A Mild Faithful Dissent from Pope Francis on Nuclear Weapons

Limited Possibility of Error

The Church is indefectible; therefore, the body of Bishops, by the prevenient grace of the Holy Spirit, can never defect by accepted as Roman Pontiff an invalid pope or antipope. Pope Francis has been accepted by the body of Bishops as Pope, and they continue to follow him. They also continue to ignore and reject calls to oppose the Pope. Thus, it is a dogmatic fact that Pope Francis is the valid Roman Pontiff.

According to the dogma of the First Vatican Council — as I’ve explained many times and as Cardinal Manning (one of the Fathers of the Vatican Council) explains in The Vatican Council and Its Definitions: A Pastoral Letter to the Clergy — every Roman Pontiff has the gift of truth and a never-failing faith. Therefore, no Pope can err gravely on doctrine or discipline, and no Pope can commit apostasy, heresy, schism, idolatry, sacrilege, or blasphemy.

However, Popes can err to a limited extent in their non-infallible (and so non-irreformable) ordinary Papal Magisterium, as explained by Cardinal Ratzinger in Donum Veritatis and by Pope Saint John Paul II in this address to the U.S. Bishops. Such errors can never reach to a grave extent, and certainly can never lead the faithful away from the path of salvation.

Since the Pope can err, to a limited extent, the faithful can disagree to a limited extent, as explained by the U.S. Bishops in Human Life in Our Day (n. 49ff). For such dissent to be licit, certain criteria must be met, as explained at length in Donum Veritatis.

My opinion is that the non-infallible teaching of Pope Francis on nuclear weapons, specifically the illicitness of their possession and use in war, is such a limited error. It does not harm the path of salvation of the faithful, if they should decline to possess or use nuclear weapons, nor if they should vote according to the Pope’s teaching. And if the world were to follow his teaching and disarm, that clearly would be highly beneficial, not harmful. Then there is no real possibility that the U.S. would disarm (under the current political circumstances) and be vulnerable to a nuclear attack.

Pope Francis’ Teaching

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has not yet been amended to teach the position of the Pope, so we do not have the exact text of that planned emendation. However, this article assumes that the CCC will be changed according to the Pope’s public remarks. There is, of course, a real possibility that the final wording will differ from the Pope’s remarks and speeches, as the Holy Spirit firmly guides the Roman Pontiff when he teaches non-infallibly, and unerringly guides him when he teaches infallibly. The teaching of the CCC, absent an infallible definition elsewhere, is non-infallible (except for texts which are observational or of prudential judgment), and therefore subject to the possibility of licit theological dissent.

In this document, Address Of The Holy Father On Nuclear Weapons, Pope Francis states that fear of mutual destruction is not the path to peace:

“Peace and international stability are incompatible with attempts to build upon the fear of mutual destruction or the threat of total annihilation. They can be achieved only on the basis of a global ethic of solidarity and cooperation in the service of a future shaped by interdependence and shared responsibility in the whole human family of today and tomorrow…. A world of peace, free from nuclear weapons, is the aspiration of millions of men and women everywhere.”

This proposed solidarity, cooperation, and shared responsibility could be applied to his teaching on nuclear weapons, such that the nations ought to work toward global disarmament. Such a goal is not only laudable, but obviously the will of God. Weapons of mass destruction ought not to exist. But in the case where more than a few nations have nuclear weapons, and some rogue nations are seeking (or may already possess) nuclear weapons, can a nation of good will possess or use them?

“Convinced as I am that a world without nuclear weapons is possible and necessary, I ask political leaders not to forget that these weapons cannot protect us from current threats to national and international security.”

Here, the Pope places his teaching on nuclear weapons at least partially upon his assessment of the prudential circumstances (just as he does for his position on the death penalty). He judges that nuclear disarmament is “possible and necessary”; it is something of which he is convinced by considering the “current state of our planet”.

In the Address, however, the Roman Pontiff does not state that the possession or use of such weapons is always illicit. The closest he comes to stating such a position there is in this assertion:

“One of the deepest longings of the human heart is for security, peace and stability. The possession of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction is not the answer to this desire; indeed they seem always to thwart it.”

The Pope states only that the possession of nuclear weapons is “not the answer to this desire” and that it may “seem always to thwart it”. These are clearly statements of prudential judgment, not of an intrinsic evil.

Recall the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium on morality: there are three fonts of morality, and any one bad font (intention, object, circumstances) makes the act always immoral. It is always a sin (morally illicit) to act with a bad intention, or if the act is intrinsically evil (a bad moral object), or when the circumstances is bad (as we say). So if the Roman Pontiff states that an act is always illicit, this does not imply that the act is intrinsically evil due to an evil moral object. It may be his judgment that the act, in the present circumstances, always does more harm than good. Such a prudential conclusion would be easy to reach on nuclear weapons, as these devices are designed to cause massive destruction and have in the past been used to destroy entire cities.

“In Nagasaki, there was the martyrdom: I saw part of the museum of the martyrs — in passing — but Hiroshima was very touching. And there I reaffirmed that the use of nuclear weapons is immoral —this must also be included in the Catechism of the Catholic Church —, and not only its use, but also its possession because an accident [due to] possession, or the madness of some government leader, a person’s madness can destroy humanity. Let us think about that quote from Einstein: ‘World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones’.” [Address]

Whether Albert Einstein actually made that statement or not is irrelevant. The idea is that World War 3 might so destroy the infrastructure of society that people would be reduced to fighting with sticks and stones. And, of course, the statement is not literal. It speaks of the extreme destruction of this type of weapon.

Notice the basis for the assertion of the Roman Pontiff that not only the use of nuclear weapons, but also their possession is immoral: due to the consequences of such choices (to possess or to use). A judgment that an act is morally illicit due to the consequences is in the font of circumstances, and so does not speak of an intrinsically evil act. Perhaps the Roman Pontiff’s judgment of the circumstances is incorrect; or perhaps the circumstances may change.

The Pope was asked a question: “You said that true peace can only be disarmed peace. But what about legitimate defence when one country is attacked by another? In such cases, is there still the possibility of a just war?” This seems to imply the question: Can nuclear weapons be used in defense of a nation? But the Pontiff answered it more generally, without specifying whether nuclear weapons can be used in defense of a nation: “The idea of legitimate defence always stands.”

The wording used in his proposed change to the CCC does not say “always immoral” but simply “immoral”. And his comment that the defense of a nation is always legitimate (presuming, of course, it is a just war) suggests that perhaps nuclear weapons could be used in such a case.

At Hiroshima, Pope Francis again spoke on nuclear weapons:

“With deep conviction I wish once more to declare that the use of atomic energy for purposes of war is today, more than ever, a crime not only against the dignity of human beings but against any possible future for our common home. The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possessing of nuclear weapons is immoral, as I already said two years ago.”

Notice the wording: “today, more than ever”, which is clearly a reference to the changing circumstances. And the reason is the prudential judgment about the dangers to our future.

The Pope closed these remarks by saying, in part: “Never again war, never again the clash of arms, never again so much suffering!” And yet he also has stated that the legitimate defense of a nation by a just war is always morally legitimate. So he hopes that war and the clash of arms will never occur again, but he does not exclude the use of arms in a just war.

My Position

I do not propose my position as dogmatic, nor as certain, but only as my considered theological opinion, with faith in the work of the Holy Spirit guiding the Magisterium.

The teaching of Pope Francis on this topic may be understood as a prudential judgment of the circumstances. He does not say that the possession or use of nuclear weapons is always immoral, but only “immoral”. He cites the circumstances repeatedly, especially the consequences. Supposing (a worst case scenario for my theological position) that the future emendation of the CCC does say “always immoral”, this could be understood as always immoral due to the circumstances. An act is always immoral when one or more fonts is bad — any font, not only the font of object.

So in order to refute the idea that the possession and use of nuclear weapons is always immoral regardless of circumstances, i.e. that it is intrinsically evil, I will propose a number of circumstances where their possession or their use would be clearly moral.

When Pakistan first developed nuclear weapons, it was reported in the press that U.S. forces in Pakistan had a plan to seize those weapons in a special forces raid, if the nation was ever taken over by extremists, such as the Taliban. It is obvious that, in such a case, the possession of theses seized weapons would be not only morally permissible, but virtuous, much like the act of taking a firearm away from a criminal or mentally ill person.

What if a terrorist group obtains a nuclear weapon? Is it not moral to seize such weapons, thereby giving the U.S. or another nation of good will possession? Such possession is not intrinsically evil because there is no evil moral object. The object of possession is safety, not destruction.

Similarly, the object of the possession of nuclear weapons by the U.S. is to make a nuclear war or a nuclear attack on the U.S. much less likely. Although this is not the path to a true and lasting peace, it is not intrinsically illicit, as the object is peace and safety. Similarly, if a robber breaks into your house, while you are at home, you may brandish a firearm in order to prevent the criminal use of a firearm by the robber against you and your family. Your possession of the firearm differs, morally, from his, as your object is safety and the prevention of destruction.

But is the use of nuclear weapons ever a moral part of a just war? Not against a city or center of mass population, as this would represent mass murder, the direct and voluntary killing of many innocent human persons. Suppose, instead, that a massive armada of ships approaches the U.S., in order to destroy our coastal cities by bombardment. One nuclear blast above the armada would destroy the ships and save countless innocent lives. Such an act would prevent the destruction of cities. This use of nuclear weapons has the good moral object of saving many lives (and no other moral object that would be evil), making the act not intrinsically evil.


Finally, in my eschatology, which is fallible and highly speculative, I explain my interpretation of the events in the book of Daniel. In World War 3, the Arab Muslim nations of the Middle East and northern Africa, led by extremists, will conquer Europe. After obtaining control and occupying a vast territory for more than a few years, a new leader comes to power over that group of nations, one who seeks to subdue the entire world on behalf of his extremist version of Islam — forcing all Christians, Jews, and others to abandon their own beliefs and accept extremist Islam or die. He threatens nations which refuse to submit to his pretended authority with nuclear annihilation via nuclear ICBMs.

And my speculative conclusion is that the U.S. and Allies respond with a nuclear first strike, against military targets only (especially the launch points of the ICBMs), using pure fusion weapons. This type of weapon does not yet exist. It is a nuclear bomb without uranium or plutonium, without any radioactive material. Such a weapon would have little or no radioactive fallout, and could be designed at a low level of power for pinpoint strikes on hardened targets. The aim of such a use of nuclear weapons would be the prevention of nuclear annihilation and the protection of the Christian and Jewish faiths from forced conversion to extremist Islam. I expect that the Pope of that future time would approve of such a use (in advance).

If you don’t believe my prediction (of which I am personally convinced), the above speculative eschatology may be taken as a hypothetical. What if the world faced nuclear annihilation, with the only alternatives being use of nuclear weapons in a just war, or slavery of body and soul to a religious dictator? Such a use is a defense of nations in just war, which Pope Francis asserted to be legitimate. And the weapons would be used only against military targets. Moreover, if the weapons were of a new design, without fission and without substantial radioactive fallout, the consequences would be lessened by a vast extent. Therefore, I must conclude that both the use and possession of nuclear weapons may be morally licit in some circumstances.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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11 Responses to A Mild Faithful Dissent from Pope Francis on Nuclear Weapons

  1. Thomas Mazanec says:

    Why is the Pope capable of limited errors in Theology or Morals? Why did Christ not make him TOTALLY immune from ALL such errors? Would that not be even better for the Church?

    • Ron Conte says:

      You wouldn’t want to live in a Church with an entirely inerrant but merely human Pope. You wouldn’t be able to develop your own understanding of the Faith. You would have to admit he was right even on the smallest points of doctrine.

  2. Alex says:

    It was a big mistake to develop weapons of mass destruction that could bring the end of the civilization the way we know it, even if not the End times. Hitler’s advances forced Einstein to ask the US president to start the process that made the US the first country to possess working atomic bomb.

    Today the news of new systems (that could be also weapons or defenses) spread fast on internet. Set aside all conspiracy. Here are official US patents of the scientist Salvatore Pais. The United States Of America As Represented By The Secretary Of The Navy.
    “Plasma Compression Fusion Device
    Electromagnetic field generator and method to generate an electromagnetic field
    Craft Using an Inertial Mass Reduction Device
    High frequency gravitational wave generator”

    It sounds as the levels of computer game, but it is already patented. So we’d better get into that new reality faster. Should i say in simpler language what all that means? A craft that hovers over thanks to gravitational wave generator and not jet engines. A fusion device that reportedly is more powerful than nuclear power plant, that can power that craft. And so on…
    Reportedly the representative of the US Navy said that the above mentioned craft is not a draft project but it actually works. There is more information in popular science websites.

    With that, we may be standing on the door to exit the era of the nuclear supremacy and to enter a new era of space supremacy. And very likely the Russians are not behind, if we notice the officially announced missile projects by Putin (what would be the secret then).
    USAF general Kwast gave a lecture of the importance of space force and that if USA don’t do it China is already doing it fast.
    “Kwast makes the somewhat bizarre claim that the U.S. currently possesses revolutionary technologies that could render current aerospace capabilities obsolete. This technology can be built today with technology that is not developmental to deliver any human being from any place on planet Earth to any other place in less than an hour.” https://www.zerohedge.com/technology/recently-retired-usaf-general-makes-eyebrow-raising-claims-about-advanced-space

    With that being said, it is the time for the Church to take steps to assure the fast developments will not take her unprepared as in the past, rather she can and will offer adequate spiritual solutions for the future generations that will live in environment different from ours. At least I understand it in that way, and not to hide from what is already announced to everyone on the planet who has a little interest to search it on internet. The moment to be announced on CNN for all those who today don’t care, who besides the Sunday mass care only for Walmart type of Christianity, will be frankly too late to do anything about. It will be more than a done fact, because it is already a done fact, it will be the moment the new reality is announced officially to everybody. Especially if we have those crafts demonstrated too. Or their demonstration will make the MSM headline news.

  3. Rob says:

    Your position seems reasonable on the whole. Personally I do not think conditions are suited for any type of widespread nuclear disarmament. Far too many such weapons are in the hands of regimes such as China and North Korea, which have a history of mass murder and cannot be trusted not to simply fake it. North Korea in particular has a very long history of doing just that.

    I will repeat my prediction, however, that the idea of the Middle East conquering Europe is laughable. If every military in the Middle East teamed up seamlessly under one leader and one command structure (already ridiculous), then the United States military would slaughter them within a month. It would be Iraq in 1991 all over again. They don’t the numbers, the technology, the logistics, or the force projection capacity to even reach Vienna again.

    • Ron Conte says:

      They have tens millions of young men who hate the West, and would be willing to join the military to attack Europe. Iran already has nuclear weapons (my recent conclusion), and is willing to use them against cities. Iran is only a few years away from putting a nuke on a missile capable of reaching parts of Europe. And if the U.S. were to have a President who was unwilling to commit vast numbers of troops and resources to the war effort, they could conquer Europe. The next Presidential election is crucial.

      Recall that the U.S. stayed out of WW2 until late in the war. If we had crushed Hilter’s Germany when he re-militarized the Rhineland, there would have been no WW2 and no holocaust. But we stayed out of the war due to U.S. politics. Similarly, Iran has violated sanctions and nuclear restrictions, and the world does nothing. Once they get nukes, they will be unstoppable:

      [Daniel 8]
      {8:1} In the third year of the reign of Belshazzar the king, a vision appeared to me. After that which I had seen in the beginning, I, Daniel,
      {8:2} saw in my vision, that I was in the capital city of Susa, which is in the region of Elam, yet I saw in the vision that I was over the gate of Ulai.
      {8:3} And I lifted up my eyes and saw, and behold, a single ram stood before the marsh, having two high horns, and one was higher than the other and growing higher still.
      {8:4} After this, I saw the ram brandishing his horns against the West, and against the North, and against the Meridian, and all the beasts could not withstand him, nor be freed from his hand, and he did according to his own will, and he became great.

      That passage is WW3 and the region in question is Iraq and Iran. The ram is the Arab/Muslim nations of the Middle East and northern Africa. They attack to the West first, meaning the U.S., then to the north (Europe), then to the south (further into Africa). And “all the beasts could not withstand” the ram. So Scripture disagrees with your assessment.

  4. Rob says:

    Even if you can rustle up tens of millions of young men willing to abandon their homes to fight a war with strangers hundreds of miles away – which is doubtful in and of itself – that doesn’t solve your problem. These men have to be equipped, trained, sorted into units, and properly disciplined before they’re of any use. That would take months to years even assuming that they all spoke the same language (they don’t).

    Then you have the problem of getting men somewhere. Are there any Middle Eastern countries with a navy of note? No. So they’re going to have to march their way up past Israel, through Jordan and Turkey. Assuming the latter two are on board, now this hypothetical army has to force its way through a very narrow geographic choke point before it can even enter Europe. In modern warfare, just rushing the enemy blindly with all your soldiers results in nothing more than a pile of dead bodies – ISIS tried this against the Kurds. Just throwing bodies at the enemy hasn’t worked since World War I.

    And that’s not even beginning to discuss all the issues. For example, did you know most of these countries – including Egypt, by far the most populous – are large importers of food? So what happens to these men when their government loses the ability to feed them properly? And then you have to question who in the Middle East has the power to overthrow the Saudi monarchy, the Jordanian monarchy, the Egyptian military junta, defeat Israel without them invoking the Samson Option, and then unify the shattered fragments of these states into a single coherent superstate? No one has that power. Baghdadi is dead, and his dream has gone down in flames.

    And even beyond that there doesn’t seem to be a single Democrat capable of defeating Trump next year. There is no possibility of him ignoring developments like that. The Chinese Communist Party – the Middle East’s other big trading partner – would hardly support the development of a massive Islamist superstate in its backyard either:

  5. King Robert the Bruce says:

    I think Rob makes some valid points its hard to imagine an Arab bloc overwhelming Europe I also believe Trump is a certainty for re election right now the Arabs don’t look capable just look at the ragbag isis army attempting to hold the territory they invaded they were routed by the coalition forces. Ron do you believe Russia with its new found Chrisianity will stand idly by or even China will do nothing about muslin extremists threatening the world and eventually them as well. Ps what is the Samson option.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I don’t know what the “Samson option” refers to. Russia and China will not be major players in World War 3, as Iran will have nukes and use them. They will not want to become involved.

  6. Rob says:

    The Samson Option is Israel’s plan if it should ever be decidedly overrun in an existential conflict. Basically the idea is to nuke the aggressor state(s) into the Stone Age as their last act of defiance if worst comes to worst. The name comes from Samson pulling down the pillars of the Philistines onto them as his last act.

  7. Alex says:

    I just have to comment the impeachment. The most powerful man on the planet who holds the button of thousands of nuke, CANNOT be as morally corrupt as president Trump is. (and here morally doesn’t necessarily mean sexually). Regardless of how worse or better he is compared to others (to vice pres. Biden, to Putin, or you name it), he just cannot set the standard so low. It was said by the republicans that the impeachment standard cannot be so low. And how about the standard and example set by the American president himself?

    Today there is a publication of a conservative Evangelical magazine, calling for Trump to be removed for lack of moral and that makes CNN headline news https://edition.cnn.com/2019/12/19/politics/christianity-today-op-ed-trump-removal-office/index.html
    “A leading Christian magazine founded by late evangelist Billy Graham — father of key presidential supporter Franklin Graham — published an op-ed on Thursday calling for President Donald Trump to be removed from office and urging evangelicals not to support him.
    “That he should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.” “We believe the impeachment hearings have made it absolutely clear, in a way the Mueller investigation did not, that President Trump has abused his authority for personal gain and betrayed his constitutional oath. The impeachment hearings have illuminated the president’s moral deficiencies for all to see.”

    What is surprising, president Trump immediately takes the offense and hits back. Why, if it is not so important? It is so important because it shows for the evangelicals that supporting one man, regardless of his personal qualities, is no more a dogma to follow. It is the time the Catholics also to stop supporting one man no matter what. Trump didn’t stop abortions anyway. Pence will do much better job than him. If removed, that will give a chance to the Republicans and Mr Pence to win the elections in 2020 for all the good they stand for. If Trump manages to unite senators not based on their conscience but based on other factors and keeps the power, as we know to happen in movies (one mega movie released this week), then we are heading towards a future with many unknowns including whether the US remains a democracy. let alone the leading democracy in the world. I realize my writing cannot change anything, but I cannot stay idle when all conservative Catholic outlets praise Trump as if he is a messiah or so (as he called himself a “second coming of god”). The Catholic Church really does not need such personification of divinity.

  8. Alex says:

    Perhaps many traditional Catholics will say, US is not democracy but republic (taking again that bi polar model reflected in the US two major parties, and not found elsewhere). US is both democracy and republic, a presidential republic (as France) compared to the majority of parliamentary republics in Europe, but at the same time not a dictatorial republic (as regimes in Latin America are despite they have elections). UK is both a democracy and a monarchy, so are a number of smaller kingdoms in Europe that despite having a head of state a monarch stand for principles and the people decide. Situation like the current one in USA is unthinkable in Europe and if it happens the prime minister of that country will resign as a matter of days.

    No matter how you name it, the question remains, should the person who can destroy the world several times over with several thousand nukes, have such a low moral stand? What example that sets for the rest of the world where he preaches democracy? Here I don’t even touch on the issue of Biden and his son how right or wrong they are, or the corruption in Ukraine in general that everyone knows it exists, or that Obama didn’t provide military help to Ukraine and Trump did, or why should one be antagonistic to Putin and not being friends as Trump is. Here comes to the principles that make the US president Trump to act in this way, to his personal motivations. Because if that man is led by such kind of low personal motivations tomorrow and fires the nukes against let say North Korea in some complicated geopolitical scenario, then it will be too late… Let alone the purge that he will likely do against his opponents if allowed to remain. It will not be the same USA anymore. Maybe never the same again before the antichrist. Just forget about your liberties.

    I strongly believe that the Republicans helped by God and by their respected churches, will make the right choice based on their conscience not on other considerations. Not a choice for the Democrats, but a choice for the Republic they defend and for Mr Pence who is just the ideal person to lead the US in that perilous moment until and after the next elections.

    Nixon at least was honest to resign. Trump did nothing wrong. He is laughed by the kids in Europe. Maybe that’s why he hates Europe so much and doesn’t forget to impose some tariff. Or maybe because Denmark didn’t sell out Greenland. It is just a shame for America to keep that man.

    And some words about Europe and muslim invasion discussed here. Europe will defend itself against an open invasion. Indeed the immigrants flooded inside and sleeping cells terrorists can make the life terrible. But EU has its nuclear weapons and besides USA, Russia and China it is the most capable military block with NATO. NATO will be invoked and if USA lacks courage to defend Europe (refer to Mr Trump’s double standard of friend /foe) then France and Germany will stop the invaders. And in first place I do not believe that Iran will attack Europe.

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