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The Popes and the moral revolt against nuclear weapons

The development of the Catholic Church’s Magisterium on the tragic reality of war, in the light of the devastation of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

By Alessandro Gisotti

There is a before and after Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the history of humanity.

There is also a before and after regarding the way the Church looks at the tragic experience of war through the Magisterium of the Popes. The devastation caused by nuclear weapons obliged the Church to reconsider the theme of warfare in a new way. Never in history had humanity possessed a weapon capable of potentially erasing all human traces on the face of the earth.

Pope Pius XII

Such an unprecedented situation weighed so heavily on the heart of Pope Pius XII that, in a Radio Message of 24 August 1939, he issued a prophetic warning: “Nothing is lost with peace. Everything can be lost with war”. Six years later, those words took on a tragic new meaning. As demonstrated by the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, everything can truly “be lost with war”.

On 8 February 1948, Pope Pius XII received the members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Through them, he addressed a question to scientists all over the world: “What misfortunes should humanity expect from a future conflict, if it should prove impossible to arrest or curb the use of ever newer and ever more surprising scientific inventions?”

Pope Saint John XXIII

In October 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, Moscow and Washington appeared to step away from using the atomic bomb. It took 13 very long days, leaving humanity breathless, to find a negotiated solution. American President Kennedy and his Russian counterpart Khrushchev stopped just before the abyss. If they did so, it was also thanks to Pope John XXIII who used every means at his disposal, from prayer to diplomacy, to open up new spaces for dialogue. The future Saint used Vatican Radio to ensure that his message of peace reached as far as possible, including the White House and the Kremlin. In a Radio Message of 25 October 1962, he exhorts the nation’s leaders to avoid “the horrors of war”, saying how “no one can predict the terrible consequences” of a conflict that includes nuclear weapons.

Pacem in terris

The Cuban missile crisis had a powerful impact on Pope Saint John XXIII. He became more and more convinced of the need to deepen and develop Catholic doctrine on the theme of war and peace. In April 1963, the Pope published his Encyclical Pacem in terris, addressed not only to believers but, as we read in the title page of the text, “to all people of good will”. The strength of the document lies precisely in the capacity for argument that even a non-believer can recognize and accept. In the atomic age, Pope John XXIII observes, it is “extraneous to reason” to think that war can be used “as an instrument of justice”. That is why stopping the arms race and promoting integral disarmament are objectives called for by “right reason”.

Pope Saint Paul VI

Pope Saint Paul VI followed the witness given by his predecessor. He concluded the Second Vatican Council and made his own the commitment that humanity should never again suffer the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Council document Gaudium et spes notes that military actions carried out with nuclear weapons exceed “the limits of legitimate defense”, and that if the atomic arsenals possessed by the Great Powers were fully utilized, “there would be the almost total destruction of the contending parts”. Hence the Pope’s and the Council Fathers’ definition as a “crime against God and against humanity itself” any war that “indiscriminately aims at the destruction of entire cities or vast regions and their inhabitants”.

At the United Nations

Pope Saint Paul VI’s address before the United Nations General Assembly on 4 October 1965, echoed this message. If you want to be brothers and sisters, said the Pope, “let the arms fall from your hands… especially the terrible arms that modern science has provided you, engender bad dreams, feed evil sentiments, create nightmares, hostilities, and dark resolutions even before they cause any victims and ruins.” As he had done when visiting India the year before, the Pope asked world leaders to “devote to the benefit of developing nations at least a part of the money that could be saved through a reduction of armaments.”

Vatican diplomacy

Like John XXIII before him, Paul VI too placed Vatican diplomacy at the service of the cause of peace and nuclear disarmament. The role of Cardinal Agostino Casaroli was particularly significant. In 1971, he flew to Moscow to deliver the document confirming the Holy See’s adhesion to the Nuclear Arms Non-Proliferation Treaty. The future Cardinal Secretary of State also addressed the UN Special Assembly on Disarmament in 1978, reading a message sent by Paul VI. “The question of war and peace”, wrote the Pope, “is posed today in new terms”, because for the first time humanity has at its disposal “a potential that is amply capable of annihilating all life on the planet”. For this reason, disarmament was now a moral imperative.

Pope Saint John Paul II

Like his predecessors, Saint John Paul II addressed scientists with particular attention, reminding them of the primacy of the spirit over matter, the value of technological progress that favors humanity. At UNESCO headquarters in Paris on 2 June 2 1980, the Pope invited scientists to demonstrate they were more powerful than the powerful of the earth and asked them to commit all their moral authority to saving humanity from nuclear destruction. The following year, Pope John Paul II visited the Far East. On 25 February 1981, he was at the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima. Here he emphasized that if remembering the past means making a commitment to the future, then remembering Hiroshima means being horrified by the idea of nuclear warfare.

At Hiroshima

While in Hiroshima, the Pope met with the “Hibakusha”, survivors of the atomic explosion, and again he addressed scientists, stressing the moral question posed by the very existence of weapons capable of destroying humanity. He spoke of a “moral crisis” after the atomic bombings and denounced the arms race. Pope John Paul II then launched a “great challenge” to the most brilliant minds and leaders of the world. A challenge that, in his words, “consists in harmonizing the values of science and the values of conscience”. “Our future on this planet, exposed as it is to the risk of nuclear annihilation”, he warned, depends on a single factor: “humanity must implement a moral upheaval”. During his long pontificate, Pope John Paul II often denounced the horror and senselessness of a war waged with weapons of mass destruction. He relentlessly encouraged disarmament efforts, and played a historically recognized role in ending the Cold War and the “balance of terror” based on the policy of nuclear deterrence between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Pope Benedict XVI

For his part, Pope Benedict XVI too recalled the deep wound inflicted on the whole of humanity by the atomic bombings. He supported the United Nations’ commitment to progressive disarmament and the creation of nuclear weapon free zones. In his Message for World Peace Day 2006, he defines as “baneful” and “fallacious” the perspective embraced by those governments that “count on nuclear arms as a means of ensuring the security of their countries”. “In a nuclear war”, he notes, “there would be no victors, only victims.” Four years later, when receiving the new Japanese ambassador to the Holy See, the Pope again recalled the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “This tragedy reminds us insistently of the need to persevere in our efforts in favor of the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and disarmament”, he said.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis has continued and intensified efforts to avoid what he calls the “suicide” of humanity. The Pope hosted a November 2017 Conference in the Vatican, bringing together politicians, Nobel Prize winners, and scientists, to search for new ways to free the world from nuclear weapons. The timing of the event was equally important coming at a moment of escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea. Addressing the opening of the Conference, Pope Francis said: “Nuclear weapons are not only immoral but must also be considered an illegal means of warfare.”

A month after that Conference Pope Francis addressed the question again during an in-flight press conference returning from Bangladesh. “We are at limits of legality in terms of possessing and using nuclear weapons”, he said. “With such a sophisticated nuclear arsenal, we risk destroying humanity, or at least of a large part.”

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

While awaiting Pope Francis’ visit to the Memorials of Peace in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the most evocative image of his commitment to disarmament is undoubtedly the picture of the child carrying his little brother who died in the nuclear bombing. This picture so touched his heart that Pope Francis had it reproduced and distributed to journalists  accompanying him to Chile in January last year. “An image like this moves us more than a thousand words”, he told them.

More than a thousand words, an image like this questions our consciences and delivers an urgent warning: never again must humanity experience the devastation of an atomic attack.

Never again.

23 November 2019, 13:53