While the pope’s call for nuclear disarmament has been lauded by current political and religious leaders, nearly 40 years ago that position raised warning flags for many prominent U.S. bishops and even the Vatican under Francis’ predecessor, Pope John Paul II. While never endorsing the arms race, John Paul saw nuclear deterrence as justified to fight Soviet communism, despite the fact that in 1963, Pope John XXIII — known as the “peace pope” — had said nuclear weapons should be banned.
Decades ago, the late Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, denounced the construction of the Trident nuclear weapon system at the Bangor naval base near Seattle in 1981. Recalling the events of Hiroshima, Hunthausen said they “challenged my faith as a Christian in a way I am only now beginning to understand.”
“That awful event and its successor at Nagasaki sank into my soul, as they have in fact sunk into the souls of all of us, whether we recognize it or not,” he said in a lecture at Pacific Lutheran University. Hunthausen, who died last year at the age of 96, went on to describe the capacity of the nuclear submarines being built in his own backyard, observing that “one Trident submarine has the destructive equivalent of 2,040 Hiroshima bombs.”
He then uttered words that would mark a turning point for his career: “I say with a deep consciousness of these words that Trident is the Auschwitz of Puget Sound.”
Neither the Reagan administration in Washington nor the closest allies of Pope John Paul in Rome were pleased, and he was eventually forced out of his position. Now nearly $50 billion dollars are spent by the United States alone each year to fuel the nuclear weapons industry.
In a 1976 statement to the United Nations, the Holy See referred to the arms race as “one of the greatest curses on the human race” and “a folly which does not provide the security it promises.” Yet when Hunthausen uttered his infamous words, church leaders who had made fighting the threat of the Soviet Union as their top priority winced.
Neither the Reagan administration nor the Vatican, which was working with the United States to push back against Soviet communism in the Polish pope’s homeland, wanted the U.S. bishops to be seen as calling for unilateral disarmament.
In a famous letter from the U.S. bishops’ in 1983, “The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response, they settled on a compromise position in which they said that a strategy of nuclear deterrence could be justified if it eventually led to the abolition of all such weapons.
Hunthausen — who withheld half his income tax to protest the U.S. military budget — balked, claiming U.S. government policy would never be one of disarmament. If the American bishops were going to give teeth to their letter, he warned them, it would require some “gutsy confrontations” with the Reagan administration in the years that followed.
Instead, John Paul curtailed Hunthausen’s powers, launching a Vatican investigation of the progressive churchman and sending a bishop with special authority to help run the archdiocese.
In 2014, retired Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, who served on the bishops’ committee that helped draft the peace letter, reflected on the effectiveness of their position saying that more than 30 years later, the U.S. bishops have “never been willing to call the government to account for not meeting the condition we had stated as necessary to justify a strategy of deterrence.”
On Sunday, however, Pope Francis effectively did just that, calling all governments to stop participating in the nuclear weapons complex.
“Our response to the threat of nuclear weapons must be joint and concerted, inspired by the arduous yet constant effort to build mutual trust and thus surmount the current climate of distrust,” the pope said.
His speech comes at an especially critical place, Hiroshima, and at a critical moment. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is attempting to revise the country’s constitution to allow for rearmament, and global spending toward the stockpile of arms continues to surge.
While the timing and the place are significant, Francis has made similar suggestions before. At a Vatican conference on disarmament in 2017, he said the possession of nuclear weapons must be “firmly condemned” because of the possibility of an accidental detonation.
During the 2017 Christmas holidays, Pope Francis had a small card printed and circulated to Vatican employees. The card displays a photo of a young Japanese boy standing in line at a crematorium with his dead younger brother on his back. It was taken by a U.S. Marine photographer who documented the effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The inscription reads: “The fruit of war” and is followed by the pope’s signature.
Standing at Japan’s “ground zero” on Sunday, Francis said nonviolence and peace are at the center of the Christian gospel’s message. Surrounded by the devastation of nearly 75 years ago, he asked the world if that’s a harvest it is content to reap.
“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,” Francis said.
That same position once helped label a U.S. archbishop a revolutionary who needed to be brought to heel. Forty years later, Francis made it clear it is now official papal policy.
Christopher White is the national correspondent for Crux and the Tablet. Follow him on Twitter @CWWhite212.