Nuclear-free and Covid-free


As Covid-19 continues its seemingly-inexorable march through many nations, New Zealand wants to be able to continue to be “Covid-free”, with cases being caught and contained at the borders.

This desire is situated in a land that has prided itself since the 1980s on being “nuclear free”. It is not a phrase that is much-trumpeted today, with the impact of the pandemic dominating the news. But it will probably be highlighted again next month when the 75th anniversaries of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki take place.

Pope Francis visited these cities last year. At Hiroshima, he declared once more, “that the use of atomic energy for purposes of war is today, more than ever, a crime not only against the dignity of human beings but against any possible future for our common home. The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possession of atomic weapons is immoral [and] . . . we will be judged on this”.

This came two years after he reportedly became the first Pope to condemn explicitly not only the use of nuclear weapons, but also “the threat of their use, as well as their very possession”. This came at a Vatican symposium in November, 2017.

According to a 2018 article on the website by Gerard Powers from the University of Notre Dame (US), the papal statement was against a background of “massive nuclear modernisation programmes, faltering arms control measures, and nuclear brinksmanship” that harkened back to the Cold War era.

Powers wrote that the Pope’s comments did not represent a major change on the Church’s position on nuclear weapons – every Pope since Hiroshima has sought to marginalise nuclear weapons and has insisted on the need for progress towards mutual, verifiable nuclear disarmament.

But Powers said Francis’ words condemning nuclear deterrence were a “departure of sorts” from St John Paul II’s “interim ethic” on this subject.

John Paul had taught that, in the current circumstances – in 1982 – deterrence based on balance . . . “as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable”.

Powers wrote that: “Pope Francis has now made a prudential moral judgement, based on his reading of today’s very different signs of the nuclear times, that the strict conditions for the moral acceptability of deterrence are not being met. He has not abandoned his predecessor’s formula, but has applied it to current conditions and come to a different prudential moral judgement.”

The Cold War, which provided the backdrop to John Paul II’s assessment, has been over for decades. As Power pointed out, “the Holy See has welcomed the deep cuts in US-Russian nuclear stockpiles. Nevertheless, the ‘peace dividend’ that was supposed to come with these deep cuts has not materialised. Arms control initiatives have stalled, the nuclear-weapon states have not upheld their end of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s (NPT) grand bargain, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has not gone into effect (but nations have largely followed its rules), and major nuclear powers have embarked on massive modernisation programmes. Therefore, the Holy See has concluded that nuclear deterrence has not been used as a step toward disarmament, but has become an end-in-itself, a principal impediment to disarmament”.

On a more hopeful note, the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted by 122 United Nations member states. The treaty goes into effect when 50 nations ratify it. According to a recent CNS article, the UN reported in mid-July that 38 nations have done so, with the Holy See being among the first. New Zealand also signed the treaty on the first day it could be signed, and this nation ratified it in 2018.

Ultimately, the goal should be what St John XXIII called “integral disarmament” – which, according to Powers “assumes that the long-term goal of abolishing nuclear weapons has to be part of a much larger cosmopolitan project of developing a global ethic of peace and solidarity that can ground a system of cooperative security”.

As Pope Francis said in Hiroshima last year: “A true peace can only be an unarmed peace”, because peace is not merely the absence of war . . . .”

“It is the fruit of justice, development, solidarity, care for our common home and the promotion of the common good, as we have learned from the lessons of history.”


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Michael Otto

Reader Interactions


  1. Hamaya says

    Present New Zealand prime minister’s speech about Nuclear Weapon Ban is very impressive.
    It is in very contrast to Japanese prime minister who repeats only excuse to deny sign to Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty, and wants his personal political self-satisfaction as legacy.
    Last year, Japanese prime minister said “Japan and Vatican are partner where value peace, human rights or realization of nuclear-free world” toward Pope. but he has done nothing.

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