Unlocking the Catholic Potential for Nuclear Disarmament

By: Kevin G. Ahern

February 6, 2020

The Pope and the Bomb

The seventy-fifth anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki offer us an important moment to rethink the role of religion in the campaign to ban nuclear weapons. In both words and actions, Pope Francis has pointed to the immorality of nuclear weapons and the moral obligation to work for abolition as exemplified by his recent visit to Japan.

With Catholics comprising about 20% of the U.S. population and over 30% of the 116th Congress (spread almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans), the Catholic Church has an enormous social capital that, if actualized, could change the discourse on nuclear weapons. For many observers, the solution seems clear. If the pope has declared the use and possession of nuclear weapons to be immoral, shouldn’t Catholics in the United States be told by bishops and pastors to fall in line? Unfortunately, the situation is not so simple. 

According to the Pew Religious Landscape Study, only 30% of Catholics look primarily to the Church for moral guidance on right and wrong (in contrast to Evangelicals at 60%, Jehovah Witnesses at 78% and Mormons at 64%). Given the failures of Church leadership to respond to cases of sexual abuse, the actual number may even be lower. Moreover, large percentages of Catholics diverge (knowingly or unknowingly) from Church teachings on hot-button issues across the ideological divides, such as the role of government in providing aid to the poor, environmental regulation, abortion, racial justice, and capital punishment. 

To complicate the situation more, the United States is home to a number of loud voices who appear reluctant to embrace the social and moral teachings of Pope Francis on a range of issues from climate change and the economy to migration and capital punishment. The case of capital punishment is instructive. In 2018, Pope Francis made important revisions to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, declaring the death penalty as “inadmissible” and affirming the role of the Church in “its abolition worldwide.” This represents an important departure or revolution from the past teachings. In response, some conservative voices took issue with the idea that the teachings of past popes contained in earlier versions of the Catechism could ever change. These changes made by Francis, they suggested, were illegitimate and could be overlooked or interpreted differently. Given that Pope Francis is proposing similar changes on nuclear weapons, which is a departure from the framework of deterrence soberly accepted by previous popes, U.S. conservatives are likely to again question Francis’ authority to make such change. 

Nevertheless, there is hope. Even if only 30% of U.S. Catholics look to the Church for moral guidance, that is still a sizable number. With over 17,000 parishes, 6,000 elementary and high schools, and 226 colleges and universities, the Catholic Church educates millions of people, including large numbers of non-Catholics. The mobilization of only a fraction of these institutions could help reshape public discourse in some important ways. But how?

Drawing on my research on Catholic social movements, I would like to highlight six ways forward to unlock the Catholic potential for disarmament.

  1. Strengthen support for Catholic peace networks and movements, including the Catholic Peacebuilding Network, the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative, and Pax Christi. Some of these are also members of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. The experience of past movements for social change, such as the Campaign to Ban Landmines and Jubilee 2000, highlight the power of social movements working in mediating positions between local communities and larger complex structures of power. 
  2. Reclaim the power of scripture and sacrament. The Bible and the Catholic sacramental tradition, as Plowshares activists know well, have much to say about the threats posed by nuclear weapons. Finding ways to better connect these sources with the present realities of our world is a challenge for pastors and those involved faith formation. Here, Catholics might reflect on how to better use the power of prayer and ritual to ask God’s help in this cause and to inspire bold and creative action.
  3. Rethink investment. Already, the U.S. Catholic Bishops affirm the need for Catholic institutions to engage in socially reasonable investing in ways that avoid the “production or the development of weapons inconsistent with Catholic teaching.” Nuclear weapons ought to be included as a screen for all Church-related investments, including colleges. 
  4. Focus on clearly achievable goals. While the goal of total disarmament must always be kept in mind, it can appear lofty and idealistic. Without losing this long-term goal, there are several urgent steps that can be advocated for, including the renewal of the New START agreement, the renewal and expansion of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and the limitation of funding for the so-called “modernization” of existing systems.
  5. Use the power of narrative. The witness of those who have resisted nuclear weapons can be a source of formation and mobilization. The work of Daniel Berrigan, S.J., the witness of Plowshare activists, and the life of Dorothy Day have been captured in various documentaries and books. Dorothy Day’s cause for sainthood offers a unique opportunity to uncover her strong opposition to nuclear weapons (including her outrage at the bombing in Hiroshima). If she is indeed declared a saint, perhaps she could be named as a patron of disarmament.
  6.  Mobilize on key dates. Finally, a concrete step to take would be to mobilize local Catholic parishes, schools, and colleges to commemorate key dates, including the seventy-fifth anniversary of the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6 and August 9, respectively); the International Day of Peace (September 21); the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons (August 26); Dorothy Day’s birthday (November 8); and the release date of St. John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris (April 11).

The Catholic Church in the United States has a unique potential to work for nuclear disarmament. This potential, however, only has value if it is actualized. Pope Francis offers a vision, but it will be up to U.S. Catholics and Catholic institutions to decide how we will respond. 

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