Thursday, April 8, 2010

When Bishops Go Nuclear

President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met today in Prague to sign the latest incarnation of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), in which each nation pledged to reduce its nuclear arsenals by nearly a third over the next seven years with an aim of eventual disarmament.

The position of the U.S. bishops on this issue is not new. The bishops first called for nuclear disarmament in their 1983 document The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response. This was further developed in their 1993 document The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace.

The past year has been an eventful one for the bishops on this issue. Last April, President Obama first committed to nuclear disarmament. Around that time, Catholic press veteran Jerry Filteau, writing for National Catholic Reporter, critiqued what he called the bishops' absence from the nuclear debate. The critique was ironic, given that the bishops had been releasing regular letters and statements on the issue over the years, including one from Albany Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, Chairman of the bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace, which quickly followed President Obama's announcement.

The voice of the bishops on this issue took on new prominence last July when Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O'Brien addressed the 2009 Deterrence Symposium in Omaha, sponsored by the U.S. Strategic Command. Addressing a largely military audience, Archbishop O'Brien noted his own military background, from his ministry as a chaplain during the Vietnam War to his service as Archbishop for the Military Services for a decade before his appointment to Baltimore, before candidly rolling out the Church's position on nuclear disarmament.

The response was strong -- with some in the media noting that the archbishop's military background gave the message some extra heft. "Only Nixon could go to China," as the Vulcan proverb goes. The response was also strong enough for Archbishop O'Brien to be invited to Paris to participate in the Global Zero Summit in February of this year.

The purpose of the Global Zero meeting was, in part, to raise the profile of negotiations between the U.S. and Russia on a new nuclear treaty. Going off of today's signing, their efforts seem to have paid off.

UPDATE: On April 8, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, President of the U.S. Bishops, sent a letter to President Obama, welcoming the signing of the new START treaty and urging bipartisan effort to ratify the treaty in the U.S. Senate.

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