While nuclear risks grow, so do threats from new technologies, pope says

The word “PACE,” peace, is seen in the crowd gathered as Pope Francis recites the rosary with young people who are ill at the Chapel of Apparitions at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fátima in Fátima, Portugal, Aug. 5, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

By Justin McLellan

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — As the threat of nuclear war grows due to the war in Ukraine, so does the need to reflect on the ethical implications of other forms of new military weaponry, Pope Francis said.

The pope sent a message to Cardinal Peter Turkson, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Sept. 19 at the start of a two-day Vatican conference to mark the 60th anniversary of St. John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical “Pacem in Terris.”

The conference is “most timely as our world continues to be in the grip of a third world war fought piecemeal, and, in the tragic case of the conflict in Ukraine, not without the threat of recourse to nuclear weapons,” Pope Francis wrote.

Organized by the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences and the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, the conference gathered military experts and scholars at the Vatican to reflect on the ethical implications behind contemporary technologies of warfare. Several scholars came from U.S. institutions, including the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Naval War College.

Pope Francis noted that since St. John’s landmark encyclical calling for a ban on nuclear weapons was published, “not only has the number and potency of nuclear weapons grown, but other weapon technologies have burgeoned, and even the long-standing consensus to prohibit chemical and biological weapons is coming under stress.”

In response, the pope called for “ethical reflection on the grave risks associated with the continuing possession of nuclear weapons” and urged scholars to analyze other “military and technology-based threats to peace.”

Among the topics listed in the conference’s sessions are AI-based weapons systems, autonomous robots, regulatory approaches to cyber warfare and nuclear risk scenarios today.

The pope said that particularly when it comes to the possession of nuclear arms, “the work of the United Nations and related organizations in raising consciousness and promoting adequate regulatory measures remains fundamental.”

Yet he added that “concern for the moral implications of nuclear warfare must not be allowed to overshadow the increasingly urgent ethical problems raised by the use in contemporary warfare of so-called ‘conventional weapons,’ which should be used for defensive purposes only and not directed to civilian targets.”

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