Catholic Peace Action since 1982 has advocated civil disobedience against nuclear weapons, encouraged others to do so and by its very name claimed this to be a consistent and defendable position as Catholics in good standing in a nuclear weapons state. It is probably therefore appropriate at some stage to take an overview of what the Catholic Church officially teaches regarding nuclear weapons. For Catholics the foundation of their faith is in the bible and in the teaching of the Church through its centuries of history. Personal conscience is also very important in individual decision making for Catholics but the Church teaches that personal conscience must be informed and rooted in the bible and in the official teaching of the Church.
The word atomic weapon can be found in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church and the relevant paragraph is 2314 and its support is reference 109, Gaudium et Spes a document of Vatican II 1965. All these documents can be freely downloaded from the internet.
“Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.”(109 Gaudium et Spes)
“A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons – to commit such crimes.
The Catholic Church has always been consistent that there can be no moral case for the actual use of a weapon of mass destruction as it is indiscriminate. On this basis the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Catholic teaching are indefensible.
These writings however did not close the discussion as it was argued by many leading Catholics that the concept of nuclear deterrence would not only prevent the use of nuclear weapons but even prevent war itself. A balance of terror they argued would at the height of the Cold War preserve peace if both sides had nuclear arsenals. Pope St.John Paul II gave some support for this position when he wrote in 1982 to the United Nations,
“in current conditions 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.”
For Catholics in a nuclear weapons state this was a very interesting time with debate for and against the possession of nuclear weapons. These debates and exchanges continued for many years with respect shown on all sides.
The Scottish Catholic Bishops in 1982 also made a statement,
“If it is immoral to use these (nuclear) weapons it is immoral to threaten their use”
For many years the official position of the Catholic Church remained that of Pope St.John Paul II but the discussions continued and as time progressed the conditional acceptance of nuclear deterrence became more difficult to sustain as it became more evident the condition of progressive disarmament was not happening.
In 2005 Archbishop Migliore, the then observer of the Holy See to the United Nations wrote,
“The time has gone for finding ways to a balance in terror, the time has come to re-examine the whole strategy of nuclear deterrence…it is evident that nuclear deterrence drives the development of ever newer nuclear arms thus preventing genuine nuclear disarmament.”
In 2006 Pope Benedict XVI in his address on World Peace Day said,
“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”
In 2011 Archbishop Francis Chullikatt the then current Holy See’s observer at the United Nations reviewed the Church’s teaching at a meeting in the USA commenting and quoting from Church teaching,
“Today, more and more people are convinced that nuclear deterrence is not a viable means of providing security. If some nations can continue to claim the right to possess nuclear weapons, then other states will claim that right as well. There can be no privileged position whereby some states can rely on nuclear weapons while simultaneously denying that same right to other states. Such an unbalanced position is unsustainable.”
“The Holy See has never countenanced nuclear deterrence as a permanent measure, nor does it today when it is evident that nuclear deterrence drives the development of ever newer nuclear arms, thus preventing genuine nuclear disarmament.
“Maintaining nuclear deterrence into the 21st century will not aid but impede peace. Nuclear deterrence prevents genuine nuclear disarmament. It maintains an unacceptable hegemony over non-nuclear development for the poorest half of the world’s population. It is a fundamental obstacle to achieving a new age of global security.
“Nuclear weapons, aptly described as the ‘ultimate evil’, are still possessed by the most powerful States which refuse to let them go…….. No weapon so threatens the longed-for peace of the 21st century as the nuclear.”
Pope Francis was elected in 2013 and he has addressed the issue of nuclear weapons. In 2019 in Hiroshima he said:
“The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possessing of nuclear weapons is immoral.”
During an inflight press conference aboard the plane bringing back Pope Francis from Japan in 2019 he is reported to have said,
“The use of nuclear weapons is immoral which is why it must be added to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Not only their use but also possessing them: because an accident or the madness of some government leader, one person’s madness can destroy humanity.
It is clear that the Catholic Church’s official teaching on nuclear weapons has moved on from 1982.