February 2, 2018


We must back away from the threat of nuclear war

With U.S. President Donald J. Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jung Un threatening each other with nuclear weapons, we thought it appropriate to remind readers of just how catastrophic it would be if we had a nuclear war.

Thankfully, a nuclear weapon has not been used for 73 years. Most of those living today might not realize just how powerful these weapons are, and they have been made vastly more powerful than they were in 1945.

A nuclear bomb would kill millions of people, perhaps even more. A study in 2012 by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, reported by Our Sunday Visitor, found that the atmospheric fallout from a limited nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would set off a global famine that could kill 2 billion people.

It’s no wonder that every pope since Pope Pius XII has condemned the use of nuclear weapons and has urged disarmament. Yes, even Pope John Paul I, who was pope for only a month, spoke to members of the diplomatic corps at the Vatican of the importance of ridding the world of nuclear stockpiles.

Venerable Pope Pius XII, who was pope when the United States used nuclear bombs to end World War II, called them “the most terrible weapon that the human mind has ever conceived.”

Pope Francis, obviously, is the most recent pope to condemn the possession of nuclear weapons. He spoke this past November at a conference on disarmament at the Vatican, saying that the very possession of such weapons is immoral: “They cannot constitute the basis for peaceful coexistence between members of the human family, which must rather be inspired by an ethics of solidarity.”

St. Pope John XXIII, in his 1963 encyclical “Pacem in Terris (“Peace in the World”) wrote, “The stockpiles of armaments which have been built up in various countries must be reduced all round and simultaneously by the parties concerned. Nuclear weapons must be banned” (#112).

Blessed Pope Paul VI was the first pope to urge disarmament during a speech to the United Nations, in 1965. He said that the first pathway toward a peaceful history had to be disarmament. Thirteen years later, in a message to the first U.N. conference on disarmament, he said, “Even though the ‘balance of terror’ has been able to avoid the worst and may do so for some time more, to think that the arms race can thus go on indefinitely, without causing a catastrophe, would be a tragic illusion.”

Naturally, because of his long pontificate, St. John Paul II spoke most often about disarmament, including during a visit in 1981 to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on which the United States dropped atomic bombs in 1945. He said then that, because of the growth in stockpiles in quantity and destructive power, the destruction of humanity is a real possibility.

Pope Benedict XVI said, in his first message for World Peace Day, “In a nuclear war there would be no victors, only victims.” Peace, he said, requires that all countries that either have nuclear weapons or plan to acquire them “agree to change their course by clear and firm decisions, and strive for a progressive and concerted nuclear disarmament.”

The U.S. Catholic bishops’ most important document on war and peace was a pastoral letter issued on May 3, 1983, after several years of preparation and widespread consultations with experts. It was called “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.”

The bishops said, “We do not perceive any situation in which the deliberate initiation of nuclear war, on however restricted a scale, can be morally justified.”

As for a limited nuclear war, they said that they were highly skeptical about the real meaning of “limited.” “The first imperative is to prevent any use of nuclear weapons, and we hope that leaders will resist the notion that nuclear conflict can be limited, contained or won in any traditional sense.”

We hope that the presidents of the United States and North Korea will tone down their rhetoric. As Pope Benedict XVI said, “In a nuclear war, there would be no victors, only victims.”

-John F. Fink

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