NEW YORK – While Pope Francis is pushing hard to ban nuclear weapons, a retired Vatican diplomat wants to make it clear the pope is not calling for unilateral disarmament — which easily could be written off, he knows, as a fairly utopian and unrealistic stance.
“Pope Francis is very prudent. He doesn’t call for one side only to disarm, but he wants a verifiable and agreed upon type of disarmament. He is pushing hard for disarmament because there is too much money invested in arms,” Archbishop Silvano Tomasi said earlier this month.
This past November, the Vatican hosted a conference on nuclear disarmament including Nobel Peace Prize laureates and representatives from the United Nations. Addressing the high-level event, Francis said, “If we also take into account the risk of an accidental detonation as a result of error of any kind, the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.”
That was taken in some quarters as a more radical stance than earlier popes, who had signaled a sort of grudging toleration for the idea of mutually assured destruction, although other observers saw it as little more than a logical extension of previous teaching in a rapidly changing world.
Tomasi, who was a long-serving representative of the Holy See at the United Nations in Geneva, sat down for an interview with Crux during the New York Encounter, a three-day cultural festival organized by the Catholic lay movement Communion and Liberation, where he said that the Vatican is closely following the situation with North Korea.
“The crisis in the Korean peninsula is dangerous because of the threat of the use of atomic weapons,” said Tomasi. “The Holy See has signed and ratified the agreement of last July that bans atomic weapons, both their use and their possession.”
He was referring to the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which has received the full support of the Holy See.
“The consequences of the use of atomic weapons is so dangerous that there is no possibility of containing the damage,” Tomasi warned. “The use of these weapons by accident or by political calculation are totally unacceptable because they destroy the innocent and the guilty, [both] the military target and the civilian target, and this cannot be accepted.”
While Tomasi did not name names, he offered what seemed to be a clear critique of both U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un’s escalation of the tensions between the two countries through their use of name-calling and derisive language.
“The way to resolve this crisis is not by screaming and by using inflammatory rhetoric, but by dialogue. Like the bishops of South Korea have done, like the government of South Korea has opted for, and we need to dialogue not just on arms, but on the needs of the population in North Korea,” Tomasi said.
He also urged caution in using severe sanctions against North Korea, saying that such policies often do far more harm than good, especially for the general population.
“If they need food, we cannot put a limit on the food import when the people are starving. We need to be reasonable and offer honest negotiation where the needs of all the population, not just the military interests, are taken into account and facilitate the integration of North Korea into the political system of the world and the international systems so that like any other country, they can participate in dialogue and receive help and give whatever resources it wants to trade to have access to the market. It is not by building walls,” Tomasi urged.
“We have to be open to relate to other people in a friendly way because of the common humanity we have, and the quality and the dignity of every person needs to be protected,” he added.
Migration in a historical context
Tomasi, who is Italian born, began his career in New York where he co-founded the Center for Migration Studies after completing graduate work in sociology at Fordham University.
He’s long been involved in national and international migration debates as a sociologist, historian, and diplomat, and, when considering present-day debates on migration, he’s quick to don his historian’s hat.
“Migration is not a new phenomenon,” Tomasi said. “This experience is simply a repetition of what happened twenty years ago, what happened after World War II, what happened after World War I, and what happened at the end of the nineteenth century.”
“For example, when Italians were arriving in the United States … even some within the Church did not consider them Catholic because they had customs or processions of saints that were unknown in the context of the mostly Irish and German-American communities in the United States,” he said.
Rather than seeing present circumstances as unique, he urges a debate situated in its historical context — and, one guided by common sense rather than fear.
“Migration should be looked at as a normal component of human society … this normal phenomenon of history that is migration needs to be handled in the correct way, because evidence is now very, very strong and very clear that in the long run, migrants are a good contribution to the country of origin, the country of arrival, and for the migrants themselves, so we need to manage this flow of humanity in a reasonable and intelligent way that will benefit everybody.”
In the meantime, he’s quick to condemn efforts to use migration as a source for political gain.
“We need to create a mentality based on evidence and knowledge that this is the case and not to be selective, to simply use the fear of the newcomer for political points. This is true in Europe, and it’s true in parts of the states, in Canada, and Australia. It’s the same psychological mechanism to see the other as a menace.”
He told Crux that Catholic social teaching should play a critical role in shaping Catholic perspectives on immigration that could hopefully serve as a unifying force.
“One fundamental part of the social doctrine of the Church is that we were all created in the image of God. This is the first page of the Bible. From this fact, everyone — not just Americans, or Europeans, or Africans — but everyone is created in the image of God. If we have this basis that our dignity is the same, and we together constitute the family of God—one family before borders were decided — then we can work together, and look at the future instead of the past, and develop a common identity that includes the talents and contributions of everybody.”
Yet while encouraging a spirit of welcome and hospitality, Tomasi said that there are legitimate concerns that are fair grounds for debate by the receiving country.
“There is a necessity of having basic values that we share and that newcomers should accept. I don’t think it is an imposition to newcomers,” he said.
Those values, he enumerated, include a respect for democracy, freedom of religion, respect for person, and solidarity with the needy.
“If there is some fear some time on the part of the receiving population, we should not dismiss it outright. We should look at it and respond with evidence and education and good dialogue.”
When asked about recent alleged comments by President Donald Trump that disparaged Haitian and North African immigrants, he did not mince words.
“I think it is a mistake,” he said. “It certainly is not Christian.”
While he is officially retired from diplomatic service, Tomasi works closely with the Vatican dicastery for Integral Human Development, where the pope’s 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ serves as a blueprint for its mission.
Today, Tomasi is encouraging the U.S. Church not to forget that document, as he believes it contains much-needed wisdom for facing present crises.
“The American Church has been a very engaged Church in the service of migrants, the service of refugees, and advocating for peace,” he told Crux.
“Laudato si’ is telling us that problems in particular are all linked together, so we need to approach these problems not as individual pieces but in their totality.”