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A shift in the Catholic Church position on deterrence and possession of nuclear weapons

Categories: BLOG | Published: 24/11/2017 | Views: 577

Pat Gaffney of Pax Christi writes this week's blog on her involvement in the recent vatican conference on nuclear weapons.

I have to admit to a real excitement when, from the heart of our Church, I heard Pope Francis condemn nuclear weapons and affirm the Christian obligation to nonviolence. 

As a member of Pax Christi, it was a privilege to be invited to a Vatican-hosted conference on the theme “Perspectives for a world free from nuclear weapons and for integral disarmament”. It is not often that students, diplomats, theologians, activists, Hibakusha (survivors of the atomic bomb) and Nobel peace laureates from around the world meet to reflect on how, together, we can work for a nuclear free world.  It was encouraging, too, that Bishop William Nolan, President of the Justice and Peace Scotland Commission, took part in the Conference. 

An unexpected highlight was the personal greeting we received from Pope Francis.  That he made himself available to meet this group of over 350 people was a witness and sign of his great humanity and solidarity with the people of the world.

A key ‘take-away’ for me was, of course, the shift by the Church from a position held since 1982 that nuclear deterrence was only morally acceptable as part of a process to nuclear disarmament to today’s position of condemnation of their threat, use and possession.

Building on years of excellent work to make clear the humanitarian and environmental impact of nuclear weapons and nuclear testing that has been undertaken by organisations such as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), CND, and Pax Christi, Pope Francis was able to say, “if we also take into account the risk of an accidental detonation as a result of error of any kind, the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.  For they exist in the service of a mentality of fear that affects not only the parties in conflict but the entire human race.”

The 30 contributions to the Conference were not all from those ‘on our side’. Rose Gottemoeller, NATO Deputy Secretary General, cautioned the need for verifiable, progressive disarmament - wanting a nuclear free world but without jeopardising security.  Dr Emily Landau, research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel suggested that paths to peace are determined by states and not by weapons. She said that for seven decades, nuclear weapons have been weapons of deterrence.

Overwhelmingly, however, speakers affirmed the need to move away from policies of fear, deterrence, militarism towards human, integral peace and security. Cardinal Turkson reminded us “nuclear weapons reduce the ability to invest in real security”.   Mohamed el Baradei, (former Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency) elaborated on this theme, saying that a security based on nuclear weapons is a ‘contradictory’ security, causing more suspicion and fear. There is no shortage of money, but there are skewed priorities.

I also took away a strong resolve to find even better and more effective ways of sharing this powerful message.  Several times we heard of the importance of civil society and faith based groups in particular. Beatrice Finn of ICAN spoke of the role of people of faith as a ‘constant life-light’ in support for her own campaign – which has rightly been awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

We have to both amplify the message of the Church and be an advocate for it at national level – with governments and with Bishops’ Conferences.  A passionate plea came from Bishop McElroy of San Diego, “The ministry of the Church in the promotion of peace must at its core be one of conversion to new ways of thinking in the hearts of individuals and the international system.”

Our campaigning toolbox has been enhanced by this Conference and its messages. How creative and persuasive can we be in turning these powerful words into policy?
Pat Gaffney is General Secretary of the British Section of Pax Christi
Photograph courtesy of National Catholic Reporter.
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