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Let’s Not Forget About Nuclear Disarmament

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Gerard Powers - published on 10/01/14

The Church's call for disarmament is popular among policymakers, but largely ignored by Catholics.

On September 22, in a little-noted address to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Archbishop Antoine Camilleri, the Holy See’s foreign minister, reiterated the Holy See’s long-standing call for “a world free of weapons of mass destruction.”

This call for nuclear disarmament is motivated by concerns about the increased risk of the use of nuclear weapons due to nuclear proliferation, accidental launch, and terrorists obtaining nuclear capabilities.  It is also motivated by the “appalling” humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, as well as “a sobering assessment of the immense resources required to maintain and modernize nuclear arsenals.” In language uncharacteristically blunt for a Vatican diplomat, he concludes that “the mere existence of these weapons is absurd and that arguments in support of their use are an affront against the dignity of all human life.”

It is easy to dismiss this and similar statements by Vatican diplomats and popes as little more than hortatory or utopian appeals by religious leaders who do not bear the burden of making the hard choices faced by political and military leaders. And that was the fate of many such statements in decades past.

But today, religious leaders are, in some ways, behind their political and military counterparts. The policy debate on nuclear disarmament has moved ahead of the ethical debate.

The U.S. nuclear debate is a case in point. The Catholic Church in the United States played a significant role in the nuclear policy debate of the 1980s.  In their pastoral letter of 1983, "The Challenge of Peace," the U.S. bishops declared that nuclear deterrence is ethically permissible only as a step toward progressive disarmament. Some of those who dismissed that call for progressive disarmament as utterly utopian in 1983 have since taken it up as their own. Three decades later, in a radically transformed world, the moral imperative for disarmament identified by the bishops is now endorsed as a policy goal by prominent military and political figures, as well as by the U.S., Russian, and other governments.

Although U.S. bishops and the Vatican continue to question the legitimacy of nuclear deterrence and have called for greater progress toward a world without nuclear weapons, the role of the Catholic community in this debate has diminished in recent decades. Many of the Catholic bishops who spoke on these issues have passed on or retired. More important, scholars have devoted little attention to the new ethical challenges that arise as the world moves toward global zero. Catholic scholars, even those deeply committed to Catholic social teaching, are generally uninformed about and unengaged in the nuclear debate at the very time when the Church’s long-standing calls for disarmament are gaining traction among policymakers.

There is a gap in the ethical analysis needed to sustain calls for nuclear disarmament by religious leaders and policy experts.  Questions that need fuller examination include:

  • What is the relationship between nuclear deterrence and disarmament as the world moves toward a nuclear ban? Since global zero would likely make nuclear weapons even more valuable, more usable, and more destabilizing given the risk of nuclear breakout, what forms of deterrence would be morally acceptable then?

  • Would new forms of deterrence and defense have to be complemented by a new doctrine of disarmament intervention? Does an ethics of disarmament require further development of a political ethic of peacebuilding?
  • What are the implications for an ethics of sovereignty and the role of international insitutions if a global ban on nuclear disarmament is to be effective?

With the support of former Senator Sam Nunn’s Nuclear Threat Initiative, the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies has teamed up with the Office of International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs; and Boston College, on a new Project on Revitalizing Catholic Engagement on Nuclear Disarmament.

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