Father Drew Christiansen of Georgetown University is co-editor of A World Free from Nuclear Weapons: The Vatican Conference on Disarmament. It shares the Catholic Church’s latest teaching under Pope Francis on nuclear weapons, which essentially rejects their possession, even for deterrence.

Our position at Providence, from a Christian Realist perspective, is more favorable to U.S. nuclear deterrence. But Father Christiansen graciously offers a very educational overview on this issue and on the church’s evolving stance on just war teaching.

Mark Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy here in Washington DC with the pleasure today of speaking with my friend Father Drew Christiansen at Georgetown University, formerly editor of America magazine, a Jesuit priest and distinguished scholar who was edited a new book on “a world free from nuclear weapons” which shares the latest Catholic thinking on nuclear weapons. And if I understand it correctly, advocates for the abolition of nuclear weapons globally. So Father Drew, it’s great to have you in this conversation.

Drew Christiansen: Good to be with you, Mark.

Mark Tooley: So what is this book actually about, what does it contain, and what is its purpose?

Drew Christiansen: Well, its purpose is to acquaint people with the kind of discussion that went around the negotiation and the adoption of the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons that was completed in the summer of 2017. Pope Francis with Cardinal Turkson hosted a meeting at the Vatican the following November and the book contains the papers presented there and they’re by a variety of people, by several Nobel Prize laureates who made individual presentations but also wrote to the Pope a collective letter. And then diplomats involved in the negotiation in one way or another like Rose Gottemoeller from the US. She was that by that time Deputy Secretary General of NATO. Oh, she’d been Under Secretary of State in the US for International Security and Disarmament Affairs.

And she did a “debate.” Basically, they were set speeches with two or three people who were principal movers of the Treaty. Ambassador Jorge Lomónaco from Mexico who is said to have been the intellectual author of the document and then Ambassador Hajnoczi, I think, from Austria is an old Hungarian names. I’m not sure how to how to pronounce. But they all spoke. And then a lot of people from civil society, including Beatrice Fihn, who represented ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which was one of the civil society sponsors of the activity that led up to the ban treaty, and she and they had won the Nobel Peace Prize that year. And then we had delegations, of students from three Catholic universities that were collaborating together, Georgetown, Catholic University of America and Notre Dame, and a couple of faculty members as well.

So it was quite a range of people. And the idea was to kind of begin to get the sense of how this Treaty has risen and and how people from different parts of the world, including Africa, had done this kind of project.

Mark Tooley: And does this work represent a transition in Catholic thought in terms of absolutizing a prohibition on nuclear weapons that perhaps was not present in the teachings of previous popes like John Paul II?

Drew Christiansen: Well, I would say it’s a step, it’s not a big step because as early as Pacem in terris in 1963 St Pope John 23rd had said, speaking of a nuclear disarmament that the end was the abolition of nuclear weapons. So he already projected that. And the Vatican and the US Bishops Conference actually in the 90s also said that the ultimate goal of policy ought to be the abolition of nuclear weapons. So it wasn’t that this was the time to come, at that point, but that they foresaw that as being where we were moving. And then I’d say early in the last decade, representatives of the Holy See, the Secretaries of State for Relation to State or the Secretary of State himself at various UN meetings had spoken against deterrence being a kind of obstacle to abolition and ultimately kind of advocating for abolition. So when this conference took place the Vatican had already signed and ratified the Treaty. It’d had been close to some of the people who would organized the negotiation. And Pope Francis at a meeting, at an audience with some participants at the conference, or symposium as it was called, basically offered the first kind of condemnation of deterrence that wasn’t just a questioning of it. It wasn’t kind of saying that it was an obstacle. He said that possession of nuclear weapons and that the use or threat to use them was to be finally condemned. And so that’s what was known as the firm condemnation. It wasn’t just in prospect, it arrived and since then he’s reiterated that last year in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And then, again, it’s been reiterated again this year, a couple of times, so it’s a firm position that he’s he’s taken and it’s now been absorbed I think into the teaching of the Church.

Mark Tooley: Now, if I’m recalling correctly back to the 1980s, the American Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter on nuclear weapons took a strong stance against nuclear weapons, but again, if I’m recalling correctly, it suggested that in terms of America’s nuclear umbrella for Western Europe under NATO that with the removal of nuclear weapons there should be the replacement of conventional arms to counteract the Soviet Union. But many have the impression that Pope Francis has moved away, of course back in those days the objections to nuclear weapons were often from a just war argument, but many have the impression today that Pope Francis has moved away from and rejected out right the just war tradition in terms of the least a few words that are said about it in the latest papal encyclical Fratelli tutti, I hope I’m pronouncing that correctly. Is that the impression, correct, that Pope Francis essentially moving towards a pacifist stance for the church?

Drew Christiansen: Well, I think he’s resisting going to the pacifist stance. It’s been urged by Pax Christi International, at least a wing of Pax Christi. Pax Christi would like him to take a “just peace” position, which is the position which is articulated by Protestant and Catholic moralists back in the 90s, including like John Langan from the Georgetown faculty, to kind of expand the grounds that would, various things that you could do to avoid war, I suppose, to raise the level, of the, the ability to have recourse to war. But within that there’s also been a group that’s urged him to reject just war. He’s not done that. But I’d say certainly he’s asked some hard questions and I’ve had a couple of pieces I’ve done for America and for the Berkeley Forum at Georgetown, which I’ve talked about, about what he doesn’t. He talks about
humanitarian, defensive and precautionary excuses. And well those are titles of types of rationales for resorting to force, humanitarian arguments, precautionary is the international legal language for just war principles. That’s basically the same principles, but international law since the 1890s has called them precautionary principles. And basically, that’s jus ad bellum principles. And you know to call them all excuses is really kind of putting the legitimacy of just war in question. But he doesn’t go so far as to condemn it outright, as far as I see. But he’s putting more distance, is more skeptical. And I think for the same reasons that John Paul II grew skeptical at the end. If you remember, Centesimus Annus, the encyclical on the anniversary of Rerum Novarum, he has three paragraphs. I think it’s 22 to 25 and 52 that talk about war, and in 22 and 25 or 23 and 25 and then again in 52 he lays out the kind of reasoning. And the first two are more spiritual reasons, and that’s where he kind of identifies with the suffering Christ as a model of nonviolent transformation of of history.

And then, and it says that the people who won the victory over communism in 1989 through persistence in nonviolent actions. But then in 52 he quotes Paul VI about war never again. And then he elaborates, what happens is war. It’s a long run-on sentence, but he talks about all the consequences of war. And so what you see is that he’s using arguments that put into question the possibility of just war. And so he was moving in that direction, I think, in his last years as well. And I think what we see with Pope Francis is his arguments still tend to be just war arguments. One place I quote James Turner Johnson, a Protestant moralist. It was very critical of bishops, US bishops. And he, he said when it came to nuclear war, they were just war pacifists. We oppose the use of nuclear weapons in warfare on just war grounds. Well, I think what you can say is that Francis seems to be questioning the use of just war rationale on just war practices and consequences. And much as John Paul II did because of what it does to the people who do it. Or what it does in terms of wider consequences and the wider consequences. He traces out in different parts of Tutti frutti Tutti frutti sorry. I apologize!

Mark Tooley: We all say that!

Drew Christiansen: Fratelli tutti. In terms of his thesis about connections. And so what he sees is that there are waves on waves of consequences that proceed from going to war. So the simplest one that we can look at more recently is the refugee question. That if war even civil conflict produces refugees and that problem isn’t solved then you continue to have more problems in terms of the internal cohesion of social groups like in the European Union. And internal tensions within political blocs and so on and so forth. And so he says we have to consider that these ripples, if you will, of violence that proceed and it’s when you take that view of proportionality ad bellum it becomes much more difficult to say, well, we, we really need to use force. In the two articles I’ve done, and I hope to have an expanded version out later, I looked at the Responsibility to Protect which it seems to me, is in a sense, even George Weigel said now this is really what fits with what Augustine meant by just war. But you’re protecting innocent people who are being slaughtered, but by others. So you’re intervening to protect them. In those situations you have to use restraint. And I think that Francis is insisting that even there we look very carefully. But it seems to me we can’t abandon, that I think Pope Benedict in his address to the UN in 2008 gave a very strong endorsement of Responsibility to Protect. And Responsibility to Protect also coincides with the definition of political legitimacy in Pacem in Terris, which is the kind of cornerstone of modern Catholic political thought based on human rights. And it says that the end of the universal common good, for which there needs to be some kind of public authority, should defend and protect the human rights of all people. And that you know when their own states don’t do it, and then other political authorities, is the term that the Pacem in Terris uses, need to take action. Well, that’s essentially the argument you have in the jurisprudence of Responsibility to Protect that when a state ceases to protect people and sovereignty is understood in terms of the right to protect the population and empower their rights. If you cease to do that, then other states, other powers have a duty to intervene to protect those people. And I don’t see him walking away from that or the church as a whole, walking away from that. I think that’s so central to our understanding for political legitimacy.

Mark Tooley: So there could never be a complete rejection of lethal force by legitimate authorities because civil order depends on it ultimately?

Drew Christiansen: I think so. I don’t think it can be completely and I think he’s been very careful about not doing that. But rhetorically he takes a strong really strong position, you know.

Mark Tooley: And for critics of this perspective on nuclear weapons or on his wider stance on nuclear issues, they would say nuclear weapons are a reality that inevitably some regimes are going to procure them, that they’re impervious to any moral appeal. So the only regimes that would be influenced by these moral appeals are those regimes that in fact need the weapons most to defend civil order from aggressors. So what would be the response to those kinds of practical arguments?

Drew Christiansen: Well, I don’t think that Francis is opposed or the Holy See are opposed to negotiation and step by step disarmament. And the hard questions get when you get down below 500 weapons on the side. But short of that, the Holy See continues to insist on negotiation. And but also it’s insistent on something which is embedded in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, article six, which is general and complete disarmament, which relates to other issue about conventional defenses. It’s a much harder issue. But, I think it’s going to get new attention because of the problems of the turns today. Deterrence is in very bad shape, strategically and conceptually. You have now nine nuclear powers, both superpowers and regional powers. Having a deterrence in that kind of context, it’s not the same as having when you have two superpowers. You know, it’s much more difficult calculation and much more easy to be deceived and so on. And then you, you have the complications that are added by, you know, some very close regional rivalries like India and Pakistan. Or Iran and Israel.

It seems to me that that triggers for regional nuclear war are there that could lead to a larger conflagration. In addition, you have the new technologies which allow, increase the possibility of accidents and miscalculation. Cyber warfare, for instance, which is a major threat, and we haven’t begun to really grapple with what that means for nuclear weapons. Or the new new weapons like the hypersonic weapons which you know you can’t defend against. So you know any kind of an ABM system will not be able to defend against or you know, certain kind of submarine ballistic missiles. They have now torpedoes that really are very stealthy and can’t be detected. So, the situation has gotten much, much more difficult and seems to me that, for that reason, I think in time, abolition is going to be more appealing to everyone. How, you know, negotiating down to the end, getting monitoring, verification, compliance, all that’s going to be difficult, but it seems to me that the current kind of confusion of the whole field of deterrence means that it’s going to collapse of its own weight.

Mark Tooley: And finally, Father Drew, getting more theological and which may be challenging for you, but you’ll enjoy the challenge. A Christian Realist and others would say war and aggression, given the state of fallen humanity, war and aggression will always be with us till the end of the age. It can be limited, contained, forestalled but never eliminated and therefore appropriate precautions must always be taken. So what would your response be to that?

Drew Christiansen: I think if you look at John Paul you see someone who in a particular very heightened situation thought that deterrence should work and therefore established the kind of framework under which the US bishops worked in greater detail for the three conditions conditions for nuclear deterrence to be moral. By the time he gets to 1991 he is he’s also advocated nonviolence in Poland, his leadership there was a nonviolent leadership. He counsels the people in nonviolence. When he wrote some things in Centesimus Annus he praises the nonviolent activists who brought about the change. And he says, it’s a very complicated difficult to remember phrase, but he talks about how those who opted for nonviolence knew the difference between, if you will, between the cowardice that gives in to oppression, on the one hand, and the violence that’s generated the name of defending against oppression, so that that he was saying, yeah, I begin to see the violence is committed by people who carry out war in just causes. And that’s the walk that we will have to do, it seems to me. Christians can never keep nonviolence out of their out of their arsenal, it seems to me, and keep on the dialogue in our own heads going on between nonviolence and unnecessary pessimism, but nonviolence and just war. It seems to me that we each need to be constantly questioning whether the violence we’re going to do is going to cause greater violence that we’re trying to overcome or whether we’re sitting in that emotion of chain reaction, it will be difficult to stop. And for that reason we need to have restraint. The bishops in 1993 said you can practice just war without the spirit of restraint and moderation. And it seems to me that means, you know, constantly being in dialogue with non pviolence as you carry out you know your just war principals.

Mark Tooley: Father Drew Christiansen, editor of this new book on freeing the world from nuclear weapons, thank you very much for a fascinating conversation.

Drew Christiansen: Thank you, Mark, has been very good being with you, with your audience.