Disarm first and then talk peace

September 4, 2006

Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 508-512

The Catholic Church has been one of the world's most outspoken opponents of war and also one of the strongest advocates of disarmament. It's a simple truth that if there were no weapons, there would be no wars. At the very least, the battles among peoples would be fought with sticks and rocks rather than with AK-47s and cruise missiles.

Of course, the Church does not call for total disarmament. Its teaching reflects the belief that the only justifiable war is one fought within a strictly defined notion of self-defence. In that light, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says, "each state may possess only the means necessary for its legitimate defence" (n. 508). There is no justification for excessive stockpiling and trading in weapons.

Nations need to overcome the myth that accumulating more and more weapons guarantees peace. The opposite has more often been the case: when a country acquires a large amount of weaponry, it will find some excuse to use those arms.


The huge armament industry is dependent for its continued existence on countries and individuals always seeking to buy more and new weapons. Like any industry, it has a vested interest in last year's models being used up so that there is a market for the new line.

The Compendium coolly notes, "Arms can never be treated like other goods exchanged on international or domestic markets" (n. 508).

At the very least, they need to be tightly regulated. Better yet, their numbers should be reduced.

Much of the discussion about disarmament has focused on nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction. There is good reason for this. Those weapons threaten the very future of humanity.

The 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed 103,000 people within the first days after the explosions. The nuclear weapons produced in recent decades are hundreds of times more powerful than those bombs and today, there are roughly 30,000 nuclear weapons. The population of the planet would be wiped out if even a small percentage of those weapons were used in combat.


The Second Vatican Council declared that any use of weapons of mass destruction against population centres would be "a crime against God and man himself."

– CNS photo courtesy Knights of Columbus Museum

Two men who have just stopped fighting are united with the dove of peace. The artwork is in an exhibit, John Paul II: a passion for peace, at the Knights of Columbus Museum.

But to date, it has been weapons of individual destruction that have taken by far the most lives. The Compendium mentions the need to ban anti-personnel landmines, control the production and sale of small arms and light weapons, and to condemn the use of children and adolescents as soldiers in armed combat.

A 2001 UNICEF brochure, No Guns Please: We Are Children, said that during the 1990s more than two million children were killed in wars and another six million seriously injured. It estimated that 300,000 children were fighting in wars in 2001.

"In societies where small arms and light weapons are commonly used in disputes, children come to regard the weapons as necessary for safety and security," said the UNICEF brochure. "Popular culture portrays these weapons as glamorous, and in countries where gun violence is common, this has fueled the culture of violence." Introduce small arms to people at a young age and they will use them for a lifetime.

But change is possible. In Brazil, efforts at domestic disarmament led to the recovery and destruction of 450,000 guns. Killings in that country dropped by eight per cent in the first year.

It's a drop in the bucket, however. There are an estimated 639 million small arms in the world. They kill an estimated 500,000 people a year.


From June 26 to July 7, the United Nations General Assembly hosted a global conference on small arms. Although more than 100 countries had supported establishing global standards to control the international arms trade, the conference failed to take action.

The American National Rifle Association led its country's government to oppose such standards. The NRA wants no regulation of gun sales to civilians. But as civilians own 60 per cent of the world's small arms, the spread of these weapons cannot be contained without regulation of sales to individuals.

The Vatican's representative to the conference, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, maintained, "Arms cannot be treated as if they were commercial goods like any other." Controls are needed.

Illegally traded small arms and light weapons not only foment internal strife in poor countries, they promote terrorism, human trafficking and drug smuggling, Migliore said. The small weapons trade deters the social, political and economic development of poor nations.

It is not acceptable to talk piously about peace and then to promote the holus-bolus trading in arms. Disarmament is not itself sufficient to protect the peace, but it is a necessary step toward a less warlike world.