Nuclear justification is just plain wrong

  • October 11, 2007
The recent decision of North Korea to dismantle its facilities for producing nuclear weapons — if we can believe the leaders of that ruthless totalitarian state — is a faintly hopeful development in the otherwise grim recent history of nuclear proliferation.

More countries than ever now have this terrible weaponry, and the means to deliver it. Nor do any of the nuclear nations — a list that includes the  United States and  Russia,  France and the United Kingdom,  China,  Pakistan,  India and  Israel — show any willingness to give up their bombs.

The excuse most commonly heard for staying armed is the need for “deterrence.” According to this logic, the very existence of weapons of mass destruction insures they will never be used in combat.

But this assumes that each nation’s weapons are under the control of leaders who are perfectly reasonable at all times, immune to the temptation to strike out in anger, incapable of rash acts prompted by revenge or fear or hurt pride. This assumption is flawed, simply because all people, however clever or well-intentioned, are fatally inclined to do stupid and self-destructive things. Christians call this condition original sin. The sorry history of humankind shows that nobody is free of it.

International efforts to stop or slow the spread of nuclear weapons are helpful, as far as they go, and they should be encouraged by Christians and all people of good will.

The recent leadership of the Catholic Church in this matter has been strong and unequivocal. Last month in Vienna, Msgr. Michael Banach, the Holy See’s permanent observer at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, denounced the “culture of conflict and death” encouraged by ever more sophisticated nuclear weapons, and urged the universal adoption of the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, to which the Vatican state is a signatory. Banach said that by signing the treaty the Holy See was expressing its conviction “that in the sphere of nuclear weapons, the banning of tests and the further development of these weapons, disarmament and non-proliferation are closely linked and must be achieved as quickly as possible under effective international controls.”

He added that “this conviction underlies the very mission of the Holy See, which aims at ensuring the common good of the human family through the promotion of a culture of peace based upon the primacy of law and of respect for human rights.” The Vatican representative explicitly rejected the rationale of “deterrence.”

Yet no purely political measure can keep such arms from proliferating as long as they are revered as the best means of securing one’s national identity, population, destiny. The bomb has become the new idol of the weak and the threatened, as well as the strong, all of whom see its horrible power to kill and destroy as their most effective means of salvation. This idolatrous fantasy is what Christians should contest at every opportunity, and seek to defeat.

Earlier this month, in a Vatican television broadcast, Holy See spokesman Federico Lombardi underscored Banach’s message in  Vienna, and explained the Christian mission in exactly the right perspective.

“Nuclear tests serve to develop ever more sophisticated and dangerous weapons, weapons which — contrary to what some claim — will never be ‛clean’ or ‛intelligent,’ ”  Lombardi said. “They will always be the expression of a ‛culture of war and death’ contrary to peace.”

The Jesuit priest added: “Justifying them with the argument that they are for people’s security and protection is an illusion: In reality they lead to nuclear proliferation and therefore to a growing risk for those same people who are supposed to be defended by them. . . . This is about moral obligations of the international community to the whole family of nations and to future generations. From its position of moral authority and of freedom from interest in power, the Holy See will never tire of recalling this for the good of humanity.”

The officialdom of the Catholic Church has not always been so exact and forthright in its rejection of the tools of mass annihilation. Catholics should welcome and encourage this spirit of resistance to the “culture of war and death,” and pray that the church will become an ever more vocal advocate of the culture of peace.

(Mays is a Toronto author and journalist.)

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