Nuclear Disarmament and the Power of the Catholic Church

By: Joan Rohlfing

February 6, 2020

The Pope and the Bomb

For nearly 75 years, since the first and only use of nuclear weapons and through the decades of the Cold War and its aftermath, a strategy of deterrence has helped prevent nuclear war between the United States and Russia, the world’s nuclear superpowers. Premised on the belief that a nuclear attack could only be prevented by the threat of nuclear retaliation and that rational leaders would refrain from firing their weapons if doing so risked their own annihilation, deterrence theory was developed for a different and simpler world.

Today, in a world where nine countries have nuclear weapons, terrorist organizations are seeking weapons of mass destruction, nuclear facilities and command-and-control systems are vulnerable to cyberattacks, and the technology and know-how to build a bomb is spreading, the notion that deterrence will prevent nuclear catastrophe is unrealistic. The Catholic Church is right to reject this outdated strategy.

Imagine, in the midst of a crisis with Russia, if the president were to receive warning from our military that there were several hundred nuclear missiles inbound toward the United States and, under the severe time pressure of only minutes, decided to launch a retaliatory strike using U.S. nuclear weapons, only to learn a few minutes after launch, that our U.S. warning systems had been spoofed by a sophisticated cyberattack.

Despite the clear changes in the threat landscape since 1945, today’s political leaders have failed to develop new strategies for protecting humanity against today’s nuclear threats, as the Church encourages us to do. Instead, they continue to use nuclear deterrence doctrine to:

  • justify the need to reserve the right of first use of nuclear weapons; 
  • maintain a redundancy of nuclear forces in the form of a triad that includes nuclear bombers, submarines and land-based missiles;
  • keep weapons in a dangerous ready-to-launch posture;
  • and maintain enough weapons to ensure that a sustained nuclear war could be prosecuted.

These practices are escalating the risk of catastrophic nuclear use. As we mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the creation and only use of the bomb, it is time to reinvent the way we think about nuclear risks if we are to prevent the use of nuclear weapons for another 75 years. 

We need a new approach to nuclear strategy, one that doesn’t wager our collective future on the assumption that nuclear weapons operate in a system with rational players, perfect information, and infallible technology. We know the game-theory based deterrence model is flawed: Humans make mistakes, behave irrationally, and can receive faulty, misleading, or incomplete information; equipment fails; and terrorists aren’t deterred. New technologies, like cyber weapons and hypersonic delivery systems complicate the risk equation further.

Why has progress on nuclear strategy and disarmament been so difficult to achieve? Because nuclear deterrence is a deeply entrenched dogma within the institutions that are responsible for implementing it, and citizens have become largely divorced from nuclear issues and voiceless on this existential threat.

So, what can be done? We need to change our focus and work to build the political will for change. That must include building awareness of the threat and the terrible risks inherent in nuclear weapons and building a new set of ethical principles to guide the strategy of the future. Citizens and leaders must understand the unacceptable consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, instead of seeing them as artifacts of power and security. 

There’s evidence this can be done. As part of a recent public education campaign, the Nuclear Threat Initiative found through polling in key presidential primary states that once voters are made aware of the risks, they are eager to engage on reducing them. This polling found that 84% of voters say it is “essential” or “very important” for presidential candidates to have plans or policies to reduce the threats related to nuclear weapons. What’s more: The demand for candidates to address these threats cut across party lines with 87% of Democrats and 81% of Republicans saying they would respond more favorably toward a candidate who put a high priority on reducing nuclear threats. 

We can’t underestimate the challenge of turning our vision of a world free from nuclear threats into action, but the will is there if we can only draw it out and guide citizens on ways to make progress. That’s why I’m so encouraged by the passion and engagement of the Catholic Church, which I believe has a major capacity to shape the moral and the cultural conversation around nuclear weapons. 

Imagine if the Catholic Church truly leveraged its reach, power, and moral authority to help humanity reach its glorious potential and achieve justice for future generations. Imagine if the immorality of nuclear use and possession were woven into the fabric of parish-level teaching and prayers.

The Church has access to a huge reservoir of expertise to support parish initiatives. Expertise that does not exist in the hierarchy can be found readily in the pews, both within the Church itself through the expertise of its membership, as well as from civil society more broadly. A parish-level peacemaking initiative that works to embody the concept of integral disarmament and to advance peacemaking in the hearts and minds of every individual would drive us a huge step forward in creating the fundamental conditions needed for policy and political change.

The force of the Church has played such a strong and positive role in other areas, such as immigration and poverty, and we are all familiar with the great work of Catholic Relief Services around the world. 

What if the Church’s force could be brought to bear on nuclear disarmament? What might a Catholic Disarmament Service look like?

Opens in a new window