Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Pope Francis: Possessing Nuclear Weapons is Indefensible

Pope Francis said late in 2017 that the nuclear arms race had become irrational and immoral. The irrationality itself rendered even just the possession of nuclear weapons as immoral, according to the pope. Whereas past popes had recognized deterrence as a legitimator, both irrationality and the extent and “upgrading” of such weapons were factors in Pope Francis’s admittedly personal view. Yet was his basis only moral, or religious in nature? 
With “such sophisticated nuclear arsenals,” the pope said, “we risk the destruction of humanity, or at least a big part of it.”[1] The proliferation of the weapons is relevant here, even in the pope’s answer to what has changed: “Irrationality is what has changed.”[2] Surely irrationality is a staple of human nature, rather than appearing all of a sudden in 2017. The pope must have had in mind the reckless rhetoric exchanged by the North Korean dictator and the American president. Unfortunately, even a large, established nuclear power, an old cold-war warrior, can allow for irrationality even though institutional safeguards exist as checks. But as time goes on and leaders come and go as weapons proliferate as well as become more powerful, we can conclude that the psychology of human nature is itself too weak. 
Ethically speaking, the harm that could befall a significant portion of humanity from nuclear bombs renders the possession thereof as immoral, given the element of irrationality in interpersonal and thus intergovernmental relations. But is the objection also religious in nature? If our species is made in the image of God, then destroying a part or all of the species can be said to be condemnable on religious grounds. The Catholic doctrine of humanae vitae can be taken in this sense, rather than that human life itself is sacred, which could be reckoned as a self-idolatrious claim. We have a spiritual nature—an innate yearning for the transcendent.[3] To expunge this nature is condemnable on religious grounds.
The pope can thus be criticized for having based his opinion on a moral position rather than going on to use the occasion to preach on the distinctly religious element (or grounding). A species that can not only conceive of transcendence beyond the limits of human cognition, sensibility, and perception, but yearn for it even though it remains beyond is also that species that can so easily lose perspective in altercations and lash out irrationally such that much harm is done to the species or a part thereof. If we are angels, a saying goes, we must be killer angels. But must we be? Are we not also capable of exerting will-power, self-discipline, especially if we can be watchful and hold in check powerful individuals who are in the sway of irrational emotion? Or is the proverbial cat out of the bag, with no one willing to destroy the most powerful weapons? Will time eventually catch up to our sorry species?

1. Francis Rocca, “Pope Calls Nuclear-Arms Growth Illegitimate,” The Wall Street Journal, December 4, 2017.
2. Ibid.
3. This point enjoys considerable space in my book, Spiritual Leadership