The Vatican’s Dangerous Call for “Integral Disarmament”

Earlier this year, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development (DPIHD) joined with the Vatican COVID-19 Commission and the Strategic Concept for the Removal of Arms and Proliferation (SCRAP) of the SOAS University of London to co-host a webinar entitled “Advancing Integral Disarmament in Times of Pandemic.” The goal of this conference was to advance Pope Francis’ message on the theme of peace and disarmament but to do so in the context of COVID-19 by linking the issues of arms racing and military spending to the failure of public health authorities to address the pandemic adequately.

Building on Pope Francis’ call at the Plain of Ur in Iraq, the conference emphasized the urgent need to embrace the concept of “Integral Disarmament.” As Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin put it, this “means transforming instruments of hatred into instruments of peace…. It means rejecting the increasing proliferation of arms and accepting the promotion of the common good and the alleviation of poverty.”

Sounds good. But what, precisely, is “Integral Disarmament?” According to its advocates, integral disarmament can be defined in terms of four basic ideas. First, it is built on the premise that weapons—nuclear, biological, chemical, and conventional—by their very nature produce evils and disorders that are always greater than the evil they are meant to defend against. Second, the Integral Disarmament rests on the assumption that merely possessing weapons is immoral because, as long as such weapons exist, they might be used.

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Third, Integral Disarmament assumes that weapons are not well suited to addressing real threats to “integral human security”: asymmetrical conflicts, cybersecurity, environmental degradation, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, environmental destruction, and poverty. Fourth, Integral Disarmament asserts or assumes that spending on weapons wastes scarce resources needed to address the root causes of conflicts and to promote “Integral Development” and “Just Peace.” Finally, based on these assumptions, advocates of Integral Disarmament claim that the only solution to the moral, strategic, environmental, and economic problems posed by the development, possession, and proliferation of all forms of weaponry is general and complete disarmament.

Integral Disarmament has been promoted in recent years as a new and innovative way of thinking about security—one that is indebted to the deep tradition of Catholic thinking on issues of war and peace but more in keeping with the signs of the times. The reality, however, is that it is neither. It is certainly not in keeping with the 1500-year-old Catholic tradition of reflection on the enduring questions of war—why wars happen, the morality of war, and the solutions to war. That tradition teaches that “insofar as men are sinful, the threat of war hangs over them, and hang over them it will until the return of Christ.” 

On the other hand, Integral Disarmament strikes an almost Pelagian note, assuming or asserting that humanity can abolish sin (structural and personal) and thereby usher in an era of perpetual peace. This is not the unfolding of a tradition, nor is it to synthesize the Church’s teachings on disarmament with those of development. Instead, the ideas inherent in the concept of Integral Disarmament represent a radical rupture in Catholic thought, one that was a mere crack in the 1960s but is now a full breach. It is, simply put, the abandonment of the millennium-and-a-half old tradition of Catholic international thought tout court

Nor is Integral Disarmament particularly new or innovative. In fact, the ideas at the very heart of the DPIHD’s “new” disarmament initiative are little more than warmed-over bromides and platitudes from yesteryear—theories of war and peace from the Interwar Period, the 1960s, and the Reagan era that had been mainly consigned to the dustbin of history but have recently been reanimated and recombined.

Three examples should suffice.

First, from the 1930s, we have the long-dead but newly reanimated “merchants of death” theory. According to this theory, first floated in the aftermath of the First World War, wars are caused in no small measure by the manufacturers of, and dealers in, all manner of weapons systems. In other words, wars like the Great War are caused by what we might now call “Big Arma,” demonic armament firms that pressure nations to start wars not for the sake of self-defense, righting wrongs, vindicating rights, or restoring a stable balance-of-power, but solely to rake in more and more filthy lucre. Reflecting this logic, Pope Francis himself has employed the logic of this pseudo-theory on more than one occasion. For example, in a June 2017 video, he asked the question, “Is this war or that war really a war to solve problems, or is it a commercial war for selling weapons in an illegal trade, and so that the merchants of death get rich?” 

Second, from the 1960s, we have the whole panoply of until recently moribund ideas derived from the Marxist Peace Studies enterprise. Placed side by side, the parallels between Johan Galtung’s concepts such as “structural violence” and “positive peace” on the one hand and “structural sin” and “just peace” on the other are striking: both bodies of work focus on the harm generated not by individuals but by social arrangements and practices; both define peace not merely as the absence of war but as a social condition of harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare, and tranquility; both link true peace not to balance of power politics, diplomacy, or deterrence but to social justice; and both assert that disarmament is a necessary element of real peace.  

Finally, from the 1980s, we have two concepts salvaged from the dustbin of Reagan-era nuclear disarmament campaign history: the “arms racing leads to war” theory and the “nuclear deterrence leads to war” theory. According to the first of these theories, echoed in numerous DPIHD pronouncements, competition among nations for superiority in the development and accumulation of weaponry tends to end in political crises, military confrontations, and nuclear conflicts, necessarily resulting in nuclear Armageddon. 

According to the second of these theories, merely possessing nuclear weapons is immoral because, as long as such weapons exist, they might be used deliberately, and if they are, they will necessarily produce evils and disorders greater than the evils and disorders they are intended to address. A variation on this argument, and one that the pope has underscored on several occasions, is that merely possessing nuclear weapons means that they might be used accidentally. As His Holiness put it in a recent address:

Nor can we fail to be genuinely concerned by the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental effects of any employment of nuclear devices. If we also consider the risk of an accidental detonation as a result of error of any kind, the threat of their use and their very possession is to be firmly condemned. For they exist in the service of a mentality of fear that affects not only the parties in conflict but the entire human race.

To this we can add a soupçon of a somewhat more recent set of conceptual innovations falling under the broad heading of “human security.” Originating in the aftermath of the Cold War, the concept of human security was initially a response to the perceived inadequacy of the traditional notion of national security. Against the backdrop of the end of superpower conflict and the increasing number of violent internal conflicts in Africa, Asia, and Europe, the idea that the individual rather than the state should be the object of security took hold. And having taken hold, it soon ramified into a number of subordinate concepts: economic security, food security, health security, environmental security, and so on. 

This is indistinguishable from the “new” concept of integral security now circulating in and around the DPIHD. As Cardinal Secretary Parolin put it, integral security involves “anchoring security to solidarity, justice, integral human development, the respect for fundamental human rights, and the care for creation.” It also involves integral disarmament—the diversion of money wasted on weapons of war to more productive ends. As Cardinal Secretary Parolin put it, rather than spending money on arms, states should reallocate those funds to investing in “health, social equity, and poverty eradication.”

Integral Disarmament, then, is neither innovative nor terribly new. It is a concatenation of revenant shibboleths and nostrums largely at odds with the deep tradition of Catholic international thought. Indeed, it is so unoriginal that I’m not sure whether to wrap up with a reference to Ecclesiastes, “there is no new thing under the sun,” or Marx, “history repeats itself.” Despite the prima facie incongruence of the juxtaposition, both seem eerily appropriate. But since this is a moment of geopolitical nostalgia, and one curiously beholden to earlier moments of maximal Marxist intrusion into the intellectual life of the West, perhaps I’ll go full Marx: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” I’ll leave it to you to decide where we are in the cycle.

[Image Credit: Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development website]


  • Andrew Latham

    Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota for the past two decades. He is the author, most recently, of Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics: War and World Order in the Age of the Crusades published by Routledge in 2012, and The Holy Lance, his first novel, published by Knox Robinson.

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