The Church and Nuclear Disarmament in a Schizophrenic Time

By: Gerard Powers

February 6, 2020

The Pope and the Bomb

The world of nuclear policy is suffering from a severe case of schizophrenia. Massive nuclear modernization programs, arms control treaties abandoned, and heightened risk of nuclear use coincide with a new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, calls by prominent military and political figures for nuclear disarmament, and condemnations of nuclear deterrence by Pope Francis. The world faces the most dangerous and most hopeful nuclear predicament since at least the early 1980s.

Hopeful?! Are moral condemnations of deterrence, nuclear ban treaties, and growing calls for disarmament reasons for hope or just naïve, utopian, and thus largely irrelevant reactions to nuclear realities that are mostly immune to normative appeals? If the answer is to be “no,” the Catholic Church, in collaboration with a wide spectrum of state and civil society actors, will have to revitalize its engagement on nuclear disarmament. 

A short-term and urgent need is to mobilize the Catholic community around specific policy issues. Last week, as part of the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, some 600 social action leaders converged on Capitol Hill to urge action on renewing New START and reversing new nuclear modernization programs. If New START were allowed to expire in February 2021, they argued, there would be no legally binding, verifiable limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972. They also opposed the massive nuclear “modernization” program (possibly $1.5 trillion over 30 years), which includes upgrading all legs of the nuclear triad (including the just-confirmed deployment of the W76-2 low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile [SLBM] warhead, an unnecessary and destabilizing addition to the U.S. nuclear arsenal). 

Unfortunately, since the end of the Cold War, even informed and engaged Catholics aren’t aware of or involved in these and other urgent nuclear issues. Therefore, the Church’s policy advocacy will be effective only if it does much more to help democratize what is mostly an elite debate. One of the reasons the Holy See gave such strong support to the nuclear ban treaty was that the process was inclusive, involving states, international organizations, civil society actors, religious entities, and scholars. Recognizing the importance of civil society, the Holy See successfully pressed to include a provision on peace education alongside disarmament education in the treaty. The challenge for the Church is to unleash its potential for effective engagement, starting with education on nuclear and other peace issues in its vast network of schools, universities, parishes, and lay organizations. 

The Church’s advocacy on policy issues and educational efforts can help ensure that morality is not an uninvited guest at an exclusive party dominated by advocates of the nuclear status quo. The pope’s statements condemning nuclear deterrence are dramatic examples. Some have praised or criticized the pope for his “new” teaching on nuclear deterrence. My own view is that his statements do not represent a substantial departure from prior statements by the Holy See, as I have written elsewhere. Regardless of one’s view of the novelty of the pope’s position on deterrence, what is important is that the Church is seeking to contribute to a new paradigm. Its moral criticism of nuclear use and deterrence, its long-standing insistence that nuclear disarmament is a moral imperative, and its moral vision of a radically transformed world based on cooperative security are meant to delegitimize the nuclear status quo. This moral critique and vision matters. At least in democracies, nuclear policies cannot survive in the long term if major religious bodies and the general public lose faith in their ultimate moral legitimacy. 

That said, the moral imperative of nuclear disarmament and a moral vision of a transformed world will only be credible if grounded in quality ethical analysis that engages seriously security and policy challenges. Unfortunately, the policy debate on nuclear disarmament is now ahead of the moral debate. The moral vision is clear enough. But, at least in the Catholic world, we face two ethics gaps. The first involves the pastoral implications of the condemnation of deterrence. The second is the need to develop an ethic of nuclear disarmament that is as sophisticated as the ethic of nuclear use and deterrence developed during the Cold War. 

One aspect of addressing the second ethics gap is to define the relationship between deterrence and disarmament. Since the end of the Cold War, Church statements have focused on the moral imperative of nuclear disarmament, urging the world to move “beyond deterrence.” Clearly, moving beyond the existing system of deterrence is a moral imperative. But won’t some form of deterrence—and the moral conundrums associated with it—be needed to deter cheaters and/or break out as the world moves toward and achieves zero? Would a form of existential deterrence work, since the capacity to reconstitute a nuclear arsenal could deter other countries from doing so? [1] Will conventional weapons be sufficient to deter a nuclear breakout without starting a conventional arms race? Will these forms of deterrence have to be combined with a right of disarmament intervention comparable to obligations to intervene associated with the Responsibility to Protect? Will the Church have to reconsider its opposition to missile defense, especially if it were shared or under international supervision?

A second set of issues involve the relationship between nuclear disarmament, general disarmament, and a system of cooperative security. The Holy See tried to insert language in the nuclear ban treaty that linked nuclear disarmament and general disarmament. That link is part of the Church’s much larger cosmopolitan project of developing a global ethic of peace and solidarity that can ground a system of cooperative security. Linking nuclear disarmament to these much larger issues is not uncontroversial. It raises the question: How much of a transformation of the international system is needed for nuclear zero to become a reality? Is it a reformist agenda that builds on arms control regimes that have been proven effective? Is it a transformation as unimaginable as the end of the Cold War—which did not deliver the peace dividend that the Holy See, for one, expected? Or is it change of an even more radical nature? Much more needs to be done to clarify the Church’s vision and theory of change. 

If the nuclear debate is suffering from a severe case of schizophrenia, so is the Church. While the pope, the U.S. bishops, a handful of policy experts and scholars, and jailed nuclear activists call for disarmament, most Catholics are otherwise occupied. It is time to bring the nuclear issue back to the center of the Church by revitalizing and strengthening the voice of the Catholic community. One modest effort to move in this direction is an initiative of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute, Georgetown’s Berkley Center, the U.S. bishops’ international policy office, and the Catholic Peacebuilding Network (with the support of the Nuclear Threat Initiative). Since 2014, we have been working to empower a new generation of Catholics—Church leaders, scholars, and students—to contribute to wider efforts to reverse the new nuclear arms race while doing the difficult long-term work needed to ultimately eliminate nuclear weapons. This modest effort must be multiplied many times over if the hopes for disarmament are to win out over the new nuclear dangers we now face.

  1. Sidney D. Drell and James E. Goodby, A World Without Nuclear Weapons: End-State Issues (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2009).
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