University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.

Fifty-one years ago, Pope John XXIII issued his encyclical Pacem in Terris, which declared that “the arms race should cease” and urged that “all come to an agreement on a fitting program of disarmament.”

In revitalizing the Catholic voice first raised by Pope John, Catholic universities play a special role. We have an obligation to use our scholarly abilities to research and teach on the most pressing issues of life and death — including on the catastrophic power of nuclear weapons. We also have the opportunity to work in collaboration with the Bishops of our Church, the ethicists and academics from other universities, and with national security experts who’ve held the highest positions of responsibility in the United States government.


Eight years ago, Secretary George Shultz gathered at the Hoover Institution an esteemed group of diplomats and security experts to mark the 20th anniversary of the historic Reykjavik summit, during which U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev came close to concluding an agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons. That event quickened a discussion that led to a famous opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal authored by former Secretary of State Shultz, former Secretary of State Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense Perry, and former Senator Nunn.

In that piece, the four distinguished leaders, who had occupied pivotal national security positions during the Cold War, endorsed setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. They called on the leaders of nuclear weapons states to turn that goal into a joint enterprise.

The call for a world without nuclear weapons startled the foreign policy establishment. It had long been an article of faith among national security experts that possessing nuclear weapons for deterrence was an essential element of national defense. But the four statesmen pointed out that the threats have changed, that we face “an increasing number of potential nuclear enemies,” and that the chance that terrorists could acquire nuclear weapons is increasing. In this era, they wrote, nuclear deterrence “is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.”

The opinion of the four made it clear that when the security value of nuclear deterrence weakens, the security argument for nuclear weapons weakens as well. Something similar can be said for the ethical argument. As Bishops and Popes have said for decades now, nuclear weapons are morally tolerable only for the purpose of nuclear deterrence, and even then, only as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament. This narrow moral justification is based, in part, on the view that deterrence will indeed deter. This is an increasingly uncertain assumption in today’s world. The moral defense of nuclear deterrence also assumes a commitment of major nuclear states to move toward progressive disarmament. That commitment has lagged in recent years.

It is time for a fresh examination of the ethical issues that arise as we move toward a world free of nuclear weapons. It is time for more serious and sustained study of the science, engineering, politics, security, and diplomacy of moving to a world without nuclear weapons. This requires — in addition to the political leadership of great foreign policy minds and the moral guidance of the Bishops — the commitment of leading universities and research centers.


Universities have the ability to think and plan with long-term vision; to teach and research across many complex disciplines; to convene a wide variety of political actors who might not otherwise engage each other in this partisan age. Catholic universities have a specific opportunity to mine the depths of our religious and moral and intellectual traditions that bear directly on the ethical issues surrounding nuclear weapons. We have an organic relationship with a billion-member-strong Catholic Church, which can mobilize citizens on this and other issues of justice and peace by linking moral teaching with public action.

We also have, and must develop further, the ability to support broad society-wide discussions on social issues, including on nuclear weapons. If the public decides to press its leaders for the elimination of nuclear weapons, then universities should serve as networks of discussion and sources of knowledge and talent and training, able to explore and address the practical, technical, and ethical issues that arise on the way to a global ban.

Albert Einstein famously said that the advent of nuclear weapons “has changed everything but our thinking.” It is the task of the religious leaders, distinguished statesmen, university leaders and scholars to begin to change our thinking.

Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., is president of the University of Notre Dame.