WASHINGTON — Catholics concerned about the size of the world's nuclear weapons inventory welcomed President Barack Obama's plan to reduce the size of America's nuclear arsenals if Russia agrees to similar cuts.
The president announced in an address in Berlin June 19 that he would seek cuts "by up to one-third" from the current 1,550 weapons in strategic arsenals. The number of weapons deployed on long-range missiles, bombers and submarines was negotiated under the New START treaty ratified in 2011.
"We strongly applaud this direction of President Obama and really feel it's an enormous, progressive step," said Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace.
He recalled Pope Benedict XVI's World Day of Peace message in 2010, which urged political leaders to undertake concrete decisions toward progressive disarmament "with a view to freeing our planet from nuclear arms."
A new round of nuclear reductions would save billions of dollars and help the country begin to whittle down its debt and support programs that benefit "the poor and those who suffer disproportionately in society," Bishop Pates told Catholic News Service.
Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International, the Catholic peace movement, said her organization supports "any move toward serious nuclear disarmament."
"We hope that President Obama will honor his commitment to move toward nuclear zero as rapidly as possible and hope the Russians respond positively to this proposal," she said in an interview.
"There are a lot of ways right now the Obama administration is disappointing those of us who would support moves toward peace. But this is one step we can celebrate and hopefully it will bear fruit," Dennis said.
Even with the proposed reductions, Dennis expressed concern that the American and Russian arsenals would hold "1,000 more warheads than we need and have us for."
At Pax Christi USA, Sr. Patricia Chappell, who serves as the organization's executive director, said soon after learning about Obama's plan that the cuts should be deeper.
"It's not enough," she said. "We'd like to see more. But certainly he's going in the right direction."
Ronald E. Powaski, a retired adjunct professor of history at Cleveland State University who has written on arms control topics for three decades, told CNS that Obama can expect challenges to his proposal from Senate Republicans and he undoubtedly will have to negotiate other arms expenditures if he negotiates a new treaty. The president may achieve his goal by unilaterally agreeing on an arms deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin directly, Powaski said.
Powaski, who is Catholic, cited talks in the early 1990s between President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to reduce the countries' tactical nuclear weapons stockpiles as precedence for such an agreement.
However arms reduction is reached, Powaski said he finds it a good thing.
"We have more nuclear weapons than we need considering that they're unusable," he explained. "The collective damage that would result from even a limited nuclear war would be far out of proportion than any gain from using them."
"I doubt we'll ever get rid of them. The best thing we can do is reduce their numbers so they cannot be used accidentally or reduce the chances they can be used by terrorists," he added.