Disarmament Week: Disarming Our Fears and Our World

Nuclear war protesters demonstrate outside the White House in Washington (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Each year on the anniversary of its founding (October 24), the United Nations observes Disarmament Week. This seems particularly fitting since the United Nations was founded “to maintain international peace and security.”

Whenever I think of disarmament, I am reminded of these haunting passages from the Second Vatican Council: “[T]he arms race is an utterly treacherous trap for humanity, and one which ensnares the poor to an intolerable degree.” “Rather than being eliminated thereby, the causes of war are in danger of being gradually aggravated. While extravagant sums are being spent for the furnishing of ever new weapons, an adequate remedy cannot be provided for the multiple miseries afflicting the whole modern world” (Gaudium et spes, 81).

It is no secret that our nation and world are caught in this vicious trap. Congress and the Administration have proposed dramatic increases in military spending at the same time that they have propose dramatic cuts to resources for diplomacy and human development/poverty reduction. Our nation already spends about one-third of all military spending worldwide. The United States spends as much as the next eight nations combined, many of them are our allies.

I believe this overemphasis on armaments is driven by deep-seated fears and a lack of hope. If we want to move our world to resist the arms race, we must first resist the fears that drive it. It is possible to overcome fears and to reverse the arms race. And this doesn’t require optimism or blind trust. It just demands that we consider other options in dialogue with other nations.

For example, our nation could embrace the Arms Trade Treaty. This Treaty regulates international trade in conventional arms, making such trade more transparent and accountable. It entered into force on December 24, 2014. Ninety-two states have ratified the treaty, and 41 states have signed, but not ratified it, including the United States. The failure of our nation to ratify that Treaty is particularly damaging since our nation is the world’s largest arms exporter.

In addressing the vexing issue of nuclear disarmament, Pope Francis wrote: “Spending on nuclear weapons squanders the wealth of nations. … When these resources are squandered, the poor and the weak living on the margins of society pay the price.” The Holy Father went on to say, “The desire for peace, security and stability is one of the deepest longings of the human heart. … This desire can never be satisfied by military means alone, much less the possession of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction” (December 7, 2014).

Our hearts long for peace. We must disarm our fears in order to disarm our world.

Stephen M. Colecchi is director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


Going Deeper

The Catholic Study Guide for Use with Nuclear Tipping Point can help small groups reflect on Catholic social teaching on nuclear weapons while watching the Nuclear Tipping Point film.

Church Sounds Warning on Nuclear Weapons (Once Again)

Demonstrators in Washington protest nuclear weapons April 1. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Demonstrators in Washington protest nuclear weapons April 1. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

It will not surprise anyone that Pope Francis has warned of nuclear catastrophe. In connection with the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in December 2014, Pope Francis declared plainly, “The humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons are predictable and planetary.” He went on to call for nuclear weapons to be “banned once and for all, to the benefit of our common home.”

What may surprise casual observers is that the Pope’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons is not new. In 1963, Saint John XXIII wrote in his encyclical, Pacem in Terris: “Nuclear weapons must be banned. A general agreement must be reached on a suitable disarmament program, with an effective system of mutual control.”

The Church’s profound concern for nuclear armaments was reinforced by Blessed Paul VI, Saint John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI. In his 2006 World Day of Peace Message, Pope Emeritus Benedict had a particularly poignant passage: “What can be said, too, about those governments which count on nuclear arms as a means of ensuring the security of their countries? Along with countless persons of good will, one can state that this point of view is not only baneful but also completely fallacious. In a nuclear war there would be no victors, only victims.”

What motivates the Church’s engagement in the nuclear question? The answer is at once simple and profound. The Gospel requires the Church’s teachers to defend human life and dignity. In an April 2010 letter to President Barack Obama, the late Cardinal Francis George, OMI, then president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote: “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 Church is careful to stay in its own lane in public debates over nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. Church teachers do not possess military and technological expertise, but they can provide moral guidance. In that same April 2010 letter Cardinal George admitted, “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.”

Despite the fact that the Catholic Church has a longstanding goal of pursuing a world without nuclear weapons, this is not to say that there has been no development in the Church’s moral analysis. It is fair to say that the 1983 judgment of the U.S. Bishops in The Challenge of Peace on nuclear deterrence, a judgment they made citing Saint John Paul II, is undergoing development in light of current circumstances.

Even in 1983, the “strictly conditioned moral acceptance of nuclear deterrence” was not considered “adequate as a long-term basis for peace.” Such deterrence was morally acceptable only as “a step on the way toward progressive disarmament.” At the time, the bishops called for ongoing evaluation of deterrence policy in light of the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

In more recent years, the Holy See’s Permanent Observer to the United Nations, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, has articulated a shift in the moral evaluation of nuclear deterrence: “Today there is no more argument, not even the argument of deterrence used during the Cold War, that could ‘minimally morally justify’ the possession of nuclear weapons. The ‘peace of a sort’ that is supposed to justify nuclear deterrence is specious and illusory” (April 2015).

Nuclear deterrence is increasingly seen as an excuse for the permanent possession of nuclear arsenals that threaten humanity’s future. Most of the nuclear powers have embarked on incredibly expensive programs of “modernization” of their nuclear arsenals, hardly an encouraging sign of moving toward disarmament. The dire specter of miscalculation or human error could lead to a nuclear calamity.

Pope Francis in characteristically direct language said, “Spending on nuclear weapons squanders the wealth of nation. … When these resources are squandered, the poor and the weak living on the margins of society pay the price.” This is another reason why he sounds the alarm, “Nuclear deterrence and the threat of mutually assured destruction cannot be the basis for an ethics of fraternity and peaceful coexistence among peoples and states.”

Colecchi headshotStephen M. Colecchi is director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

This article first appeared on the Berkley Forum, November 17, 2016.


Going Deeper

The Catholic Study Guide for Use with the movie, Nuclear Tipping Point, can help small groups reflect on Catholic social teaching and nuclear weapons while watching the film. Use this guide along with the 2017 World Day of Peace message resources.

Pope Francis: “Do unto Others” Has Global Implications

photograph of Bishop Oscar Cantu

Most Reverend Oscar Cantú, Bishop of Las Cruces

Pope Francis has now returned to Vatican City, but we remain inspired and moved to action by his words and actions during his visit to the U.S. and the U.N.

As Chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, I would like to recall some of his powerful international challenges to our nation and world in his own words.

To the U.S. Congress

On Immigrants and Refugees

“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners.”

“Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War.”

Immigrants “travel north in search of a better life…for their loved ones. Is this not what we want for our own children?”

On Global Poverty

“How much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty!”

“Now is the time for…combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” Continue reading

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.’”