It's 90 seconds to midnight: Can Catholics stop the tick tock of the Doomsday Clock?

The clock with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is placed ahead of the announcement of the location of the minute hand on its Doomsday Clock, indicating what world developments mean for the perceived likelihood of nuclear catastrophe, at the National Press Club in Washington Jan. 24, 2023. The designation remained unchanged as of Feb. 21, 2024. (OSV News photo/Leah Millis, Reuters)

(OSV News) -- The Doomsday Clock -- the theoretical timepiece that measures humanity's march toward nuclear annihilation when it strikes midnight -- continues to dismally tick forward, currently marking 90 seconds until Armageddon.

And for yet another year, the nine major nuclear powers -- the United States, Russia, China, North Korea, Israel, France, Pakistan, India and the United Kingdom -- have declined to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The first agreement binding under international law that seeks to comprehensively prohibit -- and ultimately eliminate -- nuclear weapons opened for signatures at the United Nations in September 2017 and entered into force Jan. 22, 2021.

What might finally move the nations that haven't signed the treaty to do so? What, if anything, could convince them, especially in a global environment that currently tallies -- according to Switzerland's Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights -- at least 110 armed conflicts?

"A nuclear-armed state is unlikely to sign the treaty until it either decides to unilaterally eliminate its nuclear arsenal or the international situation changes so much that the nuclear-armed states jointly decide to move toward elimination of all nuclear weapons," said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. "I can't imagine one of them giving up its nuclear weapons if other nuclear-armed states continue to have them."

The Federation of American Scientists is a global policy think tank founded in 1946 by scientists, including some who developed America's first atomic bomb. Created to use science and technology to benefit humanity, it also aims to reduce the amount of nuclear weapons in use.

"That said," Kristensen continued, "all the nuclear-armed states need to do much more to reduce nuclear risks. Five of them are obligated through their signature to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to pursue reductions to end the arms race and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons," he explained. "The fact that nearly half of the non-nuclear weapon states that have signed the NPT are so frustrated about lack of progress toward that goal is a warning to the nuclear-armed states not to undermine support for the NPT."

The Arms Control Association's "2023 Estimated Global Nuclear Warhead Inventories" reports "the world's nuclear-armed states possess a combined total of over 12,500 nuclear warheads; nearly 90% belong to Russia and the United States. Approximately 9,600 warheads are in military service, with the rest awaiting dismantlement."

In August 2020, Pope Francis condemned both the use and possession of nuclear weapons in a message to organizers of a ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bomb detonation. "The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral," the pontiff said, "just as the possessing of nuclear weapons is immoral."

He reinforced that position in a June 2022 message read at the First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, declaring, "Nuclear weapons are a costly and dangerous liability." Pope Francis further warned that the idea of mutually assured deterrence "inevitably ends up poisoning relationships between peoples and obstructing any possible form of real dialogue."

While Pope Francis has affirmed the importance of the right to self-defense, he has simultaneously suggested a reassessment of how the concept of just war is used in favor of constructive dialogue to resolve conflicts.

The Catholic Church has an extensive history of teaching regarding war and nuclear weapons, including St. John XXIII's 1963 papal encyclical, "Pacem in Terris"; the Second Vatican Council's 1965 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World ("Gaudium et Spes"); the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' 1983 pastoral letter "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response"; and dozens of other official pronouncements.

More recently, Archbishop John C. Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, wrote a 2022 pastoral letter "Living in the Light of Christ's Peace: A Conversation Toward Nuclear Disarmament." With Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Seattle, Archbishop Wester made a summer 2023 "Pilgrimage of Peace" to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, the sites of two atomic bomb detonations during the waning days of World War II.

"We're in a second nuclear arms race that's arguably more dangerous than the first -- because we have hypersonic delivery systems, artificial intelligence and things of that nature," Archbishop Wester told OSV News. "The urgency is clear; we really have to do something. The very existence of nuclear weapons is just far too dangerous."

That danger is increased by policies that speak of disarmament while actively updating nuclear stockpiles.

"The official United States policy is to disarm -- to have verifiable, multilateral disarmament; to work toward that," Archbishop Wester said. "And so we're not following our own law; our own policy. We've just pushed it aside -- and we're ignoring it as we modernize the weapons we do have. We're right back in the middle of a nuclear arms race."

People have, Archbishop Wester explained, become complacent about living side-by-side with nuclear weapons.

"The problem is, the nuclear weapons are sitting in their silos, quietly, as they have been ever since they've been created and manufactured. And so, we've kind of forgotten about them."

Catholics, then, need to continuously make their voices heard.

"To convince these nations -- the nine nations that have nuclear weapons -- means that we have to have the political will. And politicians, of course, look at the votes," Archbishop Wester said. "So we've got to have Catholics that understand the nature of the urgency of it, and the total devastation that would result if we use them. And to bring them up as a pro-life issue; that this is something that endangers human life -- and as a matter of fact, all of life."

But, Archbishop Wester said, prayer is absolutely essential.

"Prayer is very important. We have to pray to Christ -- the Prince of Peace -- to deliver us from this danger that we've created for ourselves," he said, "and just pray that we can do it in time."

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, a moral theologian and president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, said that a fundamental moral principle also must be considered when asking about the timing of disarmament. The priest is a U.S Naval Academy physics graduate who spent midshipman summers on deterrence patrols aboard nuclear submarines with the capacity to carry nuclear weapons.

"This is a tough one for people to understand -- it's an ancient teaching that goes right back to the early Greek philosophers, Socrates himself; and it's clear in the Scripture, and the catechism; but difficult to live," Msgr. Swetland explained. "And that is the concept that it's better to suffer evil than to do it. Or putting it another way, you cannot do evil that good would come of it," he said. "It's important that we are reminded of this biblical and moral truth."

Anticipating objections, Msgr. Swetland added, "At first it seems natural that, 'Oh, this has kept the peace; this keeps us from having total war.' I hear these kinds of things all the time. First of all, I wonder if that is true. But second of all, we have to unpack -- and say, 'At what cost?'"

The price, Msgr. Swetland emphasized, is not only monetary -- it's human.

"We demand of certain military officers and enlisted personnel that they be willing to drop the bomb; push the button; deploy the weapon of mass destruction that will slaughter tens, hundreds of thousands -- in some cases, millions -- of innocents," he said. "We already say, 'You must have made this conditional choice for us -- and all you're waiting for is an order to do so.' And therefore, we've created a massive injustice and a massive structure of sin. And they're doing it in our name."

Those in favor of maintaining nuclear arsenals would of course object to the realism of total disarmament. For that, Msgr. Swetland has a very succinct answer.

"Just because we or anybody else is fearful that evil may come from renouncing the threat and use of nuclear weapons doesn't mean we shouldn't quit doing evil -- and it should be clear to people by now."

There is, however, a fallback position.

If the U.S. decided to begin dismantling its nuclear arsenal, "we have a time lag between our intent to get rid of them and the actual time it would take us to do so. We could be working with other nations as we do it, to bring them along as well," Msgr. Swetland said. "That gives us a cushion where we could be working towards this while doing what we should be doing -- doing the right thing; doing the moral thing; doing the just thing."


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