Speak out against nuclear weapons

by NCR Editorial Staff

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Just before Election Day, The Associated Press surveyed 21 risk-assessment professionals asking them to list the five biggest threats to the world. Topping the list was climate change and nuclear weapons. The results of the AP survey mirror a much larger survey conducted by the World Economic Forum with help from the National University of Singapore, the University of Oxford and the University of Pennsylvania.

Neither issue found a place on the priorities list of any of the presidential candidates this year. If one considers presidential priorities a barometer for national concern, the absence of these issues is worrisome.

NCR identified climate change as the “church’s No. 1 pro-life issue” in an editorial in our May 23-June 5, 2014, issue. In our last issue, in an editorial under the headline “Raise your voice in defense of creation,” we advocated a course of action that the Catholic community can take now to ease the threat caused by climate change. Through bodies like Catholic Climate Covenant and Global Catholic Climate Movement, which are bolstered by numerous religions congregations and Catholic academic institutions, and motivated by the spiritual leadership that stretches all the way to Pope Francis himself, an infrastructure exists that can advocate effectively for individual and small group actions and public policies that will eventually make a difference in defending creation.

Efforts to foster such an infrastructure -- from think-tank symposiums and white papers to grassroots actions infused with spiritual, moral leadership -- need to be replicated in work to eliminate the world’s nuclear arsenals. Here, as with climate change, the Catholic church can be a prophetic voice.

In fact, the intellectual and public policy infrastructure already exists. Groups like the Federation of American Scientists, Kroc Institutes for Peace at the University of San Diego and the University of Notre Dame, the Arms Control Association, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (hosts of the Doomsday Clock, which is now poised at three minutes before midnight), to name just a few, have the research and expertise to bring sanity to the insanity of nuclear weapons. They have plans and policies ready for politicians to debate and implement.

The international community, through the United Nations, is ready to confront the threat of nuclear disaster. (See story) We welcome and support all efforts to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, to halt their manufacture and to begin their abolition, but we recognize that those actions are years away.

As Catholics, we have a long history of outspokenness against nuclear weapons, from Pope Pius XII in 1943 up to the Vatican’s latest statement in October that “the uneasy peace promised by nuclear deterrence is a tragic illusion” and the indefinite possession of nuclear weapons is “morally wrong.”

The U.S. bishops took a prophetic stand against these weapons in their 1983 peace pastoral. Now would be a good time to update their teaching that deterrence is only morally acceptable as an interim step.

The Catholic Worker Movement and Plowshares activists have been faithful keepers of the peace flame for years, decades even, but the times now call for that fire to be stoked.

What is missing is a compelling articulation of that moral, spiritual vision. Francis did that for climate change. Can he do it again for nuclear weapons? If not Francis, then who?

In his magisterial book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, Eric Schlosser quotes the former commander of the Strategic Air Command Gen. George Lee Butler as saying humanity has escaped “a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greater proportion.”

We are called to be a people of faith, but to continue to rely on divine intervention to escape nuclear disaster is an abuse of that faith. Now is the time for action, action spurred by moral and spiritual leadership.

A version of this story appeared in the Dec 16-29, 2016 print issue under the headline: Speak out against nuclear weapons.

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