Stephen M. Colecchi, NCR Online

We live in the shadow of a nuclear threat. Studies show that a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan could result in 1 billion lives lost. A nuclear war between Russia and the United States would be catastrophic for humanity. What are the nations of the world doing about it? What should we as church be doing?

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons entered into force in 1970. It is the mainstay of global nonproliferation and disarmament efforts. Every five years, the vast majority of the world’s nations gather for a review conference. The 2020 review conference has been postponed twice due to COVID-19. The postponement to 2022 may be a blessing, as it gives the nuclear powers more time to make progress.

The last review conference in 2015 did not go well. The 191 states party to the treaty were unable to reach consensus on a final document. This failure was not a good sign. The grand bargain of the treaty is that nations without nuclear weapons agree not to acquire them and the nations with nuclear weapons commit to disarmament.

pope francis and an anti nuclear missile sign
photo by Jeffrey Bruno

The treaty requires non-nuclear-weapons nations to enter into safeguard agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Agency protocols help ensure that a nation’s non-proliferation commitments are being met. Unfortunately, there is no similar global mechanism to hold the nuclear powers accountable for nuclear disarmament.

Article VI of the non-proliferation treaty commits the nuclear weapons states to “negotiations in good faith” to achieve nuclear disarmament. The United States and Russia have negotiated reductions in their arsenals, the latest being the 2010 New START Treaty. The two nations still possess over 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons. New START capped deployed nuclear warheads at 1,550 each, more than enough to destroy human civilization.

The United States and Russia have not initiated negotiations on further reductions. Further cuts by the two nuclear superpowers are a natural precondition before other nuclear weapons states are likely to agree to multilateral reductions with a goal of “complete disarmament under strict and effective international control,” as envisioned by the non-proliferation treaty.

Ironically, the nuclear powers are modernizing their nuclear arsenals with some developing new nuclear weapons and delivery systems. China is expanding its nuclear arsenal. The United Kingdom recently raised the ceiling of its nuclear warhead stockpile. Prior to the 2015 review conference for the non-proliferation treaty, all of the nuclear weapons states had begun modernizing their nuclear arsenals, including the United States.

Given the actions and inactions of the five nuclear powers that are party to the non-proliferation treaty, is it any wonder that it is difficult for the nations of the world to trust their commitments to disarm? Although the proposal for creating a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Middle East contributed significantly to the failure to reach consensus in 2015, the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament was clearly a major factor.

In 2017, the frustrations of non-nuclear-weapons nations led to a vote by the U.N. General Assembly to “negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.” With impetus from the international conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into force earlier this year. Predictably, none of the nuclear weapons states support the nuclear ban treaty.

What has been the response of church leaders to the failure of nuclear weapons states to meet their disarmament commitments under the non-proliferation treaty? Church leaders have pursued a two-pronged approach: delegitimizing the possession of nuclear weapons, and advocating for step-by-step disarmament initiatives.

In 1963, Pope John XXIII called for nuclear weapons to be “banned” and for “a suitable disarmament program” (Pacem in Terris).

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI asserted, “In a nuclear war there would be no victors, only victims.” Benedict urged “progressive and concerted nuclear disarmament.”

Pope Francis has taken the church’s strategy a step further. Francis has sought to morally delegitimize the possession of nuclear weapons. This process had begun under Benedict, who called the notion of nuclear deterrence ensuring security both “baneful” and “completely fallacious.”

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