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Pope Rejects Possession of Nuclear Weapons; Catholic Worker Pacifism Influences Church Teaching

The Peaceable Kingdom
by Fritz Eichenberg

“To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence,” Pope Francis said in his January 2017 World Day of Peace message.1   The issue of nonviolence has particular urgency in this moment, when more nations are acquiring nuclear weapons, when reckless, bellicose rhetoric prevails, and when false alerts of incoming missiles in Hawaii and Japan have provoked profound alarm until the erroneous messages could be retracted. Even now the Pentagon is revising its Nuclear Strategy Review with a proposal to allow “first use” of nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks. These draft rules, which have been sent to the White House for review, propose to allow the United States to use a nuclear first   strike in response to such things as a cyber attack or an attack on the power grid.2 Asked by reporters about his concerns regarding nuclear war, the Pope answered on January 15, 2018 that he feared the world stood at “the very limit.”3 The call to nonviolence has been a continuing focus of the Holy See and recently there has been a significant shift in the Church’s thinking on nuclear deterrence, which has culminated in a rejection of not only the use but even the possession of nuclear weapons.

“The church is in the midst of a fundamental reappraisal of how to balance the Christian obligation to nonviolence with the need to resist evil in the world,” said Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, speaking after Pope Francis’s remarks at a Vatican conference on nuclear disarmament held in November 2017.4

At the conference in Vatican City, which was attended by representatives from the United Nations, NATO, diplomats from many countries including Russia, the United States, South Korea and Iran, representatives from many faiths, numerous professors and experts, as well as 11 Nobel Peace Laureates, Pope Francis spoke of nuclear weapons and said that “the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.”5


Stalemate from the Dance of Death
by Fritz Eichenberg

Because their “catastrophic humanitarian and environmental effects” makes their use indefensible, possession of nuclear weapons create “nothing but a false sense of security,”6 Francis said. Furthermore, he argued, that as a result of resources being devoted to developing and maintaining arsenals, “the real priorities facing our human family, such as the fight against poverty, the promotion of peace, the undertaking of educational, ecological and healthcare projects, and the development of human rights, are relegated to second place.”7

Pope Francis’s increasingly urgent call to go beyond nuclear deterrence is also evidenced by his strong support for the nuclear ban treaty talks that resulted in a U.N. Treaty in July 2017. The treaty, which called for worldwide, verifiable nuclear disarmament, was signed by 122 countries, although the United States, Russia and most other nuclear nations refused to participate.

The Church has, of course, long decried the use of weapons of mass destruction. The Second Vatican Council argued that modern weapons of mass destruction go beyond acceptable self-defense due to their “massive and indiscriminant destruction” and expressed deep concerns about the policy of deterrence, saying that it could not produce a secure and authentic peace. (Gaudium et Spes #80-81). Nevertheless, the Church did express a conditional acceptance of the possession of nuclear weapons as part of a balance of power intended to deter the actual use of the weapons. In his 1982 message to the U.N. Special Session (which was in turn quoted in the 1983 pastoral letter of the Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of Peace, #173), Pope John Paul II stated that “‘deterrence’ based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a step on the way to progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable.”8

By condemning even the possession of nuclear weapons, Francis’s statement is a development from the Church’s earlier position. In his letter to the UN in support of the worldwide treaty to ban nuclear weapons, Pope Francis asserted the need to “go beyond nuclear deterrence” and described the need to eliminate nuclear weapons totally as both a “challenge” and “moral and humanitarian imperative.”9   The teaching of United States bishops has kept pace. Stephen Colecchi, director of the office of international justice and peace of the United States Catholic Bishops noted that teaching regarding nuclear arms has moved from an “‘interim ethic of deterrence’ to an ‘interim ethic of disarmament.’”10

Christian Pacifism and the Catholic Worker Movement

Saint Telemachus, Peacemaker
by Ade Bethune

What does it mean for a follower of Jesus to embrace his teaching about nonviolence? To understand current teaching on nonviolence in the modern world, one must reflect on the roots of the Christian theological tradition regarding the use of force. For those in the early Church, complete pacifism was the norm. As the centuries passed, the proponents of the “just war” theory argued that under certain strict conditions, violence could be used for self-defense. According to Stephen T. Krupa, S. J., “The pacifist tradition had been the constant, but more silent, partner of the just war tradition since the time of Augustine, but it had largely disappeared from Catholicism after the Protestant Reformation. [Dorothy]Day took [the absolute pacifism of Jesus and the primitive Christian Church] to the streets on picket lines and in jail and to the common man and woman through her writing and public speaking.”11  The witness of the Catholic Worker Movement, through its actions and its newspapers, reminded many that the pacifist tradition had an enduring place within Catholic theology.

In their 1983 Pastoral Letter on War and Peace, the US Bishops devoted a section to the value of nonviolence, setting out the long history of pacifism in the Church, its endurance throughout the centuries, and its growth among Catholics in the nuclear age.12   The Bishops specifically mention the example of Dorothy Day and the value of using nonviolent methods to resist injustice.13

Absolute pacifism has been foundational to the Catholic Worker Movement from its inception, but it is a pacifism that is joined with nonviolent resistance and direct action and reinforced by prayer, penance, works of mercy and by spreading the message of justice and peace through speaking, writing and publishing the newspaper. Sometimes non-violent protests led to arrests.

In 1936, with the Spanish Civil War looming, Day wrote,

The Catholic Worker is sincerely a pacifist paper… We oppose… imperialist war. We oppose, moreover, preparedness for war, a preparedness that is going on now on an unprecedented scale and which will undoubtedly lead to war…We must be brave enough and courageous enough to set an example…A pacifist who is willing to endure the scorn of the unthinking mob, the ignominy of jail, the pain of stripes and the threat of death, cannot be lightly dismissed as a coward afraid of physical pain.”14

During the 1930’s and 40’s The Catholic Worker published numerous authors, including Rev. Barry O’Toole, Rev. John J. Hugo, and Msgr. Paul Hanley Furfey, whose contributions helped form the movement’s theory of pacifism.15 This pacifist stand was met with angry opposition. Many Catholic schools and parishes cancelled their subscriptions, The Catholic Worker was dismissed from the Catholic Press Association, and angry mail poured in. Catholic Worker Joseph Zarrella said, “We were anathema because of our pacifist, neutral position.”16

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, The Catholic Worker maintained its position, publishing an article in January 1942 saying, “We are still pacifists” and acknowledging that this would be a controversial position, saying, “Because of our refusal to assist in the prosecution of war and our insistence that our collaboration be one for peace, we may find ourselves in difficulties.” 17  The Catholic Worker Movement did find itself in difficulties. Donations decreased, subscriptions fell precipitously, numerous individual workers left, and many Houses of Hospitality closed. Still, Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker did not waiver in their pacifism.

After the first atomic bomb was dropped in 1945, news outlets described President Truman as “jubilant” over the successful detonation. Day wrote, “…they are vaporized, our Japanese brothers, scattered, men, women, babies, to the four winds, over the seven seas. Perhaps we will breathe their dust into our nostrils, feel them in the fog of New York in our faces, feel them in the rain on the hills of Easton. Jubilate Deo. President Truman was jubilant. We have created. We have created destruction.”18

Day’s pacifism was based on the example of Jesus in the Gospels. “Our Manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means we will try to be peacemakers,” Day wrote in 1942.19   Day also emphasized the concept of the Mystical Body, the notion that all humanity is one in the Mystical Body of Christ and that this bond supersedes all other allegiances.20

In addition to the use of direct action such as picketing, marches, and noncooperation with preparations for war (methods shared with non-religious activists), the Catholic Worker approach to pacifism employed various spiritual elements. Voluntary poverty and the works of mercy were integrally linked with the practice of nonviolence. Living in community with the poor strengthened the Mystical Body of Christ; embracing voluntary poverty meant not having to take jobs that supported preparations for war and not being subject to taxation that would finance war.21   A penitential attitude, including prayer and fasting, preceded and accompanied direct action. The suffering of a Catholic Worker jailed for civil disobedience was a kind of penance. After being jailed in 1955 for protesting preparations for the possibility of nuclear war, Day wrote in the Catholic Worker that her civil disobedience was “an act of public penance for having been the first people in the world to drop the atom bomb [and] to make the hydrogen bomb.”22

Dorothy Day and other Catholic Workers were jailed repeatedly from 1955 to 1961 for refusing to take part in the annual civil defense drills in New York City, during which citizens were required to respond to an air raid siren by taking shelter in the subway, supposedly a means of minimizing the consequences of a potential nuclear attack. Catholic Workers refused to take shelter during the drills. They engaged in this protest because of their unalterable opposition to war, due to an acute concern about the growing nuclear threat, and also as a way of doing penance for deployment by the United States of the first atomic bomb. They also believed that the drills were dishonest in the obviously false suggestion that going into the subway would protect the populace in the event of a nuclear attack. Ammon Hennacy wrote that Catholic Workers could not cooperate with the drills, saying, “In the name of Jesus, Who is God, Who is Love, we will not obey this order to pretend to evacuate, to hide. In view of the certain knowledge the administration of this country has that there is no defense in atomic war, we know this act to be a military act in a cold war to instill fear, to prepare the collective mind for war.”23

In the early years of these protests, Catholic Workers were isolated and reviled, but eventually support grew. In 1955, 28 people participated in the protest, 10 Catholic Workers and 18 people from the War Resisters League and the Fellowship of Reconciliation.24  By 1961, general opposition to nuclear build-up had increased, the number of protesters exceeded 1000 people and numerous newspapers gave positive coverage.25  That was the last year the air raid drills were held.

Many scholars argue that these demonstrations were significant because they were one of the first efforts to apply the strategies of direct action and civil disobedience to the issue of nuclear war. Furthermore, although pacifism was still not widely accepted, “Among peace-conscious activists and writers, … Day and her followers exercised an influence far out of proportion to their numbers or political importance.”26

Indeed, the ideas and strategies followed by the Catholic Workers have now found mainstream acceptance in the Church. On January 1, 2017, in his message for the World Day of Peace, entitled Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace, Pope Francis said, “Peacebuilding through active nonviolence is the natural and necessary complement to the Church’s continuing efforts to limit the use of force by the application of moral norms…Jesus himself offers a “manual” for this strategy of peacemaking in the Sermon on the Mount.”27

The Just War Theory

Although Dorothy Day’s opposition to the use of violence was based on an absolute, Gospel-based pacifism, a number of writers did employ just war analysis in articles published in The Catholic Worker. These authors, such as William Callahan and Arthur Sheehan, argued that, given the power and scale of modern weapons, and their inevitable, unavoidable impact on noncombatants, modern warfare could not satisfy the requirements of the just war theory.28 In Breaking Bread, Mel Piehl summarizes their argument saying, “…no matter how much theoretical right lay with one side or the other – and both sides in modern war typically asserted the complete justice of their cause – the vast destructiveness of technological weaponry guaranteed that no side could pursue even self-defense without perpetrating a greater moral evil—a violation of the just war principal of proportionality.”29

The basic elements of the just war theory are laid out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church30 and were applied to the potential use of nuclear arms in The Challenge of Peace, the 1983 pastoral letter of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is not enough for a cause to be just. Before the use of violence is permitted by the just war theory, other criteria must be satisfied. Christians are required to avoid the use of force if at all possible, so force may only be used for defense as a last resort, when all other means (such as diplomacy, negotiations, sanctions, etc.) have failed. If the cause is just and all peaceful means have been exhausted, then the use of force must be discriminate in that it does not target non-combatants or pose too great a risk of collateral damage. The force used must also be proportionate; the use of force may not cause greater harm than the evil it seeks to redress. Also, there must be a probability of success.

There can be no doubt that the use of nuclear weapons does not—and cannot– satisfy these requirements. Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien put it succinctly in his remarks at the Global Zero Summit on February 3, 2010, saying, “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.’ 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.”31

It is clear that the use of nuclear weapons is prohibited by just war principles. Nevertheless, in recent decades the Church accepted the possession of nuclear weapons in order to create a standoff between nuclear-armed nations that would deter the actual use of the weapons, on the condition that the possession of weapons was temporary and efforts at disarmament were underway. Sadly, years have passed and efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals have come to a standstill. Pope Francis acknowledged “the misuse of the Just War Tradition in support of unjust wars over the centuries” and summarized the Church position on nuclear weapons in his contribution to a United Nations conference in December 2014, saying, “…the Church has nonetheless expressed a provisional acceptance of their possession by reasons of deterrence, under the condition that this be ‘a step on the way to progressive disarmament.’ This condition has not been fulfilled – far from it. … Now is the time to affirm not only the immorality of the use of nuclear weapons, but the immorality of their possession, thereby clearing the road to nuclear abolition.”32

Not only is the current nuclear standoff immoral, it also presents ethical problems, Pope Francis said. Nuclear deterrence has not preserved peace, as more countries arm themselves with nuclear weapons and the threat that such weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists continues. The current non-proliferation regime is seen by many nations as “establishing a class structure in the international system between possessing and non-possessing states” and may actually provide an incentive for non-nuclear countries to acquire nuclear weapons “in pursuit of major power status.”33   Without serious progress toward disarmament as pledged in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Pope Francis argues, nations without nuclear weapons will continue to suspect that the whole non-proliferation system privileges some countries over others.

The cost to the poor and the loss to global development is another grave consequence of developing and maintaining a nuclear arsenal. Pope Francis referred to the Second Vatican Council characterization of the nuclear arms race as a “treacherous trap for humanity” which “injures the poor to an incredible degree.”34   The elimination of the arms race would free significant resources for ameliorating poverty and pursuing human development projects to redress “shameful imbalances in public funding and institutional capacities.”35   This kind of development work would be more effective in preserving peace than an ever more unstable nuclear build-up because it would address the underlying reasons for strife. Quoting Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis said, “[A]nother name for peace is development. Just as there is a responsibility for avoiding war, so too there is a collective responsibility for promoting development.”36

The only solution is decisive and tenacious action toward nuclear disarmament. Pope Francis urged that we resist accepting “limits set by political realism” and embrace a spirit of solidarity to work for the global common good.37

What now? Strategies for Nonviolence

The urgent necessity of finding nonviolent means of resolving disputes has never been more clear. The profound danger of nuclear weapons to the planet and to all of humanity and the escalating risks caused by nuclear proliferation makes it obvious that both their possession and their use must be condemned, no matter whether through the application of just war theory or pursuant to pure Christian pacifism.

But now, what can we do?

First, we must not be overwhelmed with despair. Progress is possible. Since the 1980’s when nuclear stockpiles were at their height, the United States and Russia have reduced the number of weapons by some 80%.38   We must cultivate the virtue of hope and undertake the work of peacemaking through active nonviolence. A variety of contributions toward peace are possible.

Government Policies and International Treaties

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has stated that the United States “should commit to never use nuclear weapons first and to reject the use of nuclear weapons to deter non-nuclear threats.”39   We should speak out urgently against the proposed changes to US nuclear policy, currently under consideration by the President, that would allow the US to make a first nuclear strike and to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear aggression.

The Bishops have stated that a mutual, verifiable global ban on nuclear weapons “is more than a moral ideal; it should be a policy goal.”40  Therefore, we must support international agreements that help reduce nuclear arsenals and move the world away from reliance on nuclear weapons for defense. Such agreements include the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the new START Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the P5+1 Agreement with Iran, and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The USCCB has published on its website a two-page Backgrounder on Nuclear Weapons, which summarizes these treaties and concludes with the following suggestions for action:


Action Requested:

  1. Urge bold and concrete commitments to accelerate verifiable nuclear disarmament, including taking weapons off “launch on warning” status to prevent a catastrophic accident and making deeper cuts in nuclear arsenals.
  2. Oppose the investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in modernizing nuclear weapons systems that ultimately we must work to dismantle.
  3. Support serious negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty and other prudent measures.
  4. If it is introduced, urge Senators to support ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to bring it into force.
  5. Encourage Congress and the Administration not to take any actions that could undermine the agreement between the P5+1 and Iran [regarding Iran’s nuclear program].41


Building Capacity for Nonviolent Conflict Resolution

In Nonviolence: a Style of Politics for Peace, Pope Francis observed that the practice of active nonviolence has produced significant results. He cited the “achievements of Mahatma Gandhi and Khan Abdul Ghaffar in the liberation of India, and of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in combating racial discrimination” as well as Leymah Gbowee and other Liberian women “who organized pray-ins and nonviolent protest that resulted in high level peace talks to end the second civil war in Liberia.”42

Such successes are not achieved easily however, and are the result of patience, commitment and suffering. Resources must be devoted to the study of nonviolent means to resolve conflict. In their 1983 Pastoral Letter on Peace, the US bishops urged training in conflict resolution, nonviolent resistance and noncompliance, and called for programs devoted to peacemaking service and education. They also endorsed educational and research institutions to undertake peace studies, which could be funded by a designated percentage (even a fraction of one percent) of the amounts budgeted by the government for military purposes.43 Such measures would represent a commitment to peacemaking and indicate a sincere effort to reduce dependence on military and nuclear force.

Strong support for diplomacy and an emphasis on enhanced international ties are essential for resolving conflicts and avoiding war. Reductions in the State Department or in our capacity to understand and analyze the global situation are a false economy that makes it harder to avoid military action. At a 2016 Vatican conference on the just war theory, Pax Christi International co-president Marie Dennis observed, “…[A]s long as we keep saying we can do it with military force, we will not invest the creative energy, the deep thinking, the financial and human resources in creating or identifying the alternatives that could make a difference.”44  

Spiritual Weapons

The path of nonviolence also depends on the spiritual tools of prayer and penance and the study of the Scriptures. In their Peace Pastoral, the Bishops urge us all to prayer and say, “…we beseech the risen Christ to fill the world with his peace. We call upon Mary, the first disciple and the Queen of Peace, to intercede for us and for the people of our time that we may walk in the way of peace.”45 Penance can also be a means of peacemaking, the Bishops say, and call for a return to traditional penance, reserving Fridays in a significant way for prayer, penance and almsgiving for the intention of peace.46

Dorothy Day modeled a style of nonviolence that integrated prayer, penance and service with peaceful noncooperation and resistance to war. In 1942 she wrote, “We will try daily, hourly, to pray for an end to the war… Let us add that unless we continue this prayer with almsgiving, in giving to the least of God’s children; and fasting in order that we may help feed the hungry; and penance in recognition of our share of the guilt, our prayer may become empty words.”47

Building Peace

What does it mean for a follower of Jesus to embrace his teaching on nonviolence? Surely it means we must

  • summon our moral courage and resist the continuation of the current nuclear-based military policy
  • make our concerns and our convictions known to those in power
  • join with our neighbors to build community and support human development
  • claim our spiritual tools and study, do penance and pray without ceasing
  • cultivate the virtue of hope and take to heart the words of Pax Christi and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, “The time has come for our Church to be a living witness and to invest far greater human and financial resources in promoting a spirituality and practice of active nonviolence. In all of this, Jesus is our inspiration and model. Neither passive nor weak, Jesus’ nonviolence was the power of love in action.”48



  1. https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/peace/documents/papa-francesco_20161208_messaggio-l-giornata-mondiale-pace-2017.html
  2. David E Sanger and William J Broad, “Pentagon Suggest Countering Devastating Cyberattacks With Nuclear Arms”, New York Times, January 16, 2018
  3. “Pope Warns World is One Step Away From Nuclear War”, New York Times, January 15, 2018.
  4. http://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/vaticans-nuclear-disarmament-conference-emphasises-shift-toward-logic-peace
  5. http://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/publico/2017/11/10/171110e.html#
  6. https://www.ncronline.org/print/news/vatican/pope-condemns…session-nuclear-weapons-shift-churchs-acceptance-deterrence
  7. http://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/publico/2017/11/10/171110e.html#
  8. The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, USCCB, May 3, 1983, #173, p 54.
  9. https://www.ncronline.org/pring/blogs/ncr-today/francis-encourages-un-talks-ban-nukes-time-go-beyond-deterrence
  10. https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/gumbleton-nuclear-deterrence-us-bishops-should-reassess-peace-pastoral
  11. Stephen T. Krupa, SJ, “American Myth and the Gospel of Manifest Destiny and Dorothy Day’s Nonviolence,” Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement Centenary Essays, Marquette Studies in Theology no. 32, eds. William J Thorn, Phillip M Runkel, and Susan Mountin (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2001) 194.
  12. The Challenge of Peace, #111, 119-121, pp. 35-37.
  13. Ibid, #116-117, p. 36.
  14. Nancy L Roberts, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984) 11.
  15. Ibid, 122.
  16. Ibid, 118-9, 128-9.
  17. By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day, ed. Robert Ellsburg (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983) 262.
  18. Ibid, 266-7.
  19. Roberts, 128.
  20. Mark and Louise Zwick, The Catholic Worker Movement, Intellectual and Spiritual Origins (New York: Paulist Press, 2005) 256-7.
  21. Ibid, 263, 270.
  22. Roberts, 150.
  23. Ibid, 149.
  24. Ibid, 152.
  25. Mel Piehl, Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker and the Origin of Catholic Radicalism in America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982) 215-6.
  26. https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/peace/documents/papa-francesco_20161208_messaggio-1-giornata-mondiale-pace-2017.html
  27. Piehl, 194.
  28. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1997, Nos. 2307-2317.
  29. usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/war-and-peace/nuclear-weapons/upload/remarks-by-archbishop-obrien-at-global-zero-summit-2010-02-03.pdf – 14k 2014-01-14
  30. His Holiness Pope Francis, Nuclear Disarmament: Time for Abolition, December 12, 2014, https://www.wagingpeace.org/nuclear-disarmament-time-for-abolition/
  31. https://www.nconline.org/print/news/global/vatican-host-first-ever-confeence-reevaluate-just-war-theory-justifications-violence
  32. http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/war-and-peace/nuclear-weapons/backgrounder-on-nuclear-weapons.cfm
  33. His Holiness Pope Francis, Nonviolence: a Style of Politics for Peace, Message for the Celebration of the Fiftieth World Day of Peace, January 1, 2017.
  34. The Challenge of Peace #224-9.
  35. https://www.ncronline.org/print/news/vatican/landmark-vatican-conference-rejects-just-war-theory-asks-encyclical-nonviolence
  36. The Challenge of Peace #
  37. Ibid,
  38. By Little and By Little,
  39. https://www.ncronline.org/print/news/vatican/landmark-vatican-conference-rejects-just-war-theory-asks-encyclical-nonviolence