Skip to main content


Issue 2020/01

The Core Question: Nuclear Deterrence in the Focus of Peace Ethics and Security Policy

“Our world is marked by a perverse dichotomy that tries to defend and ensure stability and peace through a false sense of security sustained by a mentality of fear and mistrust.” With these words, spoken in Nagasaki at the end of 2019, Pope Francis once again condemned the system of nuclear deterrence. Peace and international stability cannot be built on the threat of total annihilation, he said. By taking the view that not only the use of nuclear weapons but also threatening their use and even their possession cannot be justified, the pope has set a new course in the Church’s peace ethics.

Weapons whose use can never be ethically legitimate are supposed to secure peace. For a long time, this paradox has played a central role in peace ethics discussions in the Catholic Church. For example, the papal encyclical Pacem in terris (1963) issued by Pope John XXIII was a response to the atomic threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis the year before. For him, it was a precept equally of justice, reason and human dignity that the arms race should cease and effective agreements on disarmament should be reached. The pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes promulgated in 1965 takes up this teaching. From then on, official teachings would be shaped by the idea of an “interlude granted us from above” so that we might find political alternatives to war.

This edition takes the Vatican’s current “change of course” as its starting point, and asks what motives are behind the pope’s statements. At the same time, the Holy See is not alone in its fundamental criticism – so the editors also wanted to give a voice to civil society initiatives such as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), and feminist research.

On almost no other subject are the fronts of opinion so hardened. Opponents of nuclear weapons claim that supporters of deterrence are irresponsible. The latter respond almost reflexively with accusations of naivety. At any rate, the clear position of the Catholic Church, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and also the general state of international relations have reignited the debate. It is not without reason that at the start of this year, the publishers of the U.S. academic journal Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set their symbolic Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight – as an urgent warning and expression of “the most dangerous situation that humanity has ever faced”. Several articles are therefore devoted to the current security policy situation and possible ways out of the deterrence paradigm. The editorial team also thought it particularly important to include two separate articles outlining the position of the nuclear powers Russia and China.

The resurgent discussion about Germany’s “nuclear sharing” further illustrates the continuing topicality of the issue. Our special feature edition examines the question of what the papal pronouncements mean for service rendered by German military personnel.

Our sincere thanks go to all the authors, and we hope that this edition will help bring about a deeper understanding of the core issues. If after reading these articles, you conclude that it is perhaps no longer quite so clear who is “naive” and who is not, then much will already have been accomplished.

Read the magazine