The Pope and the bomb conference: Some emerging insights

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Margaret R. Pfeil, professor of theology, joint appointment at the Center for Social Concerns, faculty fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies
February 2020

Responding to: The Pope and the Bomb

At the conclusion of this wonderfully stimulating and informative gathering, I left with several reflections stirring, gradually settling into a mixture both sober and hopeful.

The sobering dimensions involved a sense of urgency around the real possibility of nuclear war due to accidents, or rash action, or cyber spoofing, or faulty autonomous delivery systems, or… you get the idea. Contributing to the intensity of the current nuclear moment is the fact that its fragile precarity does not seem to be matched by the necessary level of public awareness and commitment it deserves. 

As one conference participant noted, if we don’t get this issue right, no other issue will matter. Some have said this about the climate crisis, too, and both applications are true. As Jonathan Schell warned, genocide and ecocide meet in the form of nuclear annihilation.

So, what could possibly emerge as hopeful in this scenario? I was inspired by the tremendous energy and potential of youthful commitment to formation of personal and social conscience witnessed by students in attendance and speakers like Erin Connolly. They readily grasp this essential link between ecological crisis and the nuclear threat. Groups like Girl Security and Beyond the Bomb, guided by young women, are finding creative ways to advocate for nuclear disarmament, and most immediately, for the extension of the New START agreement, which is due to expire around this time next year.

A subtle, pervasive thread running through the conference offered hope in the face of despair: It was the essential link between Pope Francis’ persevering encouragement to shape a world without nuclear weapons and his steadfast commitment to nonviolence, guided by the Beatitudes. The disposition required for nuclear disarmament takes root in nonviolence, the disarming first of our own hearts, so that we act no longer from fear but from God’s love for all of God’s creation. The presence of Sister Ardeth Platte, O.P., at the conference was an unnamed but profound gift of witness to the truth and power of nonviolence. Thank you Sister Ardeth!

Rooted in gospel nonviolence, Pope Francis is managing to reach people in the pews through his tireless advocacy of nuclear disarmament and the end of deterrence. It is a message of evangelization, and the Catholic faithful must help spread this good news. As Joan Rohlfing urged in her response to Archbishop Tomasi’s talk on Thursday evening, the church could form something like Catholic Relief Service—perhaps the Catholic Disarmament Service. Yes! Allow your moral imagination to run with this idea. Where will it take us? Let’s talk with our neighbors, friends, and ecclesial communities. It is possible! 

In sober hope, the conference concluded with an invitation to participants to form our consciences, personally and communally, and to take action toward nuclear disarmament, wherever we find ourselves—in educational settings, in parishes, in our local communities. Check out the materials offered by Beyond the Bomb and the Nuclear Threat Initiative. How can you use them in your own setting to raise awareness, advocate for the extension of New START, and press for reallocation of resources away from the current nuclear buildup, estimated to cost $1.7 trillion, and toward all that is needed to nourish life on this precious planet?

This blog post was originally published in the Berkley Forum on February 6, 2020. 

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