Pope Francis warns against Nuclear War

Pope Francis’ Christmas card holds the message of Christ and Church in opposition to ‘the doomsday machine: the third world war’ says Frank Gelli .

There is a small card that Pope Francis distributed around the Vatican over Christmas. It shows a small Japanese child carrying his dead brother on his back. ‘The fruits of war’, it says on the reverse, along with the Pope’s own signature. It is a powerful graphic indictment of the horrors of wars, past, present and future.

The American photographer J.R. O’Donnell was a soldier based in Japan after the end of WWII. In the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki he took many harrowing pictures. They record the effects of the atomic bombs President Truman ordered to be dropped on Japan. There were so many civilian victims that their relatives had to queue for hours at crematoria to have the bodies disposed of. The Nagasaki child on the Pope’s card appears impassive, still traumatised by the horror. He is waiting for his turn to come so that he can consign the tiny body of his smaller brother to the flames. On the back of the card, Pope Francis notes that ‘the grief of the child is only expressed by the biting of his lips encrusted with blood.’

In his annual ‘state of the world’ address to diplomats accredited to the Vatican, the Pope has quoted another Pontiff, John XXIII, at the height of the Cold War: ‘Nuclear weapons must be banned’. Francis warned that a conflagration could start with an accident, ‘by some chance and unforeseen circumstance’.  As he also mentioned the current situation in Korea, one wonders whether he might have had in mind President Trump’s bellicose words when he threatened the North Korean leader with ‘fire and fury’.

Last year 122 states, the Vatican included, agreed to a UN treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Some nations, such as the US, France and Britain, all nuclear powers, opposed the treaty. Confronted with such blindness, prophetic and peace-loving voices like that of Pope Francis are all the more necessary to remind Western leaders of the madness of any strategy relying on the threat of using weapons of mass destruction.


The recent book by Daniel Ellsberg, ‘The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear Planner’, makes for instructive reading. Ellsberg was an American military analyst who achieved worldwide fame for leaking a top-secret study by the Pentagon, thus helping to end the Vietnam War. Earlier he had worked for the RAND Corporation on nuclear weapons. Delving into his book is like reading the script for a horror movie. For example, the destructive impact of the Nagasaki atom bomb that killed the little boy on the Pope’s card was measured in 20 kilotons or TNT energy yield. Today hydrogen bombs, however, are reckoned in megatons, a THOUSAND times more devastating than atomic ones, not to count radioactive fallout. And the US wants to keep and ‘modernise’ its doomsday machine. How many innocent children like the Nagasaki boy would be slaughtered by exploding a hydrogen bomb?

The Pope’s position on nuclear weapons flows out of the traditional Catholic teaching on warfare. It is a hallowed doctrine, elaborated over centuries by Saints and theologians like St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. The Church recoils from bloodshed, faithful to Christ’s example. He did not kill anyone but let his own innocent blood to be shed for the salvation of humanity. However, the Church also recognises that in some well-defined and limited circumstances war may be justified, or even necessary. There must be a just cause, a right authority and a right intention. Self-defence is a just cause for going to war and indeed the UN Charter states that it is the only ground for war. Only the UN Supreme Council can authorise it. Right intention means that desire for revenge cannot be a legitimate ground, either. If it is true that President G.W. Bush invaded Iraq to punish Saddam Hussein because, he said, ‘he tried to kill my dad’ that would make that war unjust.

Crucial also are the conditions relating to how a just war must be fought. The innocent – meaning civilians, non-combatants – cannot be subject to deliberate, direct attack. Civilians like women, children, babes at arms, old people. And the destructive action must be proportionate to the ends to be achieved. It is impermissible to annihilate a whole city, along with its civilian inhabitants, in order to knock out one or two ammunition factories. The destruction of Dresden by the Allies in WWII might be an instance of the latter. On the basis of these two criteria, it is clear that a nuclear attack should be condemned as illicit, a moral enormity, a crime against the Creator himself.

However, the appalling prospect of a nuclear doomsday must not detract from opposing smaller but still ruinous wars. Francis believes that a ‘Third World War’ is already happening through the numerous conflicts, ethnic cleansing and atrocities across the world. Yemen, Syria, the Rohingya…the dismal list could go on. Children, of course, are some of the most vulnerable victims of war. Even the most hardened and unsentimental person is repelled by images of small kids suffering. That’s because they are innocent, by any definition. The Russian novelist Dostoyevsky wrote that the suffering of children is an argument for atheism. Pope Francis instead wants to make it an example of how belief in God must result in serious commitment to protecting the little ones from violence, murder and mayhem. Above all, peace must at all times be the overarching aim of all men and women of goodwill. As Christ promised: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers because they shall see God’.


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