In 1963, Pope John XXII wrote in Pacem in terris, “In our time, which prides itself in its atomic weapons, it is contrary to reason to hold that war is any longer an appropriate means to restoring violated rights.” Twenty years later, in 1983, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response. In it the bishops held that the possession and maintenance of nuclear weapons was morally acceptable only on a temporary and conditional basis, the condition being that time be bought to achieve negotiated general multilateral disarmament. Last November, thirty-six years later, having informed the United Nations through the Holy See’s representatives that time had run out—that the condition had not been achieved—Pope Francis made it clear that there is no longer any legal or moral justification for the construction, possession, or maintenance of nuclear weapons.
It is hoped that within a few months a small delegation from the peace movement in the United States will travel to Rome to discuss the issue with Cardinal Turkson and the staff of the Vatican Justice and Peace Commission, and, with any luck, Pope Francis himself. Does it not seem appropriate that the church go on record in defense of anyone, civilian or military, who refuses in good conscience to participate in the deployment or maintenance of nuclear weapons, and that a form of conscientious objection be instituted in law to protect any such individual from negative sanctions? Of course, it is hardly likely that the United States or any of the other nuclear powers would institute such legislation. Maybe Andorra and Costa Rica! But it would be a significant moment if the church took that stand.