Vatican Official Describes Disarmament Agenda, Appeals to Catholic Education

By: Drew Christiansen

November 17, 2016

The Catholic Church and Nuclear Disarmament

In a visit to Georgetown on Friday, November 11, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the vice president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the Vatican’s think tank on global issues, spoke to a luncheon group on the role of higher education in nuclear disarmament. The concept of national security, he said, is a theme requiring re-examination “as a matter of priority” by academic institutions, and Catholic institutions should take part in this society-wide reconsideration.

Archbishop Tomasi, addressing Catholic institutions and religious institutions in general, appealed for the education of Millennials in the dangers of nuclear weapons. “The new generation who did not experience the world before the end of the Cold War must learn that nuclear weapons continue to pose a huge challenge and a real risk for the survival of humanity,” he said.

Under Tomasi’s leadership, the Holy See participated in a series of conferences on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons in 2013 and 2014. The conferences were sponsored by non-nuclear weapons states and included significant participation by international civil society institutions. It was at the last of those meeting in Vienna in December 2014 that the Holy See introduced its study document Nuclear Disarmament: Time for Abolition, the fullest articulation of its position to date.

In response to the deadlock on nuclear disarmament since at least 2010, the UN General Assembly last October 27 passed a resolution to convene negotiations in 2017 on “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.”

“While the new ban treaty will not eliminate nuclear weapons overnight,” the archbishop urged, “it will establish a powerful new international legal standard, stigmatizing nuclear weapons and compelling nations to take urgent action on disarmament.” 

The archbishop cited Pope Francis’ message to the president of the 2014 Vienna conference: “The nuclear issue is not just about nuclear states. The consequences are global and the responsibility to prevent the risks should be shared by all stakeholders—nuclear states and non-nuclear states, international organizations, ICRC, religious actors, etc.”

Presentation of this broad responsibility for nuclear disarmament was the first point in Tomasi’s remarks about the Holy See’s position. Accordingly, he may have been signaling the Holy See’s departure from its recent stand of not endorsing a ban but holding out for consensus on any agreement for the sake of enticing the nuclear weapons states into an agreement.

“When it comes to the survival of humanity,” the retired diplomat argued, “no country or group of countries is entitled to arrogate to itself the right to decide for the international community…Concerted action by all the stakeholders is needed.”

In addition to the nature of human security, Archbishop Tomasi named three ethical issues for which the Holy See would look, especially but not exclusively, to Catholic universities to advance the disarmament agenda: the shortcomings of an ethic of deterrence built on fear and mistrust; the instability of the international system brought about by the inequality of nuclear and non-nuclear states; and a long-standing complaint of popes, the price paid by the poor and marginalized people for the maintenance and renewal of nuclear arsenals.

In addition to support of the new UN negotiations, a specific reform the Vatican prelate highlighted was reform of the UN Disarmament Commission, a body on which he served as an observer member during his tenure as nuncio in Geneva. “The world had changed,” he said, “it is urgent…to rethink the framework in which we discuss international security…It is urgent to start reforming this institution because it is the interest of security, stability, and peace.”

Archbishop Tomasi’s principal responsibility since leaving his Geneva post has been organizing four Vatican departments dealing with social issues—justice and peace, philanthropy and emergency relief, migration, and health—into a single agency. With so many problems like war and refugee flows interconnected, he explained, the Holy See needs to coordinate its policy planning and its outreach efforts.

The archbishop’s visit was sponsored by the Office of the President and the Berkley Center. The event was co-hosted by Dr. John Borelli of the President's Office and Fr. Drew Christiansen, S.J. of the Berkley Center.

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