World Watch: Treaties Foster Disarmament

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The first paragraph of this story was updated on Jan. 6, 2022, to reflect further postponement of the meeting.

The COVID-19 pandemic has once again led to the postponement of a meeting of world leaders to discuss the status of a key global nuclear disarmament agreement, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).  After almost two years of delays, the talks that had been rescheduled to this month at the United Nations have now been tentatively pushed back to August.

More than 50 years since the NPT entered into force in 1970, there are still more than 10,000 nuclear warheads on Earth — 90% of them held by the United States and Russia. Most arms control experts say the NPT, on balance, has been successful at helping reduce the size of arsenals held by superpowers. 

Nations that possess nuclear weapons are obligated to show progress toward gradual nuclear disarmament, while non-nuclear weapons states must forego developing or acquiring nuclear weapons. With 190 participating countries, the NPT has been one of the most effective international agreements on nuclear weapons. But progress on disarmament under the NPT has stalled in recent decades.

Amid other global crises such as the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, the issue of nuclear weapons receives little media attention. However, together with climate change, nuclear threat is widely regarded by scientists and security experts as one of the “twin existential threats” to life as we know it. Experts at the non-profit organization Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists say nuclear threat is only increasing in urgency as global instability has increased due to climate change, weakened global partnerships and declining momentum for disarmament.

In the hopes of galvanizing progress toward nuclear disarmament, 86 nations including the Holy See have signed a new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). First signed in 2017 and effective as of January 2021, the TPNW is the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively ban nuclear weapons. Although none of the nine nuclear powers have signed the treaty so far, the TPNW helps build international legal norms against the possession of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear disarmament is an essential element of the Catholic Church’s call to protect all life and defend human dignity. Recent papal documents and speeches by Vatican authorities have reaffirmed Catholic teaching that nuclear weapons are a threat to life and to our common home. Money spent on our nuclear arsenal should instead be spent to promote economic and climate justice and a security regime based on trust and solidarity. 

Pope Francis emphasizes the Church’s opposition to nuclear weapons, stating for the first time that not only the use but the very possession of nuclear weapons is immoral. The Holy See was among the first states to ratify the TPNW, and Pope Francis has promoted the treaty, hosting a 2017 gathering at the Vatican. 

In May 2021, a group of leading scientists and Catholic leaders, including Susan Gunn of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, issued a joint letter with recommendations for how President Biden can demonstrate the United States’ recommitment to a world free of nuclear weapons. The letter calls on President Biden to affirm the TPNW and to view the NPT review conference in January as an opportunity to make nuclear disarmament a reality.


Faith in action:

• Read the letter signed by scientists and Catholic leaders calling for the United States to recommit to a world free of nuclear weapons.
• Read and share this two-page brief on nuclear disarmament and Catholic social teaching:


The Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, based in Washington, D.C., is a resource for Maryknoll on matters of peace, social justice and integrity of creation, and brings Maryknoll’s mission experience into U.S. policy discussions. Phone (202) 832-1780, visit or email


Featured Image: Pope Francis, the first pontiff to state that possession of nuclear weapons is immoral, releases a dove as a sign of peace outside the Basilica of St. Nicholas after meeting with the leaders of Christian churches in Bari, Italy, in July 2018. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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Kathleen Kollman Birch

Kathleen Kollman Birch is communications manager for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.