The National Catholic Review

In 1970, almost 200 countries signed a document urging nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. It was designed to help nations develop peaceful nuclear energy programs, if they would foreswear nuclear weapons. The five countries possessing such weapons—the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France—would assist with such programs on that condition. In late May 2000, over 150 signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty concluded their periodic meeting to evaluate how the treaty is being observed. There was no joy in the evaluation and considerable dissatisfaction with the United States, which did not appear to be about to phase out nuclear weapons, as it had promised in the N.P.T.

 

One of the most significant contributions to the conference designed to review the treaty was made on May 4 by the Holy See’s permanent observer at the United Nations, Archbishop Celestino Migliore. He reminded the conferees that when the Holy See “expressed its limited acceptance of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War, it was with the clearly stated condition that deterrence was only a stop on the way toward progressive nuclear disarmament.” The archbishop emphatically told the United Nations and the world that the “Holy See has never countenanced nuclear deterrence as a permanent measure.” It is evident, he added, that “nuclear deterrence drives the development of ever newer nuclear arms, thus preventing genuine nuclear disarmament.”

The Vatican’s U.N. observer continued by confirming that the “peace we seek in the 21st century cannot be attained by relying on nuclear weapons.” He warned the signatory nations that the N.P.T. must be observed “in details and in its entirety” and that it is the “only multilateral legal instrument currently available intended to bring about a nuclear weapons-free world.” The warnings of Archbishop Migliore were not extensively discussed at the monthlong U.N. conference in New York. The only nation that could advance meaningful discussion of these points was the United States, and there appeared to be no possibility of such a development because of objections from the White House.

At the U.N. conference on the N.P.T. in 2000, 13 practical steps toward nonproliferation were agreed upon by the Clinton administration. Yet the 184 non-nuclear-weapons nations that had signed onto the N.P.T. have seen scant progress in the implementation of these steps. The United States complied with only one of them. Nor has the Bush administration done much to show any real desire for compliance.

The United States claims that it is, in fact, fulfilling its obligations to disarm by committing itself to reduce its strategic nuclear weapons to 2,200 by the year 2010. That number does not, however, include the thousands of U.S. tactical weapons. Nor does it require the complete destruction of the warheads or delivery vehicles when the treaty expires in 2012.

The United States signed a comprehensive nuclear test ban in 1996, but the Senate refused to ratify it. More than 120 nations, including all U.S. allies, have ratified the treaty. But the White House is lobbying hard to have the Congress approve a “bunker-busting” nuclear bomb, a device that would penetrate the ground before exploding in order to destroy underground targets. Last year the Congress zeroed out all funding for this project.

Today the United States spends more than $27 billion a year for nuclear deterrence. The Bush administration seeks this amount or more for the bombers and the land-and-sea missiles that carry the 7,000 operational nuclear weapons. Another $11 billion is projected for nuclear development and tests. The Bush administration also wants substantial appropriations for the weaponization of space.

Lawrence J. Korb, assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, recommended in The Boston Globe on May 1, 2005, that the United States should announce a plan to reduce its strategic arsenal to 1,000 warheads, even if Russia and the other three nuclear powers do not make a similar pledge. Mr. Korb states that the United States is “spending billions of dollars on useless nuclear weapons.”

The Catholic position on the use of nuclear weapons is clear. Before the 1982 U.N. Special Session on Disarmament, Pope John Paul II allowed that “deterrence based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a step toward progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable.” The U.S. bishops, in their pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace (1993), made “progress toward disarmament a key condition for the moral permissibility of any deterrent arsenal,” and at the end of the cold war (The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace, 1993), they proposed that the goal of deterrent policy ought to be “abolition” of nuclear weapons. Archbishop Migliore’s statement in June advances the same policy line. The moral acceptability of deterrence depends on continued progress toward nuclear disarmament. To this Archbishop Migliore adds, in the context of the N.P.T. review, that nonproliferation among non-nuclear states depends on a grand bargain, in which the nuclear powers meet their commitments to disarmament.

Would it be possible to educate and arouse America’s 64 million Catholics to become a church that is a strong political force aimed at persuading the Congress and the White House to renounce and defuse nuclear weapons? Catholics would find vigorous support from other religious groups. It should be remembered that as long ago as 1986 the Methodist bishops of the United States took the position that nuclear weapons may not be used for any purpose at any time.

Is it possible that representatives of the Catholic Church in the United States could collaborate with American evangelicals in the United States on the morality of using nuclear weapons? There is nothing in the evangelical tradition that would allow the killing of countless persons because their government has a foreign policy contrary to the interests of the American nation.

The words of Archbishop Migliore are unequivocal: “The Holy See has never countenanced nuclear deterrence as a permanent measure nor does it today....” In the month-long U.N. conference on nuclear proliferation, the United States rejected every possible initiative to make commitments or to take measures to alter its policy, which in part is based on the threat of the use of nuclear weapons. That is a policy that the Holy See has once again declared unacceptable.

Former Senator Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia, an expert on arms control, said that the N.P.T. conference was a missed opportunity to reduce nuclear threats. Some of the delegates wondered whether the meeting could actually have weakened the consensus that developed over the 35 years since 1970.

The Holy See, in the words of Archbishop Migliore, has offered truths to American Catholics and to the whole world. They are words that simply cannot be ignored: “Nuclear weapons assault life on the planet, they assault the planet itself, and in doing so they assault the process of the continuing development of the planet.”

[The full text of Archbishop Migliore’s statement can be found in Origins, May 19, 2005.]

Robert F. Drinan, S.J., a member of Congress from 1971 to 1981, is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, D.C. His most recent book, Can God and Caesar Coexist? Balancing Religious Freedom and International La

Comments

Nicholas J. Carroll | 9/11/2005 - 10:41am
I suspect that by now many readers have noted that in his 9/12 article, Fr. Drinan was commenting on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conference of May 2005, not of 2000, as in the text. That none of your editors picked up this error suggests to me what I have long felt, that Catholic journalism pays scant heed to the awesome issue of nuclear annihilation, far more ominous than wars on terrorism or coastal hurricanes.

Since Fr. Drinan holds Jimmy Carter in such esteem, I could wish that he had mentioned that in May the former President called the US the major culprit in the erosion of the NPT. It would also have been relevant to indicate that 75 US Bishops stated in June 1998 that "nuclear deterrence as a national policy must be condemned as abhorrent."

Walter C. Hooke | 2/21/2007 - 9:11am
The article by Robert F. Drinan, S.J., “Holy See Backs Nuclear Disarmament” (9/12), is excellent. We need more articles on this issue and on the church’s positions on war in general. A substantial number of Catholics in the United States think that the church supports the war in Iraq.

Nicholas J. Carroll | 9/11/2005 - 10:41am
I suspect that by now many readers have noted that in his 9/12 article, Fr. Drinan was commenting on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conference of May 2005, not of 2000, as in the text. That none of your editors picked up this error suggests to me what I have long felt, that Catholic journalism pays scant heed to the awesome issue of nuclear annihilation, far more ominous than wars on terrorism or coastal hurricanes.

Since Fr. Drinan holds Jimmy Carter in such esteem, I could wish that he had mentioned that in May the former President called the US the major culprit in the erosion of the NPT. It would also have been relevant to indicate that 75 US Bishops stated in June 1998 that "nuclear deterrence as a national policy must be condemned as abhorrent."