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Book review: Forbidden: Receiving Pope Francis’s condemnation of nuclear weapons, edited by Drew Christiansen and Carole Sargent

23 February 2024

Robin Gill considers the papal condemnation of nuclear weapons

THIS book follows on from the two editors’ 2020 Georgetown collection A World Free from Nuclear Weapons and is remarkable for at least two reasons.

First, its Jesuit author, a major influence upon the US Roman Catholic Bishops on social ethics, died, sadly, shortly before its publication; so it contains some of his concluding thoughts — including that “nuclear weapons are never a legitimate means of defence,” and that those Catholics involved in making and deploying these weapons should, accordingly, examine their “moral choices”.

Second, it offers high-powered, multi-author responses to Pope Francis’s unique papal condemnation of not just the use of use nuclear weapons, but of their actual possession.

These radical points need to be put into context. Pope Pius XII’s 1955 Christmas message, a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, reminded listeners of “entire cities, even the largest and richest in history and art, annihilated; a black blanket of death over the pulverised matter, covering countless victims with limbs burnt, twisted, scattered, while others groan in spasms of agony.”

Pope John XXIII’s 1963 seminal encyclical Pacem in Terris stated that “in this age of ours, which prides itself on its atomic power, it is irrational to think that war is a proper way to obtain justice for violated rights.”

The 1965 Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes also argued that “the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities is a crime against God and man.” Pope John Paul II continued this critique, and yet, as Professor Lisa Sowle Cahill and other contributors point out, he did conclude, in his 1982 Message to the UN Special Session on Disarmament, that “in current conditions ‘deterrence’ based on balance, certainly not an end in itself but as a step towards a progressive disarmament, may still be morally acceptable.”

Pope Francis, however, has gone much further and, indeed, much further than many Anglican bishops — something that is seldom recognised. He took an absolutist position at a 2017 international symposium on “Prospects for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament” and in a 2019 address at the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima, stating bluntly: “The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possessing of nuclear weapons is immoral.”

The authors in this collection analyse some of the factors responsible for his radical shift on nuclear ethics, namely: the immorality of threatening to use weapons of mass destruction which would inevitably result in huge collateral damage to civilian populations; the failure of a policy of nuclear deterrence to halt nuclear proliferation; the increasing likelihood of accidents resulting from this proliferation (rendering even peaceful “possession” unethical); and the huge ecological damage that would result from a serious nuclear exchange. Yet there is little new about these factors.

Support given by many church leaders and theologians (including Paul Ramsey and Reinhold Niebuhr) in the past to the possession of nuclear weapons for deterrence, and even to their use to end war in Japan, might seem thoroughly misguided, especially now that President Putin has repeatedly threatened to go nuclear against Ukraine. A generation ago, some of us concluded that threatening civilian populations with weapons of mass destruction (including the powerful and indiscriminate rockets now disproportionately killing civilians in Ukraine, Gaza, and border towns in Israel and Russia) is deeply unethical. At long last, a Pope agrees with us.

Of course, this book reaches no easy path on how to persuade the world to abandon nuclear weapons (even the Reagan/Gorbachev nuclear treaties failed, as some contributors note), any more than there is an easy path for abandoning climate, land, or sea pollution. Pope Francis, who is neither a unilateralist nor a thoroughgoing pacifist, can use his global voice only to warn and to challenge the world — as he has done magnificently on both issues in his much praised 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’.

Forbidden, emphatically, is a book to borrow or buy.

Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent and Editor of

Forbidden: Receiving Pope Francis’s condemnation of nuclear weapons
Drew Christiansen and Carole Sargent, editors
Georgetown University Press £36
Church Times Bookshop £32.40

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