Pope Francis, Christianity & Nukes

on November 25, 2019

Yesterday Pope Francis in Japan denounced possession of nuclear weapons even for deterrence as “immoral.” He moved beyond the stance of previous popes, and the U.S. bishops in their pastoral letter on nukes in the 1980s, who grudgingly accepted nukes for deterrence as a step towards disarmament.

The Pope’s move on nukes resembles his action on capital punishment, which the church previously accepted in theory, but which it now rejects in total. His political theology seems to be an absolutization of idealism. Moral aspirations must now become policy without explanation of implantation or any recognition of consequences. Critics might say it’s one more example of immanentizing the eschaton, demanding the consummation of God’s Kingdom right now, even if Christ has not yet returned.

Recent Catholic teaching on nuclear weapons contrasts with Russian Orthodoxy’s full embrace of Putin’s nukes, per this recent discussion led by Jon Askonas at Catholic University:

In stark contrast to the Western church, the Russian Orthodox Church has embraced nuclear weapons as guarantors of peace and a defensive shield in the hands of the Russian state, opposing nuclear abolition as firmly as the Pope supports it. As Saint Seraphim Sarovsky protects Russia with the shield of his holiness, the nuclear technicians of Sarov protect Russia with a nuclear shield. Roberts highlights the deep connection between the Russian state’s strategic narrative and traditional Russian Orthodox beliefs about Russia as a “Third Rome,” the seat of Christianity and civilization with a distinct salvific mission.

Of course, Russian Orthodoxy, as noted above, has historically deferred to and even embraced Russian state interests. Western Christianity has been more prone to question or confront governments, if unevenly. Arguably Russian Orthodoxy, if politically compromised by its coziness with power, has also been more coldly realist in its political theology. From its more independent perch, Western Christianity has had the luxury, or curse, of being more idealist if not utopian.

Western Christian opposition to nukes sometimes is simply pacifist and parcel to a wider rejection of all violence. More sophisticated arguments align with some approximation of Just War thinking, focused on the perceived inability of nukes to avoid collateral destruction to non-combatants.
Pope Francis spoke at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in commemoration of the 1945 atomic blasts that may have killed up to 230,000 people. Critics of those attacks rightly lament the horror but typically avoid offering alternatives to how a war that killed 60 million could otherwise have been ended. Japanese 1942 reprisals against the Chinese who helped Doolittle’s Raiders after their bombing of Tokyo resulted in 250,000 dead Chinese, out of nearly 20 million Chinese who perished under Japanese occupation, all killed by conventional arms.

Practical political theology demands realistic options, which the Pope’s rejection of nukes failed to do. Catholic influence theoretically could work for unilateral nuclear disarmament by America, Britain and France. But Catholic influence is near zero with Russia, China, and North Korea, or potentially Iran. Would the world be safer if the West abandoned nukes while dictators who persecute the church retained them?

Presumably the Pope and kindred spirits expect the West to persuade dictators to disarm, but dictators more typically respond to pressure, not moral arguments. And while the West persuades dictators to disarm, are the West’s nukes as deterrence still “immoral,” as the Pope insists? His declaration of immorality implies he wants immediate unilateral disarmament, which certainly would disincentivize reciprocity by dictators.
Pope John Paul, in accepting Western nuclear deterrence, seems to have understood its role in preventing Soviet domination and in ultimately persuading the Soviets towards arms control and eventually resulting in the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Pope Francis doesn’t seem to share that strategic insight, patience or deep moral calculation.

There are plenty of Western Protestant groups that share the papal perspective. The National Association of Evangelicals announced its opposition to nukes in 2011. Further left Mainline Protestant groups have opposed nukes for decades, from a mostly pacifist perspective. There arguably are no ecclesial bodies in American Christianity today conducting serious conversations about nukes or any substantive aspect of war and ethics.
Instead there are mostly pronouncements articulating ethereal moral desires without accompanying explanations of steps towards actually achieving some of those desires. Western Christians, after 75 years of peace and prosperity, assume our comfort and security are normal and effortlessly assured. So we demand disarmament without addressing consequences.

This cavalier attitude by Western Christians towards security, peace and freedom is unserious and unchristian. At least the Russian Orthodox, due to centuries of hardship, understand their position, however obtuse. Do we Western Christians really understand our moral and spiritual obligations to address the world as it really is, and to safeguard our patrimony, instead of nursing our preferred fantasies?

  1. Comment by Lee D. Cary on November 25, 2019 at 1:43 pm

    I remember attending the Annual Conference of the Northern Illinois Conference in 1978 when it was announced that President Jimmy Carter had suspended further development of the neutron bomb. The gathering broke into an applause.

  2. Comment by td on November 25, 2019 at 2:14 pm

    Quite a tangent is this article. I really don’t understand your point. Of course the Christian perspective is that it can’t officially support a weapon that has the capability to destroy all human life on our planet. Certainly, you can’t claim that the Catholic Church isn’t orthodox.

    Please compare the position on nuclear weapons with the position on abortion. The catholic position on nuclear weapons and capital punishment is entirely consistent with its position on abortion- they are all unabashedly pro-life.

    Somehow it appears that partisan political alignment is what is coloring this article. Many people on this site assume that there is no orthodox position that is more aligned with the conventional liberal position than with the conventional conservative position.

  3. Comment by Palamas on November 25, 2019 at 7:08 pm

    Here is the problem, as Reinhold Niebuhr described it: as a Christian, you have two options. First, one can seek to ameliorate the sin of the world through the exercise of prudential wisdom in addressing political issues, bringing a Christian moral judgment to bear, but recognizing that it is theologically impossible for the world to accept that judgment in its entirety, thus making any advance partial and possibly temporary. Second, one can take the approach of the Mennonites (in his day, they still did this), and hold out a moral absolutism as a Kingdom imperative, while recognizing that attempting to have political influence while proclaiming such an absolute was a fool’s errand. Niebuhr believed either of these to be a reasonable, theologically justifiable approach.

    Then there’s the third alternative, trumpeted for decades by the mainline churches, and now apparently by the Pope. That approach says that Christian absolutes must be adopted by the nations now, without waiting for Christ’s return, because we are called to bring in the kingdom ourselves. The nations, of course, hear those appeals and laugh, because they seem so disconnected from actual political life. Niebuhr derided such thinking as a toxic combination of absolutist ethics with complete political naivete, and was in no way surprised that the mainline churches, which were becoming more and more focused, pointlessly, on secular politics, were devoid of influence, both with politicians and with their own members, who devoutly ignored their denominations’ attempts to lecture the world.

    The difference between abortion and nuclear weapons should be obvious. Abortion is a decision made by a single individual, who may possibly be open to persuasion. The world’s nations are another kind of moral operator altogether, placing national interest and security above all else. Given the destructive nature of the weapons, it would be literally insane, from the standpoint of the rational secular policy-maker, to abandon such weapons while other, potentially malevolent actors have them. If the Pope called for all nations to lay down such arms, I doubt that anyone would blink an eye. Saying the mere possession of them is itself immoral, in a world where there are those who will never give them up, is simply ridiculous.

  4. Comment by David on November 25, 2019 at 3:33 pm

    If one regularly watches NHK World (English), an agency of the Japanese government, one would come away with the impression that WWII consisted wholly of the atomic bombs and US internment of Japanese persons. Names are added to the list of “victims of the atomic bomb” every year with a good number being over the age of 100. I would not take the stated death tolls so seriously and it is likely that the incendiary bombing of Tokyo killed more.

    The PBS Nova series recently had a program about the history of violence and how it has greatly declined over the ages relative to world population. It was pointed out how remarkable it is that the major military powers have not engaged in direct warfare since the end of WWII. Of course, there have been proxy wars and other conflicts. However, it seems to me that nuclear weapons have played a major role in this. I am not convinced that killing a number of persons with atomic bombs is any worse than killing the same by dropping Sears catalogs on them.

  5. Comment by Tony Heine on November 30, 2019 at 11:39 pm

    “There arguably are no ecclesial bodies in American Christianity today conducting serious conversations about nukes or any substantive aspect of war and ethics.”
    This is, unfortunately, true.
    At a time when changing technology has put our military into ethically vague situations, the church has gone AWOL in its responsibility to give moral guidance.
    And the liberal church’s logically inconsistent versions of pacifism and chants of “nukes bad” do not count as moral guidance.
    Not only are members of the military left without guidance, but the general public, who need this guidance as participants in our republic’s political discourse, is rudderless as well.
    It is not just the use of nuclear weapons that should be addressed. There is a long list of situations faced by our military that are more gray than black and white.
    A short list:
    Targeted assassinations (was it right to go after Yamamoto?)
    Drone and cruise missiles (is it right to put civilians at risk while completely eliminating any risk to our own military personnel?)
    Military interventions to stop a foreign nation from attacking its own people (do we have a moral obligation to intervene, i.e. Maddie Albright’s “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” versus the fiasco that is Libya?)
    The holding of POW’s for an indefinite period of time (if we make a peace deal with the Taliban and pull out of Afghanistan, does that mean all the prisoners captured in Afghanistan and held at Gitmo get released?)
    It isn’t just the church that isn’t thinking about these topics. I find very little serious discussion in the political realm on this, and, surprisingly, the military realm is equally quiet.

  6. Comment by Search4Truth on December 1, 2019 at 8:07 pm

    While the Pope, spiritual leader of the world Catholics, is believed to speak with infallibility in matters of faith and morals, our current pontiff has again demonstrated his total naivety and near total childlike ignorance in matters of politics and diplomacy. Please remember this when he again, and he will, demonstrates the validity and verity of the above statement.

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