This week, at a conference in Vienna, Austria on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, Pope Francis issued a statement declaring that "nuclear deterrence cannot be the basis for peaceful coexistence between states."
A Vatican official told Sojourners in Vienna that the Holy See is seriously discussing whether the possession of nuclear weapons can be morally justified in our current multipolar world. The official quoted Pope John XXIII, who said "Nuclear weapons should be banned," and said that the time has come to embrace nuclear abolition.
The Vatican statement, titled "Nuclear Disarmament: Time for Abolition," argued that "the structure of nuclear deterrence is less stable and more worrisome than at the height of the Cold War," and said that "the very possession of nuclear weapons, even for purposes of deterrence, is morally problematic."
Since the beginning of the Cold War in the aftermath of World War II, the fundamental moral rationale for the possession of nuclear weapons has been the concept of deterrence. Simply put, the threat of massive annihilation rendered these weapons unusable — the very threat of such unacceptable destruction would, in theory, deter their use.
Some religious leaders, including the Vatican, gave their moral imprimatur to this balance of terror by their "conditional acceptance" of nuclear deterrence. The condition? That nuclear states take serious steps toward the reduction and eventual elimination of these horrible weapons. These leaders argued during the Cold War that this reliance on mutually assured destruction made a certain moral sense in a world dominated by the bipolar U.S.-Soviet confrontation. They were genuinely committed to the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, and accepted the regrettable nuclear standoff as long as it was seen as a step toward eventual abolition.
Now, two decades after the end of the Cold War, the world still has 17,000 nuclear weapons, enough to destroy the world many times over. But the moral backing for the possession of nuclear weapons is beginning to crumble. The Vatican statement this week argued that, given the absence of progress toward complete disarmament, "the nuclear weapon establishment has lost much of its legitimacy," and "the system of nuclear deterrence can no longer be deemed a policy that stands firmly on moral ground." And thus, the Vatican argues, "The time has come to embrace the abolition of nuclear weapons as an essential foundation of collective security."
The path toward nuclear disarmament will be a long and difficult one. But the Vatican's "evolution" on the issue — from reluctant endorsement of deterrence to its new embrace of nuclear abolition — is a significant step on the journey.
Jim Rice, editor of Sojourners magazine, was part of a media delegation to the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Vienna, Austria. The delegation was sponsored by the Nuclear Threat Institute.