TIME 2016 Election

Why Josh Duggar’s Past Will Hurt Social Conservatives

Many movement leaders have been close to the reality star now accused of child molestation

As a reality TV star famous for being part of a large conservative family, Josh Duggar had a public visibility that made him attractive to advocacy groups hoping he could spotlight their shared opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Now, as he responds to accusations of child molestation as a teenager, that same visibility could hurt the cause.

A police report detailed grim accusations against Duggar, one of the stars of TLC’s series 19 Kids and Counting. According to the newly released report, Duggar, the oldest child, allegedly sexually molested five minors, when he was 15. Jim Bob Duggar, his father, did not report the incidents to police for more than a year.

The political reaction was swift. Duggar, now 27, resigned from his role at the Family Research Council on Thursday, the same day the report was released due to a freedom of information act request.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, hired Duggar to lead Family Research Council Action, the group’s lobbying arm, in 2013. Duggar was 25, a young, popular TV star who poised to help advance the conservative evangelical political platform. “Josh and his wife Anna have been an inspiration to millions of Americans who regularly tune in to see the Duggar family’s show, and all of us at Family Research Council and FRC Action have long appreciated their commitment to the pro-family movement,” Perkins said at the time.

But Duggar worked to be more than a pop culture icon, he was a favored son in social conservative politics. He served on two presidential campaigns, Mike Huckabee’s in 2008 and Rick Santorum’s in 2012, and during the recent midterms he campaigned for Senate candidates in Kansas, Mississippi and Virginia. Politics were also part of his upbringing. His father Jim Bob served two terms in the Arkansas House of Representatives (1998-2002) and ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2002, around the time of the allegations against his son.

Josh Duggar focused his work at FRC Action on grassroots outreach, frequently fighting to keep the definition of marriage between a man and a woman. He was at the Supreme Court for arguments on same-sex marriage in April and helped to lead the March for Marriage rally in Washington that week. In December he campaigned, successfully, against an LGBT nondiscrimination measure in Arkansas that he said put children at risk. He tweeted that Islam attacked women. He said his family was the “epitome of conservative values.”

Conservative GOP candidates valued Duggar as a way to advance their agenda and leverage his constituents. He has tweeted photos of him with nearly all the 2016 GOP White House hopefuls—Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, to name just some in his timeline—and countless representatives, senators, governors and operatives, from Sen. James Lankford to Sarah Palin to GOP head Reince Priebus. He retweeted politicians who promoted FRC Action’s agenda, and challenged others who stood against it. Just last week he pushed hard on social media to promote the U.S. House’s “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” and tweeted at Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, “Sorry, but you’re the one lacking compassion.”

But what was Duggar’s political value for Family Research Council, his moral example, has now become a cost. The group has looked to the 2016 election as an opportunity to advance their cause, especially since there are so many candidates with similar values on family and marriage. Perkins also currently leads the Council for National Policy, a group that quietly seeks to vet candidates. Plus, everyone is bracing for the Supreme Court to decide a landmark gay marriage case in late June, and the Family Research Council has been at the forefront of working to stop the spread of gay marriage.

That entire agenda is now compromised, and the Family Research Council has to pick up the pieces. Perkins issued a statement Thursday night saying that the group was previously unaware of Duggar’s past, and that Duggar himself made the decision to resign because he realized “that the situation will make it difficult for him to be effective in his current work.” In the statement, Perkins agreed: “We believe this is the best decision for Josh and his family at this time.”

The Family Research Council will have to find a new executive director for its lobbying arm, and attempt to recover the ground lost from this setback. FRC Action has also removed Duggar’s information from its website. (His bio on FRC Action’s website stated: “Drawing from his unique experiences in family, entertainment, politics and business, Josh seeks to use his God-given platform to encourage others to be engaged in the political process.”)

Reactions from the conservative side still remain to be seen. Huckabee became one of the first politicians to back Duggar Friday morning. “Josh’s actions when he was an underage teen are as he described them himself, ‘inexcusable,’ but that doesn’t mean ‘unforgivable,’” he wrote on Facebook. “He and his family dealt with it and were honest and open about it with the victims and the authorities. No purpose whatsoever is served by those who are now trying to discredit Josh or his family by sensationalizing the story.”

Read next:

TLC Should Cancel 19 Kids and Counting

Here’s What Happened to Other TV Shows Embroiled in Controversy Like 19 and Counting

TIME ted cruz

Ted Cruz Courts Conservative Pastors at Private Gathering

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz greets supporters at the Georgia Republican Convention in Athens, Ga. on May 15, 2015.
David Goldman—AP Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz greets supporters at the Georgia Republican Convention in Athens, Ga. on May 15, 2015.

In a bid for the support of the evangelical wing of the Republican Party, Sen. Ted Cruz spoke to a private gathering of 600 conservative pastors and their wives Thursday morning in Washington.

The Texas Republican was the only 2016 presidential hopeful to speak at the annual “Watchmen on the Wall” conference, held at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill. His remarks focused almost exclusively on the idea that religious liberty is under attack.

“The modern Democratic Party has become so radical, so extreme, that they have determined that their devotion to mandatory gay marriage in all 50 states trumps any allegiance to religious liberty under the First Amendment,” Cruz told the ballroom. “We’ve got an obligation, as this conference recognizes, to be watchmen on the wall.”

The Watchmen on the Wall briefing is sponsored by the Family Research Council to connect pastors with policy and legislation. The group has more than doubled in size since the last year—there are now more the 38,000 Watchmen pastors in the U.S., up from 16,000 in 2014, according to the Family Research Council. Last year, the group told TIME it wanted to grow the Watchmen to 40,000 pastors by 2015 in advance of the 2016 election.

Cruz’s father Rafael, a pastor with strong conservative evangelical ties, introduced him—“hopefully the next president of the United States”—to the group after joking to Family Research Council leadership that he expects “to be sleeping the Lincoln bedroom.” Last year, Rafael Cruz gave a speech to the Watchmen on the five principles of whom the Bible tells them to vote for. “My son will not compromise his principles in Washington,” he reminded the crowd on Thursday.

In his remarks, Ted Cruz portrayed religion in America as under “assault” and referenced “heartbreaking” religious freedom battles in Indiana and Arkansas, where state lawmakers backed down from laws that critics said would allow discrimination against gays and lesbians.

He also used the moment to set himself apart as a candidate for president. “Let me tell you something that was even sadder, was just how many Republicans ran for the hills,” he said. “I’ll point out some of the Republicans running in 2016 were nowhere to be found when Indiana was being fought. I will tell you this—I will always, always, always stand and fight for religious liberty of every American.”

The audience erupted in applause. Cruz clapped along with them. Someone started blowing a shofar, a traditionally Jewish liturgical instrument often made from the horn of a ram.

 

Cruz also touted his experience as solicitor general in Texas fighting against atheists at the Supreme Court and defending a veterans’ cross memorial in the Mojave Desert. And he attacked the White House’s response to ISIS—“They are crucifying Christians….They are beheading children. You cannot win a war on radical Islamic terrorism with a president who is unwilling to utter the words, radical Islamic terrorism”—and aligned himself instead with Pope Francis, who has called for these Christians to be protected.

Cruz received at least three standing ovations during his 24-minute talk. He urged the pastors to influence their churches and networks to vote. He claimed that 45 million evangelical Christians do not vote, and that their votes are needed to get America back on track. “God isn’t done with America yet,” Cruz said. “You are warriors spreading the truth. The truth will set us free.”

Cruz took the stage after Wayne Grudem, a theology professor at the evangelical Phoenix Seminary known for his teachings that men have spiritual leadership over women. Grudem compared Family Research Council president Tony Perkins to Martin Luther King Jr., saying Perkins is a modern day King for standing up for Christian beliefs against the government. Earlier in the morning, the Family Research Council’s vice president of church ministries, Kenyn Cureton, spoke against gay marriage and led the crowd in a rousing chant of “I am a soldier of the cross. Here I stand!”

Republican Majority Whip Steve Scalise was scheduled to follow Cruz, but was delayed to votes. Other speakers at the three-day event include Fox News commentator Todd Starnes, Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and Republican Rep. Vicky Hartzler.

TIME Pope Francis

Pope Francis’ Poverty Agenda Draws President Obama

Pope Francis attends the weekly general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican on April 22, 2015.
Vandeville Eric—Sipa USA/AP Pope Francis attends the weekly general audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican on April 22, 2015

Poverty in the United States is a topic that is often avoided. But on Monday in Washington, a diverse group of 120 political, religious and civic leaders including President Obama will gather at Georgetown University for a three-day Catholic-Evangelical leadership summit on the issue, in large part thanks to Pope Francis.

Organized by Georgetown’s Initiative of Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and the National Association of Evangelicals, the summit is a “direct response” to Pope Francis’ “challenge to place the lives and dignity of the poor at the center of religious and public life,” according to John Carr, who heads the Georgetown Initiative.

The event has two main goals: Making overcoming poverty a national priority and moral imperative and breaking down the walls between people who focus almost entirely on family life and people who focus almost completely on economic life. “Anyone who is poor or works with the poor knows that a child’s prospects are affected both by the choices of her parents and the policies of her government,” Carr says.

The effort is already gaining national attention. Obama will join the summit on Tuesday, notably not by giving a speech about poverty but instead by participating in a discussion about it with Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University, and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. The conversation will be moderated by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne.

While Summit organizers did not ask the Pope Francis to participate, his continued emphasis on the poor has helped to shift the national tone on the issue. “We think he already has sent a very clear message,” Carr says. “I think Pope Francis’ first miracle is getting both Democrats and Republicans to talk about poverty in a real way.”

The political and ideological range of the Summit is perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the event. Its bipartisan character is stark: Sen. Cory Booker, a progressive Democrat from New Jersey, and Sen. Tim Scott, a conservative Republican from South Carolina, are participating, as are former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Elizabeth Shuler, the secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. The evangelical participation spans from organizations like Focus on the Family to Sojourners, and the Catholic side from a ministry of Opus Dei to the Nuns on the Bus.

The gathering mixes together public and private sessions so that participants can talk openly about more controversial political challenges and issues like immigration, race, family planning, and incarceration. “Ironically there is more consensus, more bipartisan cooperation, in some ways more unity in the religious community about global poverty than poverty in our own country and we are hoping to address that,” Carr says. “The polarization is real, and the religious community has a unique opportunity, particularly Catholics and evangelicals, to challenge people’s conscience and also to bridge some of the ideological and political division.”

Poverty in the United States has long struggled to survive on the national policy scene. President Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty more than 50 years ago, and the recent statistics show the extent of the problem today. According to U.S. Census Bureau, one in five children in the U.S. lives in poverty, and nearly 50 million people lived below the poverty line in 2013. The earned income tax credit and the child tax credit during the Clinton and both Bush presidencies raised the conversation in the policy arena, Carr says, “but in terms of a national debate it has been way too long.”

The Georgetown effort is not to build a new organization, but to build greater urgency and new alliances across the ideological and partisan divide to make poverty a national priority. “We think there is a lot of lip service to this issue but very little action,” Carr says. “The Washington mantra is the forgotten middle class, and the middle class are having a tough time, but the moral measure of our society is how we treat the least of these, and those are not the priorities of Washington.”

Summit organizers hope conversations this week are a launch pad for lasting policy change. The Circle of Protection, an alliance of Christian leaders represented at the Summit, is challenging all of the 2016 presidential candidates to create three-minute videos sharing what they would do as president to overcome poverty in the U.S. The clips would be shown both online and in churches and other settings in coming months.

Their timing, and the timing of the Summit more broadly, is strategic. Pope Francis will visit the U.S. in September in the middle of the heated presidential primary contest. His name and presence will almost certainly give poverty a major boost in the national conversation.

TIME Vatican

Pope Francis and Raul Castro to Meet at the Vatican

Pope Francis smiles as he arrives to lead his open-air weekly audience in St. Peter's square on April 29, 2015 at the Vatican.
Vincenzo Pinto—AFP/Getty Images Pope Francis smiles as he arrives to lead his open-air weekly audience in St. Peter's square on April 29, 2015 at the Vatican.

Pope Francis will receive Cuba’s president Raúl Castro at the Vatican on Sunday morning, May 10, the Holy See announced on Tuesday. The meeting will be “strictly private,” according to a statement from the Holy See Press Office, and the two heads of state will meet in the study of the Paul VI Audience Hall.

The meeting comes as Pope Francis plans to visit the Caribbean island in September en route to the United States. The pontiff also helped to broker a deal easing relations between the United States and Cuba in December, an appeal that a senior U.S. administration official at the time called “very rare.”

“As we already know, President Raúl Castro has publicly thanked the Pope for his role in fostering the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States of America,” Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, director of the Holy See Press Office, said in the statement.

TIME Supreme Court

The Man Whose Marriage Was Debated by the Supreme Court

Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff in the marriage equality case, speaks outside of the Supreme Court of the United States on April 28, 2015 in Washington.
Paul Morigi—Getty Images for HRC Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff in the marriage equality case, speaks outside of the Supreme Court of the United States on April 28, 2015 in Washington.

The sun rises behind Jim Obergefell as he stands below the Supreme Court steps early Tuesday, and it frames his head in a perfect halo.

To his surprise, he had managed to sleep — “for 3.5 hours, 3 hours more than I expected,” he says — before waking up at 4:30 a.m. to arrive at the court at 6:15. He recalled how the Capitol across the way, was pink and gray against the early blue sky, as he approached the courthouse. “As it started to get lighter, the white marble of the Supreme Court was just — it was kind of magical,” he says as he waits for the Court doors to open. “It really was.”

He shows me his wedding ring. It is two bands, his ring and his late husband John Arthur’s, fused together, with a channel cut inside to hold some of Arthur’s ashes, sealed in with gold. Arthur died in 2013 of Lou Gehrig’s disease — the same ALS illness that millions fought last summer via “ice-bucket challenges” — and Obergefell, who was raised Catholic, has been fighting ever since to be listed as his spouse on his death certificate. Ohio, where he and his late husband live, neither allows gay marriage nor recognizes marriages, like theirs, performed in other states.

In just a few hours, Obergefell would sit near the front of the country’s highest court, supported by his late husband’s aunt and alongside fellow plaintiffs from Michigan, Tennessee and Kentucky. Together, their cases, argued under Obergefell v. Hodges, asks what is perhaps this generation’s greatest civil rights question: do same-sex couples should have the Constitutional right to marry?

The Justices considered two questions over the two and a half hours the court was in session. First, does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex? And second, does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was performed out-of-state?

None of the lawyer’s arguments on either side were particularly new, and neither were any of the justices’ questions. What made the case compelling was hearing the same old debate play out in the highest court of the land with so much at stake.

Justice Samuel Alito asked why allowing same-sex marriage wouldn’t lead to two men marrying two women. Justice Antonin Scalia wondered if clergy would be required to perform wedding ceremonies for unions to which they object. Chief Justice John Roberts asked if denying gay marriage was sexual discrimination. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that the definition of marriage has already changed.

By the time the court emptied into the plaza outside, the warm midday sun had fully risen over hundreds of supporters and protesters awaited, some cheering, some yelling, others just there amid the signs and coffee cups that littered the ground like the end of a long day at the state fair.

Legal scholars will now pore over the transcript and the briefs, examine the merits and point out the flaws. But no matter the decision the Court hands down in two months, Obergefell matters most for the people, like Obergefell himself, that it represents. “Right now is what creates the urgency for the court to decide whether the states are denying people basic equality,” Mary L. Bonauto, the lawyer who argued for the right of same sex marriage at the Court, says.

Perhaps that’s why one moment, minutes before attorney Douglas Hallward-Driemeier finished his closing argument, meant the world to Obergefell himself. “Douglas mentioned my name and John’s name, and our marriage, and why we were there,” he says, his voice catching, ever so slightly. “That was when it all sunk in.”

Ohio may not recognize Obergefell’s marriage yet, but for a brief moment in the Supreme Court Tuesday, attention was paid.

TIME Sudan

Sudan Finance Minister Pushes Washington to Lift Sanctions

A woman rides a donkey past a convoy of government troops in Tabit village in the North Darfur region of Sudan, Nov, 2014.
Abd Raouf—AP A woman rides a donkey past a convoy of government troops in Tabit village in the North Darfur region of Sudan, Nov, 2014.

Sudanese minister of finance and national economy Bader Eldin Mahmmoud Abbas Mukhtar visited Washington recently to lobby the United States to lift sanctions and remove the country from a list of states that sponsor terrorism.

This is the second time this year that a high profile Sudanese delegation has received visas to visit Washington. Sudanese foreign minister Ali Karti visited in February for the National Prayer Breakfast. Mukhtar was in town for the World Bank-International Monetary Fund spring meetings, and his delegation included representatives from the Central Bank of Sudan.

Mukhtar met with Assistant Secretary of Treasury Marisa Lago and Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan Donald Booth on April 18. His goal, he tells TIME, was to move forward on the “improvement of the bilateral relations rather than always talking about domestic political issues in Sudan.”

The domestic political issues in Sudan — including the extensive fighting between numerous government and rebel factions, as well as the government denial of humanitarian aid and mounting allegations of military war crimes against civilians — were the subject of a February feature in TIME, “Sudan: The Forgotten War.

Sudan’s tactics in fighting rebel groups have been widely criticized. According to the U.N., the Sudanese Armed Forces burned an average of about 22 villages a day in Darfur over the first half of last year. In the South Kordofan region, reports of government planes bombing civilian and medical targets arrive regularly. In February, the United Nations Security Council threatened new sanctions against Sudan, and Samantha Power, United States Ambassador to the U.N., accused Sudan of “obstruction, harassment and direct attacks that have impeded efforts to deliver humanitarian aid in Darfur.”

From TIME’s February story: “‘It is not any different than what is happening in Syria,’ says Tom Catena, a U.S. surgeon who runs the only full-scale hospital for the nearly 1 million civilians caught in the Nuba Mountains region of South Kordofan. ‘It just has been going on three decades longer.’” (Catena is one of the 2015 TIME 100.)

Here’s the topline of Mukhtar’s interview with TIME at the Washington Press Club, with his quotes, condensed for length:

He is frustrated with the United States policy on Sudan. “Let me be frank with you,” Mukhtar says. “We have tried a lot to engage with the Americans. … They are always coming with moving political targets. … Our feel is that the object of the American policy towards Sudan is the regime change, not having any cooperation. … We are always trying to cooperate with the Americans … and the international community in combatting terrorism and we are adopting standards of antiterrorism finance in our financial systems and anti-money-laundering. … Instead of being rewarded for that, we have been punished.”

He is unwilling to entertain reports of human rights abuses in Sudan. Mukhtar denied allegations of humanitarian abuse, unethical mining of gold, and exploitation of citizens in Sudan. “This is reflected by some of the activist groups,” he says. (Gamal Goraish, a counselor from the Embassy of Sudan in the United States who was present at the interview, clarifies, “The Enough Project mainly.”) Mukhtar continues, “They are trying to say that a country or a government exploiting the people. What on Earth that a country or a responsible government that is slaying its people, exploiting them, abusing them, violating rights, not respecting them?”

He continues the Sudanese government’s denial of a mass Sudanese military rape of 221 women and girls in the Darfur village of Tabit, reported by Human Rights Watch. “Nobody can say that also government encouraging or motivating people to do bad things like this. Even in our religion in Sudan, this is out of any religion beliefs. … This has been crafted unfortunately even by some of the people inside the UNAMID (United Nations Mission in Darfur), trying to say that government of Sudan is encouraging such bad things. … The people of Sudan are not you see like animals in a forest.” (A woman with the Central Bank of Sudan, also part of the delegation, adds, “No man can treat woman badly, never.”) He concludes, “They talk about the collective raping event which is not true.”

He thinks the U.S. should support debt relief for Sudan, in part due to Sudan’s assistance to the U.S. in fighting terrorism. Sudan’s debt, according to the Embassy of Sudan in Washington, amounts to $43.5 billion, of which $2.6 billion is owed to the U.S. “We are playing a positive role in Libya trying to stabilize the situation there. With our partners there, we are pushing negotiations between the conflicting parties there in order to reach a compromise. … Now the situation in Darfur is much better… this not because the government goes there and killing the people irrationally, the conflict was being caused by the conflict on natural resources, by the nomads and the farmers, this is triggered the instability. … the government is trying to fix the situation, trying to reach compromise.”

He defends Sudan’s high arms import budget. “Buying weapons, a country which is facing lot of challenges, if the rebels started any activity in the United States, do you think that the government just will stay there just to come to power in Washington, or they should defeat them there? If any group of people are out of law… the responsible government should act responsibility to protect the security of the county and to bring security for the people and to prevent anarchy to happen in the country. … This is why we are trying to also strengthen our security capabilities and to strengthen our army. What do you expect us to do as a responsible government?”

The Central Bank of Sudan has approximately $21-24 billion in foreign exchange currency (Forex). “The international reserve is always evaluated in terms of months of imports. Now the Central Bank has about three months reserve of foreign currency and we are trying to build more reserves. Our import bill is $7-8 billion. You can calculate after that.”

TIME Religion

A Bishop’s Resignation Puts All Eyes on Chile

Catholic Bishop Charged
Tammy Ljungblad—AP Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph appears during a bench trial Sept. 6, 2012 at the Jackson County Courthouse in Kansas City, Mo.

The Vatican’s announcement that Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Missouri, was just one line, released in Tuesday’s daily press bulletin. The only reason given was a provision of canon law that allows bishops to resign early due to illness or another grave cause. But everybody knew the real punch: this was the first time a pope took public action against a priest who covered up sexual abuse.

Today’s Francis fever and sky-high favorability ratings makes it easy to forget just how deeply the story of priestly sexual abuse has defined the Catholic Church in recent decades. The legacy of the scandals in the United States alone is beyond weighty — a 2004 USCCB report detailed the severity of the crisis nationwide — more than 4,000 priests faced more than 10,000 allegations of child sexual abuse from 1950-2002, with half the alleged victims between the ages of 11-14. Dioceses have shelled out millions, and in some cases hundreds of millions, of dollars to settle cases.

For many victims and Vatican watchers, Tuesday’s announcement was a long time in coming, especially since Francis made it clear from the beginning that his papacy would have a zero-tolerance policy. In February 2014, Catholics petitioned Pope Francis to take disciplinary action against Finn. Pope Francis launched an investigation into Finn in September, and in November, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who leads the Church sex abuse commission, said that the Vatican needed to “urgently” address Finn’s case. This past weekend, Irish abuse survivor and member of the sex abuse commission Marie Collins told the Catholic news site Crux, “I cannot understand how Bishop Finn is still in position, when anyone else with a conviction that he has could not run a Sunday school in a parish. He wouldn’t pass a background check.”

It is one thing for Francis to accept the resignation of a bishop who mishandled abuse allegations. It is another for him to appoint and defend one who has long been associated with similar scandal. Protests erupted in January when Francis announced he was appointing Bishop Juan Barros to lead a Chilean diocese. Barros has long been accused of covering up the sexual abuse committed by his mentor, Rev. Fernando Karadima, whom the Vatican found guilty of in 2011. Members of the sex abuse commission have been speaking out in concern in this case as well. “It goes completely against what he (Francis) has said in the past about those who protect abusers,” Collins told the AP last month. “The voice of the survivors is being ignored.”

The Vatican made clear its position on the Barros appointment three weeks ago in another one-sentence statement: “The Congregation for Bishops carefully examined the prelate’s candidature and did not find objective reasons to preclude the appointment.”

The lesson of Kansas City is that the Vatican takes covering up abuse seriously. Chile is the next test.

TIME Pope Francis

Pope Francis’ Latest Mission: Stopping Nuclear Weapons

Pope Francis attends a private audience with President of Slovakia Andrej Kiska at the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City, Vatican, on April 9, 2015.
Getty Images Pope Francis attends a private audience with President of Slovakia Andrej Kiska at the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City, Vatican, on April 9, 2015.

The U.S. State Department is revving up its efforts to work with the Holy See

The Vatican has long opposed nuclear weapons, but Pope Francis is making the cause one of the top diplomatic priorities of his two-year-old papacy.

In December, the Vatican submitted a paper calling for total nuclear disarmament to the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. In January, Pope Francis touted nuclear disarmament as a major goal alongside climate change in his speech to the Vatican’s diplomatic corps. And on Easter Sunday, he publicly prayed that the prospective multi-nation deal to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program would be “a definitive step toward a more secure and fraternal world.”

Many observers expect the Pope to raise the topic in his speech to the United Nations in September, especially as that event also commemorates the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s historic U.N. speech calling for “never again war, never again war.”

“Pope Francis has recently pushed the moral argument against nuclear weapons to a new level, not only against their use but also against their possession,” Archbishop Bernedito Auza, the Holy See’s Ambassador to the U.N., says. “Today there is no more argument, not even the argument of deterrence used during the Cold War, that could ‘minimally morally justify’ the possession of nuclear weapons. The ‘peace of a sort’ that is supposed to justify nuclear deterrence is specious and illusory.”

The Vatican push on nuclear weapons comes as the United States is in the final stages of negotiating a deal with Iran and as 190 parties that have supported the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty prepare for its five-year review. The upcoming NPT RevCon, as the U.N. treaty review conference is called, is the first NPT review during the Francis papacy, and Francis’ voice is already adding moral and political weight to the conversation. The Holy See, a party to the Treaty, has opposed the possession and use of nuclear weapons since the beginning of the nuclear age.

The Holy See is “very concerned,” Auza adds, about nuclear-capable states’ commitment to disarmament, arguing that the central promise of the treaty remains unfulfilled. “The fact that nuclear-possessing States not only have not dismantled their nuclear arsenals but are modernizing them lies at the heart of nuclear proliferation,” he says. “It perpetuates the ‘injustice’ in the NPT regime, which was supposed to be temporary while nuclear disarmament was in progress…. how could we reasonably convince the pre-NPT non-nuclear countries not to acquire or develop nuclear arms capabilities? Now, the real and present danger that non-state actors, like terrorist and extremist organizations, could acquire nuclear weapons ‘in the black market’ and ‘not-so-black market,’ ‘in the back alleys’ and ‘not-so-back alleys’ should terrify us all.”

On Thursday, two events on opposite sides of the planet signaled Pope Francis’ diplomatic reach ahead of the NPT review. In New York at the United Nations’ headquarters, the Holy See’s Mission to the U.N. and the Global Security Institute hosted a conference of diplomats and interfaith partners to promote the abolition of nuclear weapons. At the Vatican, a United States diplomatic delegation was courting Catholic Church leaders on President Obama’s commitment to nuclear disarmament.

Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller has picked up on the Vatican’s keen interest in nuclear disarmament and has made it a priority to engage the Holy See. Gottemoeller first visited the Vatican in January to discuss arms control and nonproliferation issues with several counterparts. In late March, the State Department invited the Holy See to participate as an observer in its new disarmament verification initiative, the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification. This week, Gottemoeller returned to the Vatican with Madelyn Creedon, the Department of Energy’s principal deputy administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration, for a two-day diplomatic visit.

Gottemoeller’s efforts have centered on briefing the Vatican on the United States’ disarmament agenda. She has been working to reach highest-level counterparts, as well as technical experts and non-governmental experts. “President Obama from the very beginning of his term in office has been very clear that his goal is to proceed with nuclear disarmament,” she says. “People think sometimes that that is just a kind of propaganda slogan out there without a lot of ‘there’ there, so I wanted to make sure that our Vatican counterparts knew the degree to which the President’s Prague initiative has become substantively a very significant part of our national policy.”

The United States knows the political capital Pope Francis holds when it comes to national and international decision-making. Most notably, the White House credited Francis for his role in brokering the U.S.-Cuba deal in December. “I think there is a huge moral impact of the Vatican on issues that relate to nuclear weapons deterrence and the disarmament agenda overall,” Gottemoeller says. “I see it is as a confluence of interest in a very positive sense. … You can’t just wave a magic wand and make nuclear weapons go away. It takes hard work and it takes a lot of very practical steps, but we can get there, and that is the President’s message. I just hope that we will be met by patience from the community trying to work on these issues.”

For Francis, nuclear disarmament—like most everything—must be viewed from the position of the poor instead of the position of the powerful. Inequality and nuclear power are interwoven. “Spending on nuclear weapons squanders the wealth of nations,” Pope Francis wrote to the Vienna Humanitarian Conference in December. “To prioritize such spending is a mistake and a misallocation of resources which would be far better invested in the areas of integral human development, education, health and the fight against extreme poverty. When these resources are squandered, the poor and the weak living on the margins of society pay the price.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has also been deepening its theological and political attention to disarmament. Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, New Mexico, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on International Justice and Peace, spoke at the Holy See’s U.N. panel. During the NPT RevCon, the USCCB plans to sponsor an event with the Kroc Institute on evolving Catholic perspectives from nuclear deterrence to disarmament. Stephen Colecchi, director of the USCCB’s Office of International Justice and Peace, says that the USCCB is trying to move the Holy See’s moral discussion forward in the U.S.—the USCCB had a close relationship with the Administration during the time of the New START Treaty, and has continued the dialogue with Gottemoeller, who is Catholic. “We certainly urge the United States to work with Russia and we have been urging them to separate the issue of the day, which is Ukraine, from the issue of the decades, which is nuclear disarmament,” Colecchi says. “Deterrence is even less stable in a multipolar world. We might ask, Are nations, including our own, serious about nuclear disarmament if they are modernizing nuclear weapons systems?”

After a period of denuclearization in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, several states in the developing world went nuclear and events recently have further undermined the NPT. U.N. Ambassador Libran Cabactulan of the Philippines—who was the president of the previous NPT RevCon—flew in from Manila to speak at the Holy See’s event at the U.N. on Thursday. “Nothing has been achieved. Nothing much,” Cabactulan told the U.N. gathering, describing the progress of disarmament in the last five years. “What perhaps I achieved, that was calling more on temporal power, and maybe I failed, because in the order of things it’s the tally sheet, what has been done. And that is why I am gratified…to have spiritual leaders.”

Ambassador Antonio Patriota, permanent representative of Brazil to the United Nations, believes that Francis’ position will resonate during the NPT review conference. “He himself coming from South America, we feel that he has a very deep understanding of the challenges posed by inequality,” Patriota says. “His words carry quite a bit of political weight. It is a powerful message from man of high moral standing in a time when leadership is scarce.”

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