Vatican conference and ecumenical echoes on nuclear arms and human development

by Jonathan Frerichs last modified 13 November 2017 02:34 PM
Vatican conference and ecumenical echoes on nuclear arms and human development

ICAN executive director Beatrice Fihn addresses the Vatican conference. Photo: Peter Prove/WCC

13 November 2017

A ground-breaking pontifical critique of nuclear weapons affirms the new treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

“The threat of use [of nuclear weapons], as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned,” Pope Francis told the 400 clergy, diplomats, campaigners and Nobel Laureates gathered in the Vatican on 10-11 November.

By linking possession and use, Pope Francis is offering a new standard for Catholic debate over nuclear weapons. By offering it now, the pope is making a moral affirmation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) adopted at the United Nations in July. The new treaty--which bans the possession, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons--is cited in this year’s Nobel Peace Prize award to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The World Council of Churches is a member of ICAN and shares the same moral and spiritual critique of nuclear armaments.

Nuclear weapons “exist in the service of a mentality of fear that affects not only the parties in the conflict but the entire human race,” Pope Francis said. “Nuclear weapons cannot constitute the basis for peaceful coexistence between members of the human family, which must rather be inspired by an ethics of solidarity.”

The Vatican promotes integral human development” as a path to peace. The approach rejects nuclear arms and has much in common with the ecumenical pilgrimage of justice and peace. The Cardinal Secretary of State outlined key concerns about nuclear weapons: Any defense based on nuclear weapons is inadequate, the environmental impact of nuclear weapons is unacceptable, the human and economic resources spent on nuclear weapons are a costly diversion from peace-building and integral human development, and nuclear weapons engender a climate of fear, distrust and conflict.

The International Committee of the Red Cross reiterated the humanitarian concerns behind the new treaty: Nuclear weapons must be eliminated because of the unspeakable suffering they cause, the fact that no adequate response is possible, and the risk of widespread and even global annihilation is real. Seventy-two years after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, atomic bomb survivors still come to the Japanese Red Cross daily for treatment.

The churches’ role in nuclear disarmament is both ethical and practical. Churches must be witnesses for a nuclear-weapons-free world, said Bishop Robert McElroy of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. That witness rejects national isolation and the illusion of nuclear security in favor of commitment to the international common good and greater reliance on peace.

Various speakers called more governments to sign and ratify the TPNW so it can enter into force. The TPNW also establishes positive obligations which are points of engagement with states that rely on nuclear weapons: recognizing the gender-based impact of nuclear weapons, obligating assistance to victims of nuclear tests and bombings, requiring remediation of environmental damage from a nuclear blast, recognizing the rights and needs of indigenous peoples whose lands have been used for nuclear tests, requiring disarmament education. Hope is fueled by having concrete opportunities for action.

Nuclear weapons deserve stigmatization morally, ethically and financially.  Hundreds of corporations and banks involved in the production of nuclear weapons are identified on the web-site Church institutions and members are stewards of investment funds.

Progress can be forged from crisis. Nuclear powers condemn the new nuclear ban treaty and claim they will never join it.  An Austrian diplomat asked: are they then giving up on the norm of “non-use” which they have established?

The UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs noted current warnings that times of crisis and instability are not the time for disarmament. In fact, she said, the Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed just one year after the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The Non-Proliferation Treaty was agreed upon just six years after that same crisis.


The impressions, hopes and ideas expressed in this blog are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.

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