Nuclear Weapons - From Satanism to Sainthood

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself, wearing a symbol of Satan. That’s the cross with its arms wrenched down. It is Satanic. It is a symbol of the Anti-Christ”. Incensed with anger, the indignant parent at the PTA meeting jabbed at my CND lapel badge. Just at that moment the meeting began, so I never got the chance to explain to him that the well-known symbol was devised by an artist called Gerald Holtom and was the semaphore symbol of the letter ”n” superimposed on the letter “d” (for nuclear disarmament), with the circle representing the world. Holtom also remembered the famous painting by Goya, of the execution of prisoners during the Napoleonic war, with their arms drooping at an angle. So the CND symbol has nothing to do with Satan. He is too busy selling us the demonology of deterrence and ever increasing wealth through ever increasing profits from endless wars.

I sometimes remember this incident and wonder if that poor soul is as deluded today. Attitudes have - thank God - changed since those dark days. In the past, among Catholics there was tolerance of nuclear weapons or even outright support for them. Thus Sir Michael Quinlan who was the leading strategist in the MoD during the cold war, and defender of nuclear deterrence, was a highly intelligent Catholic academic (and member of the 3rd order of St Francis). He once commented that “the nuclear issue was intellectually congenial perhaps because of its combination of complexity and abstractedness”.. So we had Quinlan in one corner and Bruce Kent in the other.  Bruce did not see anything at all attractive or abstract in hydrogen bombs. Neither does the Pope. Nor do I.

In America, Dorothy Day, was jailed for refusing to take part in Civil Defense exercises for nuclear war preparations, Now she is in line for canonisation. and was extolled by the Pope during his recent visit to America . Back in Britain, Cardinal Basil Hume assured us (in Sept. 1983) “The deterrent may be tolerated, but for a time only”. How long “for a time” lasts is unclear. This period of indulgence allowing us to tolerate the intolerable is in effect, still operating. This get out of jail card has outlived the good Cardinal and is still being played today. But we never should have tolerated it for any time at all. Murderous threats are murderous threats. They already devastate all moral limits. Meanwhile, the man who rejected this hypocrisy, the redoubtable Bruce Kent was estranged from the mainstream of Catholic acceptability. Now that he is dead, we can all say nice things about him, having blackballed him and ignored him during his life….

Tragically, resistance to nuclear war plans has been weak and ineffective among Catholics in the UK as a whole. Sir Michael Quinlan was once on the governing board of the prestigious Catholic journal The Tablet, which is still hesitant on nuclear disarmament. (It does not support unilateral nuclear disarmament). In Scotland the picture is considerably brighter The Scottish Bishops affirmed away back in 1983 “if it is wrong to use these weapons, it is wrong to threaten their use”. Which says it all.

One can only lament the damage done to the much vaunted unity in matters of faith and morals that characterises the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church.

The trouble is that supporters of deterrence made the bogus ethical distinction between possession of nuclear weapons and their use. But no country possesses nuclear weapons without being prepared to use them should the deterrence situation break down. No state keeps them as an unusable talisman, hidden away in a vault.

In a landmark statement on nuclear arms on Nov. 10, 2017, Pope Francis categorically condemned not only the threat of their use but also “their very possession”. Nuclear weapons, he told participants at a Vatican symposium “exist in the service of a mentality of fear that affects not only the parties in conflict but the entire human race”

This is a seismic change in Catholic teaching. It destroys the basic architecture of nuclear defence which has sustained Western thinking since the start of the nuclear age. We can longer excuse our preparation for nuclear extermination by pleading deterrence
The Pope has condemned nuclear deterrence. The question now remains, what are we going to do about this? Are we prepared to follow him, to resist nuclear war plans peacefully and non-violently?

In fidelity to this teaching, and to the Gospel, Glasgow Catholic Worker supported the blockade of Coulport arms depot in June this year. So the morning of 13th June found me lying on the road at Coulport with my arm stuck  in a tube. At the other end of this, the redoubtable Willemein from Faslane Peace Camp was handcuffed to me. We were accompanied by some splendid young folk from XR Peace, while the wonderful Protest in Harmony sang to keep our spirits up.  I was blockading the base, and joined in the singing while awaiting arrest. It was also the 40th birthday of Faslane Peace Camp, the longest continuous Peace Camp in the world. Their witness for peace is inspirational

After a couple of hours, I was arrested and taken to Clydebank Police station where I spent ten hours in a police cell. The police couldn’t have been more professional . They know we are committed to non-violence, and they reciprocate likewise.

All things are connected. While this is going on in Scotland, in Vienna the Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) just concluded the first meeting, and condemned unequivocally “any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances.” 61 countries have ratified this Treaty. It is now compulsory international law (ius cogens) from which there is no derogation.

In Ukraine, civilians are killed by aerial bombing, while the rest of the world looks on in horror. We are not allowed to kill civilians. We all know that, but we are threatening to do just that every moment of every day with our so-called “deterrent”. Young men are diligently practising their role in using Trident. All things are connected.

On August  6th, we commemorated our nuclear Original Sin, the greatest single-act war crime in history, Hiroshima. This was largely ignored, as usual. But it is precisely because we are unrepentant of this atrocity, that we are prepared to repeat it - and unimaginably worse - with Trident. All things are connected.

When human extermination became the official policy of certain states the finest brains in the world reacted with incredulous horror. Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell published the Peace Manifesto back in 1955, where they said “Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.” Their anguished plea was ignored, and we had the collective lunacy of the Cold War; trillions of dollars was wasted on weapons, while millions perished through hunger and disease. And we had proxy wars from Central America to Africa.

We came within seconds (literally) of global suicide on several occasion.  We only survived thanks to the mercy of God and the perverse courage of heroic individuals like Vassily Arkhipov (“the man who saved the world”) and Stanislav Petrov (Google them).

Meanwhile, many people rallied round the call to “ban the bomb”. In spite of its simplistic alliteration, this is actually a subtle call to recognise the illegality of all weapons of mass destruction. And that is exactly what we have done. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into force on 22 January 2021. The nine rogue nuclear states may ignore this today, but the are thereby stigmatised as pariah states and have outlawed themselves,

Today the Doomsday Clock is closer to midnight than at any other time in the past. The 9 rogue nuclear states respond by obdurately modernising their weaponry. Boris Johnston has increased the kill[power of Trident by 40%. So, because this man, who seems clinically sterile to any notion of moral integrity, chooses to gratify his ego by ludicrous overkill, we in Scotland have to endure Trident, and the rest of the world is condemned to teeter on the razor’s edge of extermination for perpetuity. At this time it is impossible to observe reality and feel any sense of optimism. We must adjust our minds, because we cannot change reality.

As Howard Zinn said “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasise in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places - and there are so many - where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future.. the future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory.”

On radio Scotland recently there was a phone-in about the terrible business of Ukraine. The consensus of most of the callers was now is not the time to be getting rid of Trident. Ukraine had nuclear weapons and got rid of them and look what happened there. We have learned nothing, we still follow the drum beat of deterrence in the dance of death.

Some time ago I  received a letter informing me that my appearance in court on 29th June (which I agreed to following my arrest,) had been cancelled. Is this an indication that a glimmer of sanity has penetrated the legal bureaucracy? Will the police stop protecting Trident from me, and start protecting me from Trident? Or - more likely - I am clutching at straws and the cancellation is due to the backlog of coronavirus

The Afro-American philosopher, Dr Cornel West said, “'Justice is what love looks like in public.’” Justice is about love. And Maria Skobtsova, the Russian Orthodox nun murdered by the Nazis in 1943, wrote these wonderful words:

“No amount of thought will ever result in any greater formulation than the three words,‘Love one another,’ so long as it is love to the end and without exceptions.  

And then the whole of life is illumined, which is otherwise an abomination and a burden”.

In the past, some idealists pleaded that we recognise the brotherhood of all. They were ignored,and the killing went on. Today in the nuclear age this cannot continue. Our survival demands it. As Martin Luther King said, from now on we must live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.


Brian Quail