An informative essay at Crisis Magazine by the political scientist Andrew Latham (who has written other informative essays for Crisis, found here) expounds on a webinar co-hosted earlier this year by an academic commission on the removal of arms and proliferation at the University of London and the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. The conference, “Advancing Integral Disarmament in Times of Pandemic,” advanced Pope Francis’ advocacy of peace and disarmament.

What’s “integral disarmament” you ask? Latham provides a tidy summary of its four constituent elements:

  1. It is built on the premise that weapons—nuclear, biological, chemical, and conventional—by their very nature produce evils and disorders that are always greater than the evil they are meant to defend against
  2. It rests on the assumption that merely possessing weapons is immoral because, as long as such weapons exist, they might be used
  3. It assumes that weapons are not well suited to addressing real threats to “integral human security”: asymmetrical conflicts, cybersecurity, environmental degradation, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, environmental destruction, and poverty
  4. It asserts that spending on weapons wastes scarce resources needed to address the root causes of conflicts

Lastly, Latham notes, based on these four assertion, the only viable solution to the “moral, strategic, environmental, and economic problems posed by the development, possession, and proliferation of all forms of weaponry is general and complete disarmament.”

Latham does a fine job of pointing out how integral disarmament is neither grounded in the history of Christian—or specifically Catholic—thinking on issues of war and peace nor innovative and new. It’s certainly not in keeping with traditional just war reminders that because men are sinful the threat of war will always hang over us and responsible political stewardship requires that governments protect the innocent, take back what’s been wrongly taken, and punish sufficiently grave evil. Instead, as Latham points out, the integral disarmament rhetoric is simply recycled nostrums from the aftermath of the First World War that proclaimed war to be caused by weapons manufacturers—or, as he paraphrases the accusation, “‘Big Arma,’ demonic armament firms that pressure nations to start wars…solely to rake in more and more filthy lucre.”

All this should sound familiar to anyone paying attention over the last several years to Pope Francis’ rather silly declarations denouncing weapons manufacturers as “merchants of death.” The Pope’s gone so far as to question the faith of “people, managers, [and] businessmen” in his flock who call themselves Christians and yet “manufacture weapons.” Now, I’ve already written about what I think of the Pope’s slanderous comments in general, but I want to focus here on two things in response to the notion of integral disarmament.

The first is to note the inconsistency of integral disarmament advocates. For instance, in the same address in which he condemned arms manufacturers, Pope Francis criticized historical moral failings among the political leaders of powerful nations in the 20th Century. Singling out perceived missteps related to the Shoah, “The great powers,” the Pope lamented, “had photographs of the railway routes that the trains took to the concentration camps like Auschwitz.” “Tell me,” he insisted, “why didn’t they bomb” those railroad routes?” Francis was referring to photographs of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps which were probably taken inadvertently during allied flyovers to gather photographic intelligence of nearby targets – including the synthetic oil plant at Monowitz, an Auschwitz subcamp. While the photographs indeed show the train lines, gas chambers and crematoria, and hordes of prisoners, military planners, it has been argued, never analyzed the photographs in 1944 and therefore the images probably never played any real role in decisions to bomb or not to bomb the rail lines. In any case, one has to wonder what Pope Francis—having condemned the very existence of conventional weapons—wanted the Allies to bomb those railroad lines with in the first place. Soul force? Pope Francis, in wanting bombs to bomb railway lines in an effort to hamstring the Holocaust, seems to recognize the lie in the abolitionist insistence that weapons always produce “greater evil than the evil they are meant to defend against.”

This takes us to my second point. Given that Pope Francis has tacitly—if accidentally—argued that weapons can in fact have good outcomes and diminish or end particular evils, he has also disproved the integral disarmament argument that nuclear, biological, chemical, and conventional weapons “by their very nature” produce evils and disorders. Weapons—and this is so self-evidently obvious that it feels silly to have to point it out—have no nature onto themselves. Weapons are tools, ‘no better or no worse than any other tool – an ax, a shovel, or anything.’ They are only as good or as bad as those who wield them.

It’s often claimed that at least some weapons are inherently evil—if not conventional ones then, surely, that class of weapons of mass destruction, say, nuclear or chemical weapons. I’ve argued elsewhere (here, here, and here) that nuclear weapons can—and have—been used for moral purposes. The same must be said for weaponized chemical compounds. Such weapons are ghastly to be sure, but ghastliness, while emotive, isn’t really a helpful argument against their use tout court, it certainly isn’t dispositive. In fact, during the—ghastly—war in the Pacific, chemical weapons might have made things less ghastly. Throughout the island-hopping campaigns, US warfighters were faced with the daunting task of fighting Japanese soldiers who employed vast tunnel systems to great effect as attack points and retreats. Conventional artillery and even aerial or naval bombardment were largely ineffective. The vicious, prolonged, and bitter fighting that was required to root the Japanese out resulted in extraordinary carnage. Poison or irritant gases, heavier than the air, might well have been effective in seeping into the cave systems. Some have speculated–as some did at the time–that the threat of using such gases might have compelled the Japanese to surrender—thereby saving even enemy lives. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely. Allies essentially tested the theory, having sometimes poured gasoline, often thickened with napalm jelly, into the caverns in order to burn the Japanese out. Such horrific tactics failed to induce surrender among surviving Japanese. While unfortunate, it remains that allied lives were saved and that more, perhaps, could have been saved had more such similar tactics been used. The point is that certain weapons systems have particular functions in specific contexts that no other weapons system can match. There would seem to be occasions when their use—or threatened use—would reduce the terrible costs of war.

Pope Francis and those within the more extreme elements of the Catholic peace movements—much as their brothers and sisters in Protestant peace movements—have abandoned the more realist, prudent, and theologically consistent dimensions of Christian intelligence on war and peace. It is unfortunate. While one can hope to never have to deploy certain weapons systems—or any weapons system at all–it does no good to forget that those who mean the innocent harm have a say. Sometimes our only choice is how to respond to them. When the malevolent insist on fighting, we ought to have tools capable of mounting a decisive response. When they insist on fighting in particularly ways that allow the horrors of war to be mitigated, we ought still to have weapons systems that can meet, always as discriminately and proportionately as possible, the necessary requirements of taking such fight out of them.

I confess to not understanding the Pope’s idealistic rhetoric. It seems loving on the surface, I get it, but in the end it’s a mockery of love. When the shepherd demands that those charged with the care of the flock lay down their weapons, even in the midst of the howling, history seems clear that only those with a taste for mutton will flourish.