The leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics came to Nagasaki to deliver a sermon on nuclear weapons.
Together with Japanese colleagues working to eliminate those weapons, I waited in a steady rain as Pope Francis offered a long silent prayer in front of the black obelisk marking the epicenter of the nuclear explosion that obliterated the city on August 9, 1945. The visibly shaken pontiff then turned towards us and issued an unequivocal repudiation of the doctrine of nuclear deterrence.
“Our world is marked by a perverse dichotomy that tries to defend and ensure stability and peace through a false sense of security sustained by a mentality of fear and mistrust, one that ends up poisoning relationships between peoples and obstructing any form of dialogue.”
Trying to keep the peace through sustaining a mentality of fear is the essence of nuclear deterrence. The efficacy of maintaining the constant threat of assured annihilation, which many have described as a balance of terror, is an article of faith among the leaders of the nuclear weapons states. All of them are investing heavily in updating and expanding their nuclear arsenals. None of them intend to honor their legal obligation, as members of Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, (NPT) to negotiate “a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
Pope Francis made it clear their behavior, and the faith in nuclear deterrence that drives it, are sinful.
“In a world where millions of children and families live in inhumane conditions, the money that is squandered and the fortunes made through the manufacture, upgrading, maintenance and sale of ever more destructive weapons, are an affront crying out to heaven.”
Later that same day, in Hiroshima, he said the possession of nuclear weapons was immoral.
When 122 non-nuclear weapons states who honor their NPT obligations voted to pass a new Treaty on the Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in 2017, the nuclear weapons states did everything they could to discredit their efforts. The United States government not only voted against the TPNW, it said it never intends to join the treaty and pressured many of its allies, including Japan, to reject it.
That puts the U.S. government at odds with the Catholic Church and more than 70 million Americans who belong to it. As the pontiff reminded Catholics in Nagasaki,
“For her part, the Catholic Church is irrevocably committed to promoting peace between peoples and nations. This is a duty to which the Church feels bound before God and every man and woman in our world. We must never grow weary of working to support the principal international legal instruments of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, including the Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons.”
Most members of what some call the U.S. “nuclear priesthood” tend to ignore or marginalize people who put their faith in treaties. Pope Francis told Catholics “support of agreements and insistence on dialogue” were “the most powerful ‘weapons’ in which we should put our trust and the inspiration of our efforts to build a world of justice and solidarity that can offer an authentic assurance of peace.” If anyone were to put that on a job application for a position working in nuclear arms control at the U.S. Department of State it is highly unlikely an offer of employment would follow.
Many U.S. scientists share Pope Francis’s views on the need to discard antiquated approaches to international security in the nuclear age. The pontiff’s sermon in Nagasaki articulated the same basic argument Albert Einstein made on US national television in 1950, when he told Eleanor Roosevelt that “the idea of achieving security through national armament is, at the present state of military technique, a disastrous illusion.” He described the idea that we can achieve “security through superior military power” as a “mechanistic, technical-military psychological attitude” that transformed “every single act in foreign policy” into a means to “achieve utmost superiority over the opponent in case of war.” Einstein warned,
“The ghostlike character of this development lies in its apparently compulsory trend. Every step appears as the unavoidable consequence of the preceding one. In the end, there beckons more and more clearly general annihilation.”
Pope Francis put it more plainly.
“Convinced as I am that a world without nuclear weapons is possible and necessary, I ask political leaders not to forget that these weapons cannot protect us from current threats to national and international security. We need to ponder the catastrophic impact of their deployment, especially from a humanitarian and environmental standpoint, and reject heightening a climate of fear, mistrust and hostility fomented by nuclear doctrines.”
As Americans head into a season of holidays anchored by a day dedicated to commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ–a season to be followed by the beginning of the process of choosing our next president– perhaps we should heed the advice of the world’s most influential Christian leader, who told us in Nagasaki that “No one can turn a blind eye to the ruin caused by a culture incapable of dialogue.”
American scientists and American Catholics vastly out number the tiny group of US experts and officials who preach nuclear deterrence and cling to these horrific weapons for security. Together we can form a powerful partnership for change. Pope Francis just gave all Americans, especially American scientists, a timely and important reminder that, as Einstein told his colleagues in 1955, we have a moral obligation to work together to put an end to war, “not as members of this or that nation, continent, or creed, but as human beings … whose continued existence is in doubt.”