University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Climate change and nuclear disarmament are two legacy issues for Pope Francis. Like the prophets of old, on each issue he has been characteristically outspoken in his blunt, provocative moral judgments.

In a recent apostolic exhortation on climate change that CNN called “blistering,” he rebukes the West for its “irresponsible lifestyle” and the “ethical decadence” of political leaders who have failed to address the problem. While Bill McKibben considers the Pope the world’s most useful environmentalist, in 2015, in response to the groundbreaking encyclical, Laudato si’, a Fox News pundit called him, “the most dangerous person on the planet.” Some critics reacted similarly two years later when Francis became the first pope explicitly to condemn not only the use but even the possession of nuclear weapons. On both issues, the Pope is warning, in apocalyptic terms, that humanity’s technological “progress” risks causing our own demise.

Francis likes to say, “all is connected.” He has drawn direct connections between the environment, war, and nuclear weapons. War is “a sacrilege that wreaks havoc on what is most precious on our earth: human life, … [and] the beauty of creation.” The Holy See has repeatedly joined other nations in highlighting the environmental damage caused by the mining, production, and testing of nuclear weapons, as well as the fact that a nuclear war would create its own climate change: nuclear winter. In its submission to the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in 2022, the Holy See called nuclear disarmament an “environmental protection” issue because nuclear weapons are “weapons of mass environmental destruction” that, if used, could “instantly annihilate the achievements of global efforts to advance sustainable development and ecology.”

In the spirit of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “guns vs. butter” speech, Francis bemoans the trillions squandered on nuclear “modernization” programs. “The real priorities facing our human family,” he contends, “such as the fight against poverty and hunger, … [and] the undertaking of educational, ecological and health-care projects… are relegated to second place.” Disarmament would not automatically lead to progress on climate change, but the opportunity costs are obvious.

In drawing these connections, the Holy See is on well-trod ground. What is groundbreaking is how the Holy See’s approach to these existential threats reflects a broader effort to shape a new moral paradigm for global affairs.

The first step is insisting that debates on these issues cannot be morality-free zones. Economic, scientific, technological, and national security issues matter, but, at root, these are moral challenges. Care for creation is a moral virtue, derived from acknowledging that we are an inseparable part of nature, not an overlord using it only for our benefit. Climate change is a product of excessive materialism, so a “broad change in the irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model” is needed. Similarly, morality must not remain an uninvited party at an elite nuclear debate. The Holy See’s strong support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is part of its longstanding efforts to reframe the nuclear debate in moral, legal, and humanitarian terms. The moral part of that trifecta is not a slam dunk. The Holy See succeeded in adding “the ethical imperative for disarmament” to the preamble of the TPNW, but it faced stiff opposition.

A second step in shaping a new moral paradigm for global affairs is to reject the “technocratic paradigm,” a dangerous mindset that assumes “goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such.” In his recent apostolic exhortation, Francis said that to assume new technologies can address all problems, such as the existential threats posed by climate change and nuclear weapons, “is a form of homicidal pragmatism.”

“We stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power,” he explained in Laudato si’, that threatens our very survival because developments in technology have not been matched by developments in moral responsibility.

Nuclear weapons and climate change are human problems that require human solutions. Therefore, a new moral vision is needed, one that is as clear as it is radical. Just as the world has banned torture, slavery, and chemical weapons, the world must ban nuclear weapons – even war, itself. Climate pessimism must not give way to despair. Climate change is not inevitable, if the world has the will to act in new ways.

The Pope is calling for a radical transformation of global affairs based on a cosmopolitan vision of integral security, integral disarmament, and integral ecology. In place of a “realism” that prioritizes unlimited economic growth and seeks security in threats of nuclear annihilation, the world needs to develop a global ethic of just peace and solidarity that can ground a system of cooperative human security.

Democratizing decision-making is a key element of cooperative security. Since it is naïve to assume that humanity’s unprecedented power will be used wisely, Francis warns in Laudato si’, “[i]t is extremely risky for a small part of humanity to have it.” The Pope has been biting in his criticism of the elites who have ensured that the process of the Conference of the Parties – the UN’s framework convention on climate change – has not led to more concerted action on climate change, as those least responsible, the poor, suffer the brunt of the impacts. The Holy See supports the TPNW as a way to delegitimize nuclear weapons. More important, was the inclusive process of treaty development and adoption. The Pope insists that this kind of “multilateralism ‘from below’” can be a new global model to counter the power of elites and help “reconfigure” the UN and other multilateral organizations so that they have more authority, are more effective, and are more representative.

Pope Francis is all in on climate change and nuclear disarmament. His moral critique of the narrow utopianism of the technocratic paradigm and the suicidal pretensions of the climate and nuclear status quo might seem strident. His new paradigm of cooperative security will no doubt spark critiques of naivete from the so-called realists who run or advise national security agencies. But his prophetic message is certainly garnering global attention. The question is: Will it make a difference in the choices that leaders make?

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Written by Gerard F. Powers, Director, Catholic Peacebuilding Studies, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and Coordinator, Catholic Peacebuilding Network