The Church’s call for General and Complete Disarmament

Eliminating weapons of mass destruction, regulating conventional arms, lowering military spending, and strengthening mechanisms for peace.

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At the first meeting of signatories to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the Holy See warned that no country will proceed with nuclear disarmament “if in divesting itself of its nuclear arms, it feels that it will be left facing an imbalance of conventional forces inimical to its security.”

It went on to highlight: “that is why Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty wisely commits all signatories to General and Complete Disarmament even as it binds them to rid themselves of nuclear weapons.”44

The concept of General and Complete Disarmament does not mean the removal of literally all weaponry and defence capabilities. Rather, it encompasses eliminating weapons of mass destruction, reducing and regulating conventional arms, lowering military spending to only the level required for self-defence, and strengthening mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of conflicts.45

The UN General Assembly considered these challenges at its first special session devoted to disarmament in 1978. Addressing the meeting, Pope Paul VI called for “a strategy of peace and disarmament – a step-by-step strategy but one that is at the same time almost impatient, a strategy that is balanced yet courageous – always keeping our eyes and our wills fixed on the final goal of General and Complete Disarmament.”46

Speaking at the second special session in 1982, Pope John Paul II emphasised the clarity of the Church’s teaching in this area, noting that it has consistently called for “mutual progressive and verifiable reduction of armaments as well as greater safeguards against possible misuse of these weapons […] while urging that the independence, freedom and legitimate security of each and every nation be respected.”47

Six years later, addressing the third special session, he reaffirmed: “The progressive, balanced and controlled elimination of weapons of mass destruction and the stabilization at the lowest possible level of the defensive weapon systems of countries is an objective that should garner the necessary consensus as a first step towards increased security.”48

However, despite some progress on disarmament at the end of the Cold War, this has stalled in recent years, with many countries expanding their military arsenals, going “far beyond what is needed to assure legitimate defense, foment[ing] the vicious circle of a seemingly endless arms race” and detracting “potential resources from addressing poverty, inequality, injustice, education and health.” On this basis, the Holy See has called for “the resumption of a formal discussion on limitations of armaments and on general and complete disarmament, under effective systems of control and verification.”49

The human cost of our collective failure to take such actions is clear. While the absolute number of people killed in conflict has declined since the end of the Second World War, armed violence is still taking place in and between dozens of countries across the world, directly resulting in over 140,000 deaths each year.50 Countless others are suffering and dying from the wider impacts of conflict including restricted access to; clean water, food, healthcare and basic services.

At the same time, as our Bishops acknowledged in Love the Stranger: “War, violence, and insecurity are often at the root of people leaving their homelands. Each member of the family of nations has a responsibility to promote peace and human rights throughout the world, so that all peoples can flourish in the countries in which they live.”51

The deployment of weaponry also has repercussions for our common home. In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis emphasised that: “War always does grave harm to the environment”.52 Furthermore, the manufacture of weaponry generates significant carbon emissions, contributing to the wider challenge of military and conflict-related emissions which is largely unaddressed in international environmental agreements.53

Despite the loss of human life, displacement of people, misallocation of resources, and damage to our planet, multilateral efforts towards General and Complete Disarmament have effectively stalled. A new special session of the UN General Assembly, the first in over three decades, would provide an important focal point and impetus for progress. However, while the fourth session has been formally approved and a preparatory working group established, it has not yet been convened. In 2022, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales joined with other faith and civil society groups to declare:

“In these unprecedented times, we appeal to states and others to harness their capabilities to achieve collective security through cooperative international agreements, by reinvigorating efforts to achieve sustainable, verified and irreversible disarmament. We call on states, including our governments and their representatives, to support the activation of a Special Session on Disarmament at the United Nations General Assembly.”54

The Church also encourages governments to “establish a ‘Global Fund’ with the money spent on weapons and other military expenditures, in order to […]contribute to the development of the poorest countries.”55 As Pope Francis set out in his message for the World Day of Peace in 2021: “How many resources are spent on weaponry […]that could be used for more significant priorities such as ensuring the safety of individuals, the promotion of peace and integral human development, the fight against poverty, and the provision of health care?”56

As well as urging countries to reduce their own arsenals, Pope Francis has consistently challenged the global trade in weaponry, appealing: “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”57

This is especially significant for the Church here, given that the UK is among the pre-eminent exporters of weaponry and every two years hosts one of the world’s largest arms fairs.58 As our Bishops, along with Catholic organisations working for justice and peace, have stated: “The conflicts fuelled by this trade harm the poorest communities, force people to flee their homes as refugees, and have devastating consequences for our environment. We stand alongside all those people of goodwill who are peacefully campaigning against the arms trade and join in prayer with the Holy Father that our leaders may commit themselves to ending it, in pursuit of peace and care for our whole human family.”59

There have been various attempts to establish safeguards and controls on the arms trade, the most significant being the Arms Trade Treaty which requires signatories to maintain an effective control system for the movement of arms, take measures to prevent the diversion of weapons into the illegal arms trade, and provide annual reports. It also prohibits the transfer of weaponry knowingly for use in genocide, crimes against humanity and other breaches of the Geneva Conventions.60 The treaty is strongly supported by the Holy See and has been signed by most states including the UK. However, while, along with other international agreements, it sets out an important regulatory framework limiting some of the worst excesses, we are called to continue challenging the arms trade as a whole, which Pope Benedict XVI observed is “a grave sin”61 and Pope Francis has condemned as an “industry of death”.62

It is important to emphasise that this does not necessarily prohibit the provision of weaponry to countries for their self-defence and that strictly regulated transfers can be in keeping with the pursuit of General and Complete Disarmament. Reflecting on countries sending weapons to Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, Pope Francis explained that this “can be moral — morally acceptable — if it is done according to the conditions of morality, which are manifold […] But it can be immoral if it is done with the intention of provoking more war or selling weapons or discarding those weapons that are no longer needed. The motivation is what largely qualifies the morality of this act. To defend oneself is not only lawful but also an expression of love of country.”63

Such decisions should always take place in the context of efforts to establish justice and peace, involving the minimum necessary supply of weapons, while incorporating robust safeguards, tracking, transparency and measures to prevent them falling into the hands of anyone other than the intended recipient. International systems of monitoring and enforcement are an essential part of this. After his visit to Iraq in 2021, Pope Francis reflected upon the dangers of proliferating weaponry, stating that “the response to war is not another war; the response to weapons is not other weapons. And I asked myself: who is selling weapons to the terrorists?“64

Importantly, our opposition to the arms trade must also be accompanied by the promotion of a just transition for people whose jobs depend on the industry. While in the UK the production of weapons accounts for only a very small proportion of manufacturing employment, this is nevertheless the primary source of employment for some families who are concentrated in certain parts of the country.65

As the US Bishops highlighted in their pastoral reflection Sowing the Weapons of War: “The predominant role of our own country in sustaining and even promoting the arms trade, sometimes for economic reasons, is a moral challenge for our nation. Jobs at home cannot justify exporting the means of war abroad.”66 However, they also highlighted the importance of not forgetting those who would be affected by halting arms sales, calling for the impact to be addressed “through economic development and conversion programs, efforts to strengthen the nonmilitary economy, and programs to assist the unemployed.”67 These are valuable principles which can be applied in our own context. It is important to note that weapons manufacturing programmes, while possibly creating jobs in the short term, divert economic resources from other valuable activities thereby undermining integral human development which the Church seeks for all people.

Finally, as Catholics, we have a responsibility to avoid complicity, through our financial investments, in harm inflicted by the arms trade. This is set out in Mensuram Bonam, the framework produced by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences to help investors avoid moral evils and actively do good. In its discussion of exclusionary criteria for investments, relating to the intrinsic dignity of human life, the guidance explains: “The uncontrolled proliferation of arms facilitates many outbreaks of violence and erodes secure peace. Thus, industries which thrive on the production of these instruments of war and destruction engage in a reprehensible business.”68 We commend and encourage the Catholic dioceses and other organisations in England and Wales that are examining their own investment guidelines to ensure they meet these standards.

Action Points

Conscious of our Christian duty as peacemakers, we recall Pope John Paul II’s message that “the production and sale of conventional weapons throughout the world is a truly alarming and evidently growing phenomenon […] every step taken to limit this production and traffic and to bring them under an ever more effective control will be an important contribution to the cause of peace.”69

Through our prayer and public witness, we seek to:

  • Encourage the UK to take meaningful steps towards General and Complete Disarmament including support for a new special session on disarmament at the UN General Assembly
  • Build support for a global fund, diverting military expenditure towards promoting peace and integral human development
  • Promote an end to the UK’s role in the global arms trade while being mindful of the need for a just transition protecting the livelihoods of people currently working in the manufacture of weaponry
  • Promote the principles laid out in Mensuram Bonam relating to investment in the arms industry.


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44 Holy See, Contribution to the First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: The Treaty On the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – A Path for Dialogue and Action, 2022.

45 Strategic Concept for the Removal of Arms and Proliferation, Background Paper – The Non-Proliferation Treaty and General & Complete Disarmament, May 2021.

46 Pope Paul VI, Message to the First Special Session of the UN General Assembly Devoted to Disarmament, 6 June 1978.

47 Pope John Paul II, Message to the Second Special Session of the UN General Assembly Devoted to Disarmament, 7 June 1982.

48 Pope John Paul II, Message to the Third Special Session of the UN General Assembly Devoted to Disarmament, 31 May 1988.

49 Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Statement to the High level segment of the 2021 Session of the Conference on Disarmament, 21 February 2021.

50 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Yearbook 2023 : Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, 2023.

51 Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Love the Stranger: a Catholic Response to Migrants and Refugees, 2023.

52 Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ [57], 2015.

53 Perspectives climate group, Military and conflict-related emissions: Kyoto to Glasgow and beyond, 2022.

54 Strategic Concept for the Removal of Arms and Proliferation, Call for a Special Session on Disarmament at the UN General Assembly, [Accessed 26 March 2024].

55 Pope Francis, Message for the World Day of Peace, 1 January 2021.

56 Ibid.

57 Pope Francis, Address to Joint Session of the US Congress, 24 September 2015.

58 House of Commons Library, UK arms exports: statistics, 12 December 2023.

59 Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Catholic Bishops and organisations call for an end to the arms trade, 7 September 2021.

60 Arms Control Association, The Arms Trade Treaty at a Glance, August 2017.

61 Pope Benedict XVI, Interview with journalists during flight to Lebanon, 14 September 2012.

62 Pope Francis, Address to children of Italian schools, 11 May 2015.

63 Pope Francis, Press conference during return flight from Kazakhstan, 15 September 2022.

64 Pope Francis, General Audience, 10 March 2021.

65 Campaign Against the Arms Trade, Jobs and the Economy, [Accessed 26 March 2024].

66 US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sowing Weapons of War: a pastoral reflection on the arms trade and landmines, 16 June 1995.

67 Ibid.

68 Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Mensuram Bonam: faith-based measures for Catholic investors – a starting point and call to action, 2022.

69 Pope John Paul II, Message to the UN General Assembly, 7 June 1982.