The U.S. Bishops on Moral Questions Regarding Nuclear Weapons

The review conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meeting at the United Nations in New York City concludes today. What follows is an excerpt from a recent speech by Stephen Colecchi, Director of the Office of International Justice and Peace, on the bishops’ work for nuclear non-proliferation.

At the time of Senate ratification of the New START Treaty in 2010, Cardinal Francis George, OMI, then President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose death we recently mourned, declared:

“The horribly destructive capacity of nuclear arms makes them disproportionate and indiscriminate weapons that endanger human life and dignity like no other armaments. Their use as a weapon of war is rejected in Church teaching based on just war norms.”

The Cardinal was standing on a firm foundation of longstanding teaching when he made that assertion. The 1983 pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace,” established the U.S. Catholic bishops as a moral voice on nuclear disarmament. The bishops argued that “[e]ach proposed addition to our strategic system or change in strategic doctrine must be assessed precisely in light of whether it will render steps toward ‘progressive disarmament’ more or less likely.”

Ten years later in the “Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace,” the bishops declared: “The eventual elimination of nuclear weapons is more than a moral ideal; it should be a policy goal.” This vision continues to shape their public engagement.

Today the Conference of Bishops is working with others to revitalize Catholic thinking and engagement on issues involving nuclear weapons today.

Over the years, in light of Church moral teaching, the bishops have also exercised leadership regarding specific elements of U.S. nuclear policy. In the late 80s they raised moral questions regarding missile defense initiatives. The bishops supported the Strategic Arms Reduction treaties (Start I and II) in the early 1990s. And in the late 90s they supported the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, lamenting its defeat in the Senate. The bishops welcomed the 2002 Moscow Treaty as a positive step, but called on the United States, and by implication other nations, to do much more.

During the past decade, the Conference of Bishops has opposed federal funding for research on the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, the Reliable Replacement Warhead and new nuclear weapons. They weighed in on the Nuclear Posture Review, asking President Obama to narrow the purpose of the nuclear arsenal solely to deterring nuclear attack. They made a major effort to offer vigorous support for Senate ratification of the New START Treaty in 2010, and have supported and welcomed the P5+1 dialogue with Iran over their nuclear program, as has the Holy Father and the Holy See.

U.S. Church leaders are not naïve about the challenges that lie along the path to a world without nuclear weapons. Cardinal Francis George wrote a letter to President Obama in 2010 in which he “…acknowledge[d] that the path to a world free of nuclear weapons will be long and difficult. It will involve many steps:

  • verifiably reducing nuclear arsenals as the new START Treaty continues to do;
  • ratifying and bringing into force the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty;
  • reducing our nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons for security as the [2010] Nuclear Posture Review [began] to do;
  • securing nuclear materials from terrorists…;
  • adopting a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty to prohibit production of weapons-grade material;
  • strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor nonproliferation efforts and ensure access to peaceful uses of nuclear power; and
  • other actions that take humanity in the direction of a nuclear-weapons-free world.”

The Cardinal went on to say, “We are pastors and teachers, not technical experts. We cannot map out the precise route to the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, but we can offer moral direction and encouragement. … Although we cannot anticipate every step on the path humanity must walk, we can point with moral clarity to a destination that moves beyond deterrence to a world free of the nuclear threat.”

Given these longstanding concerns of the U.S. Bishops to reduce nuclear weapons and secure nuclear materials, in April 2015, Bishop Oscar Cantú, Chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, spoke on a panel on “Nuclear Weapons and the Moral Compass” sponsored by The Permanent Observer Mission

of the Holy See and The Global Security Institute at the UN Headquarters in New York, and in November 2014, Bishop Richard Pates, a member of the Committee, spoke at a seminar on “Less Nuclear Stockpiles and More Development” sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome.

The bishops of the United States are deeply engaged in the moral enterprise of working for a world without nuclear weapons. As Bishop Cantú said in his April UN talk: “To achieve this goal, we must, in the words of Pope Francis, acknowledge that ‘[n]ow is the time to counter the logic of fear with the ethic of responsibility, and so foster a climate of trust and sincere dialogue.’”

One thought on “The U.S. Bishops on Moral Questions Regarding Nuclear Weapons

  1. Cardinal George correctly identified nuclear weapons as the apex of man’s ability to inflict horror and death upon his fellows. However, speaking for myself, that horror is at the apex only due to the weapons’ capability to burn, mangle and kill so many at once. All weapons of war exist a scale of horror, and it is difficult to be less concerned about the single bullet that cripples or ends the life of a father, mother, brother or sister than of thousands. There is no set of international agreements that provides any degree of morality to drones that kill and maim all within the warhead’s radius, whether man, woman, child, target or not, or a minefield that tens of years after the conflict continues to maim and kill. It is increasingly difficult to even utter the phrase “just war” without a moral chill pervading the soul.


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