Pope Francis just clearly reaffirmed his position in favor of completely forbidding nuclear weapons, that are not legitimate even as a means of deterrence.
This is a good opportunity to examine how the Church’s position on the matter has evolved over the past few decades.
Not long ago, the United Nations began a series of discussions whose goal was to conclude a treaty forbidding nuclear weapons: from the start, the major nuclear powers were noticeably absent. Even Japan, which has experienced nuclear drama more than any other country, is opposed to this treaty.
As for the Holy See, it remains attached to the idea of a world without nuclear weapons, convinced that an ethics and a law based on the threat of mutual destruction in no way help to seek a peaceful solution to conflicts.
Francis Opposed to the Idea of Nuclear Deterrence
In his message to the United Nations, Pope Francis went even further: in his opinion, the threat of reciprocal destruction goes against the founding principles of the United Nations, whose primary mission is to preserve peace. “We must commit ourselves to a world without nuclear weapons”, Francis wrote to the President of the United Nations Conference on their ban, explaining why this objective is urgent in a world characterized by an unstable climate of conflict.
The sovereign pontiff analyzed the principal threats of the 21st century: terrorism, asymmetrical conflicts, cybersecurity, environmental problems, and poverty, and considers that nuclear deterrence is not an effective response. Recourse to atomic weapons would also have catastrophic consequences for man and the environment. Developing it requires enormous investments, which could instead be used for more significant priorities like the promotion of peace and integral human development.
Pius XII’s “No”
It is interesting to take a brief look at the evolution of the Magisterium on the highly sensitive question of nuclear weapons: when it entered into the ethical debate under Pius XII’s pontificate, it used the criterion of proportionality to condemn the use of the new weapons: “When the harm wrought by war is not comparable to that caused by tolerating injustice, we may be obliged to suffer injustice”, declared the pope in his Address to the World Medical Association on October 19, 1953.
In other words, nuclear weapons were considered immoral as military means responsible for human and natural damage that are out of proportion with any aggression whatsoever.
Towards a Temporary Tolerance for the Purpose of Deterrence
Pius XII's position evolved slightly towards the end of his pontificate, but it was with the following popes that the judgment on nuclear weapons slightly shifted in the Church: it came to be considered more as a political means, especially when the deterrence became bilateral and was seen as an option for the political relations between superpowers.
At the same time, reflections on the theme of possible technical control of nuclear weapons also developed. Little by little, the Magisterium refined its moral judgment along the same lines until John Paul II, who declared in 1982 that “in current conditions, a deterrence based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable”. The judgment of the Magisterium from John XXIII to John Paul II can be summed up as follows: temporarily, nuclear weapons, insofar as they contribute to deterrence, cannot be banished. Only the indiscriminate use of it could be banished: but the ultimate objective is to obtain the prohibition and destruction of nuclear weapons.
Return to a Stricter Position
The pontificates of Benedict XVI and Francis have marked a noticeable change of direction that can be justified by the proliferation of atomic weapons and the end of the East-West bipolarization that makes it impossible to continue to invoke the idea of deterrence: “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”, declared Benedict XVI on January 1, 2006.
Francis happens to hold – on this precise point – the same position as his immediate predecessor, and sees the abolition of atomic weapons as a veritable “moral and humanitarian challenge”.
Sources: Radio Vatican/ FSSPX.News 4/27/17