korea. The pope repeated his call to settle any international disputes by negotiation and agreement, not by recourse to arms, and added:

"In this regard, it is of paramount importance to support every effort at dialogue on the Korean peninsula, in order to find new ways of overcoming the current disputes, increasing mutual trust and ensuring a peaceful future for the Korean people and the entire world."

— War and peace. More generally, the pope endorsed the church’s longstanding position that peace is not built through fear and intimidation, but through a dialogue in which “nations can discuss matters on equal terms.” A corollary, he said, is that multilateral diplomacy (i.e., engaging the international community) should have a key role in disputes between two countries.

— Weapons production and sales. The pope denounced the weapons industry and said the proliferation of arms has made modern conflicts more deadly. Citing Pope John XXIII's encyclical Pacem in Terris, he reiterated the Vatican’s full support for a ban on nuclear weapons:

"The stockpiles of armaments which have been built up in various countries must be reduced all round and simultaneously by the parties concerned. Nuclear weapons must be banned. Indeed, even if it is difficult to believe that anyone would dare to assume responsibility for initiating the appalling slaughter and destruction that war would bring in its wake, there is no denying that the conflagration could be started by some chance and unforeseen circumstance.”

— Jerusalem. The pope called for respect of the status quo for Jerusalem, which puts him at odds with the Trump administration and its recent recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. The pope noted that the Vatican position is in conformity with United Nations resolutions. On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the pope added: “Seventy years of confrontation make more urgent than ever the need for a political solution that allows the presence in the region of two independent states within internationally recognized borders.”

— Climate change. Once again, Pope Francis stated unequivocally that the global rise in temperatures and their “devastating effects” are a consequence of human activity. He called for nations to respect the 2015 Paris agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Trump administration has announced it will withdraw from the agreement.

— Globalization. The pope in this speech focused on two worrisome aspects of globalization. One was economic:

"On the one hand, we note an inequitable distribution of the work opportunities, while on the other, a tendency to demand of laborers an ever more pressing pace. The demands of profit, dictated by globalization, have led to a progressive reduction of times and days of rest, with the result that a fundamental dimension of life has been lost – that of rest – which serves to regenerate persons not only physically but also spiritually."

The pope’s other concern was about a form of colonization by the world’s richer nations, particularly in areas where “debatable notions” of human rights have been advanced that are at odds with the culture of many countries”:

"(These countries) feel that they are not respected in their social and cultural traditions, and instead neglected with regard to the real needs they have to face. Somewhat paradoxically, there is a risk that, in the very name of human rights, we will see the rise of modern forms of ideological colonization by the stronger and the wealthier, to the detriment of the poorer and the most vulnerable."

The full text of the pope's speech is available here.

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

As 2017 drew to a close, the potential for nuclear destruction was clearly on the mind of Pope Francis.

During the Christmas season, the Vatican circulated a card reproducing a dramatic photo from the aftermath of the U.S. bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. Taken by Marine photographer Joseph O’Donnell, it showed a boy carrying his dead brother on his back as he waited in line at a crematorium.

On the reverse of the card is the phrase “The fruits of war” and the pope’s signature.

The image reflected a deep concern that the pope has expressed on numerous occasions since his election in 2013: that nuclear deterrence, once seen as a necessary evil, may in fact be a path to global disaster.

In November, addressing a Vatican-sponsored symposium on disarmament, the pope condemned not only the use or threatened use of nuclear weapons, but also their possession:

"Nor can we fail to be genuinely concerned by the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental effects of any employment of nuclear devices. If we also take into account the risk of an accidental detonation as a result of error of any kind, the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned. For they exist in the service of a mentality of fear that affects not only the parties in conflict but the entire human race. International relations cannot be held captive to military force, mutual intimidation, and the parading of stockpiles of arms. Weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, create nothing but a false sense of security. They cannot constitute the basis for peaceful coexistence between members of the human family, which must rather be inspired by an ethics of solidarity."

This was a significant development in the church’s position on nuclear weapons. Reporters asked the pope about it in early December, and while characterizing it as his “opinion” and not a change in official church teaching, Francis said nuclear deterrence was “at the limit of what’s licit”:

"In 34 years, nuclear [development] has gone further and further and further. Today we are at the limit. This can be argued; it is my opinion, but my staunch opinion: I am convinced of it. We are the limit of what’s licit in regard to having and using nuclear weapons. Why? Because today, with so sophisticated a nuclear arsenal, we risk the destruction of humanity, or at least of a large part of humanity. For this reason I refer to Laudato Si’. What has changed? This. The development of nuclear weaponry. What has also changed…. They are sophisticated and also cruel [weaponry]; they are also capable of destroying people without touching the structures…. We are at the limit, and since we are, I ask myself this question – not as papal Magisterium, but it is the question a Pope asks – today is it licit to maintain nuclear arsenals, as they are, or today, to save creation, to save humanity, is it not necessary to go back? … We are reaching a point at which man has in hand, with this culture, the capacity to create another form of lack of culture: let’s think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And this was 60, 70 years ago. Destruction. And this also happens with atomic energy when we aren’t able to have complete control: think about the incidents in Ukraine. For this, getting back to weapons, which are to win by destroying, I say that we are at the limit of what’s licit."

This is not an issue that will go away soon, and it’s one that raises an implicit challenge in U.S.-Vatican relations – particularly with a U.S. president who has said he wants a big increase in the country’s nuclear arsenal.

It was Pope Francis who, when addressing the United Nations in 2015, called on nations to work for a “complete prohibition” on nuclear weapons, a line that drew applause and was quickly forgotten.

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