Pope Francis and Holy See Work Toward Nuclear Disarmament

By Daniel Rosenberg, Georgetown University ‘18

Since Pope John XXIII gave his famous Pacem in Terris encyclical (or policy statement), in April of 1963, the Roman Catholic Church and the nuclear disarmament movement have been continually entangled. The Church is interested in nuclear disarmament for a couple of reasons. The first is that one of the main tenets of the Church is promoting peace, and although some argue that nuclear weapons are a necessary component of global peace, they clearly are instruments of war. The second is that nuclear weapons pose an existential threat to humanity. These are weapons of immense destructive force, capable of wiping out millions of people and profoundly harming the environment, now and for future generations. The threat of such a calamity occurring, whether during a nuclear exchange, or even by accident, it is too great a risk for humanity to bear.

The Holy See itself has been active on issues of disarmament for decades, primarily through its role as an observer state to the United Nations. However, in the past year, Pope Francis and the Holy See have taken on even greater responsibility in the nuclear conversation.

 The UN General Assembly elected to make the Holy See a fully participatory and voting member of the UN for the duration of the recent Conference on a Legal Ban of Nuclear Weapons. I attended the meetings of that conference, both in March and June, and I witnessed the Holy See at work. The Church did not shy away from its newfound responsibility, and leaders took part in high-level discussions between states and made a variety of interventions on the UN floor. With the nuclear-weapons-possessing states, NATO and a variety of other U.S. allies all boycotting these meetings, it was up to smaller states like the Holy See to take the lead in crafting the treaty.

With those meetings concluded and the treaty out for ratification, the goal now is to look to the future, with an eye for understanding how to get the states that possess nuclear weapons involved. Last weekend, the Vatican hosted a conference called “Perspectives for a World Free from Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Development.” The goals: to begin to understand the path forward for eliminating these weapons from arsenals worldwide and to mitigate the threat nuclear weapons and materials pose to humanity.

The Holy See is uniquely equipped to lead this conference, as much of its work on disarmament involves improving peace education. The best way to begin to put pressure on nuclear weapons-possessing states is to make sure citizens of those states understand the grave threat these weapons pose to everyone. Unfortunately, it seems that since the end of the Cold War, many people have forgotten that nuclear weapons did not disappear with the Soviet Union and that the threat of a detonation, whether intentional or accidental, remains.

The conference itself offered a collection of high profile and knowledgeable speakers, ranging from Pope Francis himself to multiple Nobel Laureates. One of the more provocative sessions was a debate between Rose Gottemoeller, the NATO Deputy Secretary General, and the Permanent Representatives to the UN of Austria and Mexico. NATO did not support the ban treaty, while both Austria and Mexico served as vice presidents of the Nuclear Ban Conference and took very active roles in drafting the final treaty. The hope was that the dialogue could help engage NATO in the future on this issue—and Gottemoeller ended her remarks with an invitation for dialogue at NATO.

The conference could not have come at a better – or frankly, worse – time, as the stakes with respect to nuclear weapons have never been higher. With North Korea gaining greater nuclear strike capabilities every day, and the United States considering withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement, it is vital that plans be set in motion to begin to eliminate this threat. With the Holy See’s important contribution, the nuclear disarmament regime should continue to grow in strength with better developed plans for building a safer future for us all.


November 16, 2017

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