Pope Francis condemns all nuclear weapons


Apart from their destructive power, the possession of nuclear weapons robs the world of desperately-needed resources which should be prioritised for eliminating poverty and the extension of healthcare, education and human rights. Peter-John Pearson looks at the Catholic Social Teaching on international peacekeeping.

Pope Francis has made the teaching of the Catholic Church on nuclear weapons very clear. Speaking to the participants at an International Symposium on Nuclear Weapons and Integral Disarmament he emphasised that the very “possession of nuclear weapons was to be condemned”. In doing so he underlined the long-standing teaching condemning nuclear weapons, but this time he took it a step further and moved beyond the position of Pope John Paul II, who in 1982 while warning against the inherent danger of nuclear weapons, made some allowance for stockpiling on the grounds of the need amidst the complexities and fragility of the contemporary world, for some form of deterrence.

In his speech Pope Francis made clear that he was building on a legacy begun by Pope John XXIII who, as far back as 1963, in Pacem in Terris ,stated “unless this process of disarmament be thoroughgoing and complete, and reach men’s very souls, it is impossible to stop the arms race or to reduce armaments, or- and this is the main thing- ultimately to abolish them entirely”. The pope went on to repeat one of the key points in his opposition to the escalation of nuclear weapons and that is that the very cost of purchasing and modernising such weapons robbed the world of much needed resources which should be availed for other priorities such as eliminating poverty and the extension of healthcare, education and human rights.

In a message to the Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in 2014, the pope said the escalation of the arms race and the price of modernising and developing weaponry represents a considerable expense for nations. “As a result, the real priorities facing our human family, such as the fight against poverty, the promotion of peace, the undertaking of educational, ecological and healthcare projects, and the development of human rights, are relegated to second place”. In the same speech he also pointed out that the possibility of human error and accidental detonation added to the tremendous danger of the very existence of such weapons.

The pope pointed out that as long as those in power had access to such weapons there would always be the temptation to use them with catastrophic results. The aftermath of Nagasaki and Hiroshima has carried on through successive generations with profound health, psychological and emotional pathologies. Even more fundamental is the fact that the very possession of such weapons alongside chemical and biological weapons feed into a deep psychosis of fear. These weapons, he said, “exist in the service of fear that affects not only the parties to a conflict, but the entire human race. They cannot form the basis of peaceful coexistence between members of the human family which must rather be inspired by an ethic of solidarity.”

The Pope’s message was all the more impactful since it came just a few weeks after the United Nations adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The Holy See was among the first states to sign it and is one of only three nations to have ratified it thus far. It is widely acknowledged that the Holy See was a key player in inspiring and garnering support for this treaty. The response to it provides a very clear example of the ‘reception’ of Catholic Social Teaching in an important policy domain. A close reading of the pope’s speech indicates his clear concern for issues of destroying poverty, safeguarding the ecology and enhancing a culture of human rights. This area of peace-making embraces all these aspects in an integrated, coherent way.

The signing of this treaty and the Vatican Conference comes amidst the growing concern around North Korea’s firing of nuclear missiles and an ongoing concern about Iran’s nuclear capability. The UN Secretary General, António Guterres, alluded to this at the signing of the treaty and spoke of the risks posed by the continued existence of nuclear weapons including the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences of its use. Archbishop Gallagher, representing the Holy See at the signing event, also mentioned North Korea. He said the rising tensions over North Korea’s growing nuclear programme are of special urgency. “The international community must respond by seeking to revive negotiations,” he said adding that “the threat or use of military force have no place in countering proliferation and the threat or use of nuclear weapons in countering nuclear proliferation are deplorable”.

For South Africans this direction in nuclear considerations comes as a confirmation of the decision in 1989 by the then South African government to give up its nuclear programmes. It remains only one of two countries to have done so to date. Both South Africa and the Holy See stand in agreement that a logical outcome of a strong anti-nuclear weapon position should translate into support for practical steps such as the insistence on nuclear free zones. Both states have supported such zones.

On the 50th anniversary of Pacem in Terris this position was reaffirmed: “Nuclear-weapon-free zones are the best example of trust, confidence and affirmation that peace and security are possible without possessing nuclear weapons”.

We are at present witnessing an important development in Catholic Social Teaching especially with regard to the maintenance of international peace. It is seen by many as a teaching whose time has indeed come. SA.


Image: European Union 2014 – European Parliament. 

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Pope Francis condemns all nuclear weapons