In the Heart of the Church
Remarks at Global Zero Summit
Most Reverend Edwin F.
O’Brien, Archbishop of Baltimore
Paris, February 3, 2010
As a Catholic bishop and a
long-time pastor of the military and their families, it is both an
honor and a welcome opportunity to be part of Global Zero and to
address those in attendance at this Summit. It is an opportunity
because the Catholic Church has longstanding moral teaching on
Almost 45 years ago, the
Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, unequivocally condemned
"total war" and what we would now call "weapons of mass
destruction." They solemnly declared: "Any act of war aimed
indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or extensive
areas along with their population is a crime against God and man
himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation."1
The Fathers of the Council
were also profoundly skeptical of the long-term efficacy of
"deterrence" as a basis for peace. They argued that "the arms race …
is not a safe way to preserve a steady peace, nor is the so-called
balance resulting from this race a sure and authentic peace." They
concluded that "the arms race is an utterly treacherous trap for
humanity, and one which ensnares the poor to an intolerable degree."
The Council called for multilateral, verifiable "disarmament" as a
surer path to true peace.2
So the Church’s moral teaching
on nuclear weapons is not new. It grows out of a deep and abiding
commitment to protect human life that is rooted in the teachings of
Jesus, who said, "I came so that they might have life and have it
Scriptures, the fifth commandment is clear: "You shall not kill."
Our Church works consistently to defend the life and dignity of all:
the unborn, the poor, the immigrant, and persons in every age and
condition of life. This moral commitment to protecting human life
led to the adoption and development of the Church’s just war
Popes of the modern era have
applied this moral tradition to nuclear weapons and deterrence
policy for decades. As a Permanent Observer to the United Nations,
the Holy See has ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and
actively participated in the Treaty’s review conferences over the
past four decades.
For our part, the Catholic
bishops of the United States examined U.S. nuclear policy in light
of our moral tradition, most notably in our pastoral letters of
The Challenge of Peace, and 1993,
The Harvest of Justice is Sown
in Peace, as well as in numerous public statements and ongoing
dialogue with public officials to this very day.
The goals of just war teaching
are to reduce recourse to force and to restrain the damage done by
war. Some of its principles are particularly applicable to nuclear
- The use of force must be discriminate.
Civilians and civilian facilities may not be the object of
direct, intentional attack and care must be taken to avoid and
minimize indirect harm to civilians.
- The use of force must be
proportionate. The overall destruction must not outweigh the
good to be achieved.
- And there must be a probability of
The real risks inherent in
nuclear war make the probability of success elusive. In his 2006
World Day of Peace message, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: "In a nuclear
war there would be no victors, only victims."5
Nuclear war-fighting is rejected in Church teaching because it
cannot ensure noncombatant immunity and the likely destruction and
lingering radiation would violate the principle of proportionality.
Even the limited use of so-called "mini-nukes" would likely lower
the barrier to future uses and could lead to indiscriminate and
disproportionate harm. And the continuing possession of nuclear
weapons undermines non-proliferation efforts and contributes to the
danger of loose nuclear materials falling into the hands of
Catholic moral teaching, the end does not justify the means, but the
end can and should inform the means. The moral end is clear: a world
free of the threat of nuclear weapons. This goal should guide our
efforts. Every nuclear weapons system and every nuclear weapons
policy should be judged by the ultimate goal of protecting human
life and dignity and the related goal of ridding the world of these
weapons in mutually verifiable ways.6
Although we must always keep
in sight the horizon of our efforts, a world without nuclear
weapons, we must also take stock of where we are and focus on the
next steps in front of us. For my own nation, this requires the
successful negotiation and ratification of a START follow-on treaty
with the Russian Federation, the ratification of the Comprehensive
Test Ban Treaty, and the adoption of a nuclear posture that rejects
the first use of nuclear weapons or their use against non-nuclear
It will not be easy. Nuclear weapons can be
dismantled, but both the human knowledge and the technical
capability to build weapons cannot be erased. A world with zero
nuclear weapons will need robust measures to monitor, enforce and
verify compliance. The path to zero will be long and treacherous.
But humanity must walk this path with both care and courage in order
to build a future free of the nuclear threat.
1 Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, No. 80, 1965.
2 Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes,
No. 81, 1965.
3 John 10:10b
4 Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church,
1997, Nos. 2307-2317. U.S. Catholic Bishops, The Harvest of
Justice is Sown in Peace, 1993, Section I.B.2.
5 Pope Benedict XVI, Message on the World Day
of Peace, January 1, 2006.
6 Cf. U.S. Catholic Bishops, The Challenge
of Peace, May 3, 1983, No. 188.
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