According to a news article by the Religion News Service, Pope Francis recently told reporters that the use and possession of weapons should be made “immoral” under official Catholic teaching. This is not the first time the politically liberal Pope has categorically denounced nuclear weapons. In November 2017 he said:
If we also take into account the risk of an accidental detonation as a result of error of any kind, the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned. For they exist in the service of a mentality of fear that affects not only the parties in conflict but the entire human race. International relations cannot be held captive to military force, mutual intimidation, and the parading of stockpiles of arms. Weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, create nothing but a false sense of security. They cannot constitute the basis for peaceful coexistence between members of the human family, which must rather be inspired by an ethics of solidarity. (cf. Message to the United Nations Conference to Negotiate a Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, March 27, 2017)
While current Catholic teaching does not forbid the possession of nuclear weapons for deterrent purposes, Francis, to the applause of pacifists within and without the Catholic Church, appears to be shifting further left from his predecessors. Both Pope John XXIII and John Paul II lamented the existence of nuclear weapons but allowed some space to acknowledge their moral value as a deterrent to further violence.
A quick reminder to those celebrating the pope’s statement: the presence of nuclear weapons is amoral. Morality only becomes relevant when one considers who possesses them. Moral questions surrounding the subject of nuclear weapons have everything to do with who has them and how they are used. There is an implicit moral distinction between the possession of nuclear weapons by North Korea and that of the United States.
Kim Jong-un oversees a communist dictatorship built on racial supremacy. The North Korean people are better described as slaves rather than as citizens. He has expanded the nuclear missile arsenal he inherited. He has continued missile testing to improve the reliability of the missiles and to prove they have the range to hit the United States. It is a crude arsenal meant to coerce national leaders who oppose his desire to unite the Korean Peninsula under the rule of the Kim regime. In other words, he uses the nuclear weapons he possesses to give him greater leverage against the United States, Japan, South Korea, and the many other democratic allies that stand with us. The United States and our allies oppose Kim’s intent to forcibly take over a sovereign nation, the Republic of Korea, and to threaten our ally Japan, which North Korea does repeatedly.
To make what should be clear even clearer, Kim threatens the American people with nuclear weapons to carry out his national objectives. Some try to argue that Kim is merely acting in his national interests because he fears a US-led invasion. But the Kim regime is only at risk to the extent it has the will and capability to harm America and her interests, including the security of our close allies in the region. This assessment is not a matter of moral equivalence. Kim is wrong and wrong to have nuclear weapons as he fails to differentiate between hard military and soft civilian targets.
Compare this to the nuclear arsenal of the United States. The United States maintains a nuclear deterrent meant to prevent the worst kinds of war. It has a vast arsenal with a variety of delivery systems meant to pose a credible threat to diverse military targets in a variety of countries that threaten the United States. The purpose of this force is not to hold at risk soft targets—or civilians. Furthermore, the United States provides nuclear security guarantees to countries that have committed to not possessing their own nuclear weapons. The greater the number of countries with nuclear weapons, the greater the likelihood of nuclear employment or accident. This is why American nuclear deterrence and the resulting assurance it provides to our allies are so critically important. Failing to provide credible assurance could have the unintended effect of tempting nuclear proliferation.
The pontiff is right to express concern about the risks of accidental detonation and the employment of nuclear weapons. He’s just wrong on how best to increase the chances of preventing their employment. Despite his optimism that peace is better achieved without their existence, the reality is nuclear weapons, under the good authority of the United States, are necessary contributions to peace.