Nuclear summit stirs new religious expectations from Vatican, activists

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While Vatican officials are busy working with other religious groups in formulating a collective message on nuclear disarmament, no-nukes activists are looking for ways to influence the actions of their faith leaders.

Vatican officials traveled to Vienna for the third international conference to examine the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons Dec. 8-9 and delivered a message from Pope Francis calling for nations with nuclear arsenals to find a way to rid themselves, and the world, of these kinds of arms.

The message was not a departure from Vatican policy on nuclear weapons, but it did stress that "nuclear deterrence cannot be the basis for peaceful coexistence," a change in tone.

The Vatican's policy has been -- even during the Cold War -- that the possession of nuclear weapons is immoral, but it made allowances for nations that developed their arsenals as a prevention of war, and if stockpiling those weapons was used as a step toward disarmament.

While the pope's statement does not close that loophole, it does publicly show a change in tone on the issue, and a Vatican official, who asked not to be named, said church leaders are in active talks with other religious groups to develop a unified voice on this topic.

The feeling among many at the Vatican is that current nuclear states have not done enough to move the world toward nuclear disarmament, and they want to see a new way of thinking among these nations, the Vatican official told Catholic News Service during an interview Monday in Vienna.

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 2010 "fell short of our expectations," the Vatican official said. "Reduction and disarmament requires a global ethic and cooperation. Now is the time to affirm the immorality of using these weapons, but it's also the time to affirm the immorality of holding onto these weapons. We need to stress that nuclear [arms] elimination is possible, and imperative."

The Vatican official confirmed that the Vatican has had talks with leaders of the Anglican Communion, as well as the Russian Orthodox Church, about language concerning nuclear disarmament, but also said that no formal document has been agreed upon.

A galvanized group of younger no-nukes activists, who met for their own conference Dec. 6-7 in Vienna at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons Civil Society Forum, said they were encouraged by Pope Francis' message and hoped he would issue an even stronger statement in the future.

Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, told Catholic News Service on Tuesday that she especially appreciated the pope's reference to survivors like her, and survivors of nuclear testing, which she said highlights the human impact of nuclear weapons.

Other activists, who called the pope the world's most popular leader, said his voice on this topic would carry great influence with many nations who possess nuclear weapons and with other religious leaders.

Several no-nukes activists said they are watching the actions of religious leaders on this subject and are calling on them to adopt zero-tolerance nuclear weapons policies.

They also raised concerns that some religious institutions have investments in companies that build military weapons and nuclear arms and are calling for more transparency in their financial dealings.

Vatican officials have insisted for years that Vatican institutions have only ethical investments and that their portfolios are reviewed regularly. Cardinal George Pell, the prefect of the new Secretariat for the Economy, has insisted he will continue and strengthen that policy.

Representatives of more than 150 countries gathered for the Vienna conference, the third of its kind in recent years. The U.S. and U.K. did not sent representatives to the Norway or Mexico conferences, but opted to send delegates to the Vienna meeting, giving activists hope for progress in future disarmament treaties.

"We are closer than we have ever been to starting negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons," said Beatrice Fihn, executive director of ICAN. "We are confident that governments will find the courage to embark on a diplomatic process to develop a new international treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons."

Throughout the two-day Vienna conference, country representatives heard scientific experts detail what would be the gruesome and devastating outcomes of nuclear strikes between two nations such as the U.S. and Russia.

They were told the initial explosions would kill thousands of civilians and reduce targeted cities to rubble, and that long-term effects could include an altered global ecosystem that would result in the starvation of billions of people during the course of a decade.

"The impact of nuclear weapons is even worse than we previously understood and the risk of their use is even greater than governments have admitted," said Thomas Nash, a representative of ICAN and director of a U.K.-based weapons monitoring group, Article 36. "We expect states to respond to this evidence by launching a process toward a ban on nuclear weapons by the time of the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki next August."

In his Dec. 8 statement read at the Vienna conference, Pope Francis said nuclear deterrence "and the threat of mutually assured destruction cannot be the basis for an ethics of fraternity and peaceful coexistence among peoples and states."

"The youth of today and tomorrow deserve far more," the pope said in his statement. "They deserve a peaceful world order based on the unity of the human family, grounded on respect, cooperation, solidarity and compassion. Now is the time to counter the logic of fear with the ethic of responsibility, and so foster a climate of trust and sincere dialogue."

[Cindy Wooden at the Vatican contributed to this story.]

A version of this story appeared in the Dec 19, 2014-Jan 1, 2015 print issue under the headline: Nuclear summit stirs new religious expectations.

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