In December 2014, Pope Francis sent an important message to the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons: “I am convinced that the desire for peace and fraternity planted deep in the human heart will bear fruit in concrete ways to ensure that nuclear weapons are banned once and for all, to the benefit of our common home.”
For most of the past 70 years, any discussion about the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons was subordinated to the debate about national security and deterrence. Yet it is precisely there—before the disastrous human and ecological effects of these weapons—that the Catholic Church and most faith communities engage.
The Catholic Church is a local Church that has already seen the impact of nuclear weapons on humans and the earth—in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; in communities where uranium miners and downwinders live; in impoverished communities, where, as Pope Francis said, people “pay the price” when resources are squandered on nuclear weapons.
The Church has a long track record of working to end the nuclear nightmare, has supported every effort toward nuclear disarmament, and is party to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. During the Cold War, Church teaching, articulated by the U.S. bishops in The Challenge of Peace (1983), rejected first use of nuclear weapons and, with the 1993 Harvest of Justice statement, rejected any use of nuclear weapons. The Church’s strictly conditioned moral acceptance of nuclear deterrence depended on deterrence being an interim policy only, with the sole purpose of preventing the use of nuclear weapons, on the way to nuclear disarmament. In 1998, 75 U.S. Catholic bishops, members of Pax Christi USA, condemned the U.S. policy of nuclear deterrence, on the grounds that the condition of progress towards nuclear disarmament had not been met.
During the 2014 Vienna Conference, the Holy See contributed a ground-breaking paper, "Nuclear Disarmament: Time for Abolition," which presents a compelling argument to move beyond limits set by political realism: “Now is the time to affirm not only the immorality of the use of nuclear weapons, but the immorality of their possession, thereby clearing the road to nuclear abolition.”
The Holy See’s message to the conference communicated a development in what had been the Church’s strictly conditioned moral acceptance of nuclear deterrence. Gerard Powers suggests that rather than completely abandoning its strictly conditioned acceptance of deterrence, the Church has condemned the “particular structure of nuclear deterrence as it exists today.” But given the failure of real progress toward nuclear disarmament and the planned modernization of nuclear arsenals, many understand the Church’s position as a major step forward.
Archbishop Auza, representative of the Holy See at the UN in New York, reiterated the Vatican’s position during the Disarmament Committee’s October 2016 debate on nuclear disarmament: “The so-called doctrine of nuclear deterrence has made nuclear disarmament more difficult, and raises the possibility of the actual intentional or accidental deployment of nuclear weapons.” He supported the recommendation of the Open-Ended Working Group for a UN conference in 2017 “to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.”
The Catholic Church and other communities of faith bring to the effort for nuclear disarmament a values-based way of life rooted in respect for the dignity of every person and the integrity of the natural world. These values are very well articulated in Catholic social teaching and provide critical moral guidance in the delicate international arena attempting to navigate the dangerous struggle over power, prestige, sovereignty, and national security that characterizes the debate over nuclear weapons.
In addition to its observer status at the United Nations and diplomatic relations with most countries, the Church also brings a large global network of members connected through a variety of structures and organizations. The moral authority of the Catholic Church gives it the space and an obligation to help resolve the deeply unjust and dangerous reality that nuclear weapons create.
The role of the Church in moral discernment and education about nuclear disarmament takes place at a national level too. The humanitarian impact debate is forcing states to re-think the role for nuclear weapons in their national security strategies, whether or not they now possess nuclear weapons. That points directly to the deep questions the Church is asking: What kind of people are we of the twenty-first century? What values shape our political priorities, and what do they say about our concern for future generations?