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?