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"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Pope Calls for Nuclear Weapons Ban
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October 2015

By Daryl G. Kimball

In his September 25 address to the UN General Assembly, Pope Francis said there is an “urgent need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons.” (Photo credit: Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)In his first-ever address to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 24, Pope Francis delivered a powerful denunciation of nuclear deterrence and reiterated the Holy See’s call for action to eliminate the threats posed by nuclear weapons.

“An ethics and a law based on the threat of mutual destruction and possibly the destruction of all mankind are self-contradictory and an affront to the entire framework of the United Nations,” he said.

“There is urgent need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons, in full application of the [nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT], in letter and spirit, with the goal of a complete prohibition of these weapons,” he said.

The pontiff’s remarks to the General Assembly follow his written statement delivered to a December 2014 conference in Vienna on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons use. In that speech, he reiterated the Roman Catholic Church’s call for the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, deplored excessive spending on nuclear weapons, and urged world leaders to renew action on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. (See ACT, January/February 2015.)

In more recent statements, Vatican officials have expanded on these themes, arguing that precisely because of the growing tensions among nuclear-armed countries and the risk that additional states may acquire nuclear weapons, there must be renewed action for global nuclear arms control and disarmament.

In a statement delivered Sept. 14 to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, said, “The Holy See has no illusion about the challenges involved in achieving a world free of nuclear weapons.”

Although “[p]rogress has been made” through the NPT, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), New START, and “unilateral initiatives and other measures,” those efforts “are limited, insufficient, and often frozen in space and time,” he said.

The NPT review conference earlier this year failed to reach agreement on an action plan to update specific commitments on disarmament and nonproliferation goals, due in part to differences among states in the Middle East on convening a conference to discuss a zone free of weapons of mass destruction and in part to the reluctance of some nuclear-armed states to commit to faster action on nuclear disarmament. (See ACT, June 2015.)

“Precisely because of growing tensions, the nuclear powers must renew arms control and disarmament processes,” Gallagher said in his remarks to the IAEA conference. Gallagher highlighted the need for “real efforts toward facilitating the entry into force of the CTBT, which represents the best hope of stemming nuclear proliferation and is a key to progress on nuclear disarmament.”

In Francis’ UN address, he also welcomed the July 14 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers. He described the agreement as “proof of the potential of political good will and of law, exercised with sincerity, patience, and constancy. I express my hope that this agreement will be lasting and efficacious and bring forth the desired fruits with the cooperation of all the parties involved.”

In remarks at a Sept. 17 forum in Washington, ahead of the pope’s U.S. visit to that city, his first stop in the United States, Bishop Oscar Cantu, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that the Vatican’s recent, higher-profile stance on nuclear weapons issues builds on long-standing Catholic teaching on the immorality of nuclear weapons.

Cantu noted that just months after Washington and Moscow narrowly averted nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis, Pope John XXIII delivered an April 1963 encyclical letter, “Pacem in Terris.”

In that letter, John also argued, “Nuclear weapons must be banned. A general agreement must be reached on a suitable disarmament program, with an effective system of mutual control.” Four months later, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union concluded the Limited Test Ban Treaty.

Cantu explained that the Catholic Church’s view of the immorality of the use and the threat of use of nuclear weapons is underpinned by several features of nuclear weapons: they do not discriminate between combatants and civilians, they can produce catastrophic global effects, and they achieve a very low probability of success. Cantu noted Pope Benedict XVI’s January 1, 2006, statement that, “[i]n a nuclear war, there would be no victors, only victims.”

Correction: The original online version of this article misidentified the pope who issued the encyclical letter, “Pacem in Terris.” It was John XXIII.