During Pope Francis’ “missionary” trip to Asia he was greeted at the first stay of his visit in Thailand to cheers of welcome by citizens of the 95% Buddhist country. He met with the Supreme Buddhist Patriarch of Thailand, Somdej Phra Maha Muneewong, at the Wat Ratchabophit Temple in Bangkok. At this historic meeting Pope Francis said, “Catholics have enjoyed freedom in religious practice, despite their being in a minority, and for many years lived in harmony with their Buddhist brothers and sisters. The pope and Buddhist leader sat before the golden statue of Buddha inside the 150 year old temple. As a sign of respect Pope Francis removed his shoes before entering the temple.
The visit to Thailand was planned to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the founding of the “Mission de Siam,” commemorating the arrival of the first Catholic missionaries from Europe in the 17th century. Throughout his trip to Thailand the pope was accompanied by his cousin Sister Ana Rosa, who has ministered as a missionary there for many years.
Following his trip to Thailand he then flew to Japan. Japan is significant to the Holy Father for several reasons but the first and overarching reason was to condemn as vociferously as possible the manufacturing, stockpiling and the most dreaded fear of using nuclear weapons. As clearly explained by Pope Francis’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the pope will make “as vigorous an appeal as possible in favor of concerted measures to completely eliminate nuclear weapons.” And prior to the trip Pope Francis went on Japanese television and said, “Using atomic energy to wage war is immoral.”
At a talk given two years ago to participants in a Vatican conference on nuclear disarmament, the pope criticized world leaders who threaten other countries with nuclear war. This was just after President Donald Trump had openly threatened nuclear war with North Korea over their continuing development of nuclear weapons.
He told those gathered, including the United Nations’ High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, NATO’s deputy secretary general and 11 Nobel Prize laureates, that the world must not fail “to be genuinely concerned by the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental effects of any employment of nuclear devices.” He added, “If we also take into account the risk of an accidental detonation as a result of error of any kind, the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned. International relations cannot be held captive to military force, mutual intimidation, and the parading of stockpiles of arms. Weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, create nothing but a false sense of security. They cannot constitute the basis for peaceful coexistence between members of the human family.”
This new stance of the church as enunciated by Pope Francis reverses prior acceptance of the Cold War era thought of a global system of nuclear deterrence that allowed such weapons as deterrence. Other popes in the modern era certainly condemned nuclear weapons and called for their elimination while tacitly allowing a quasi-conditional moral acceptance of such weapons as a deterrent. In fact, Saint John Paul II in an address to the United Nations in 1982 spoke of the allowance of such weapons as a deterrent could be judged “morally acceptable” as “a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament.”
As early as 1948, following the only use of nuclear weapons in 1945 when the American government dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing by some estimates, 150,000 and 75,000 respectively, the church began her condemnation of such weapons. Pope Pius XII said in 1948 that the “‘atom bomb’ or ‘nuclear energy bomb’ was the most terrible weapon which the human mind has conceived to date.” All the popes since Pope Pius XII have called for disarmament, including Saint John Paul II during his visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1981, when he said, “nuclear stockpiles have grown in quantity and in destructive power. Nuclear weaponry continues to be built, tested and deployed. Making the destruction of humanity a real possibility.”
Pope Francis’s teaching is clear and powerful. We should all work toward and advocate for the total abolition of nuclear weapons from the face of the earth!
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.