Chemical Warfare And The Catholic Church

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In recent years, the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, and lingering fears of bioterrorism have brought about a new military revolution of chemical warfare (CW). It describes warfare that uses toxic chemical substances to kill, injure or incapacitate an opposition. Involving extremely hazardous and lethal compounds of chemical weapons. Under the chemical weapon convention (CWC) a chemical weapon is defined as ‘all toxic chemicals and their precursors that causes mass destruction’ (Ref: OPCW website). It has been used in military conflicts for centuries, and in the recent decades increased attention has been paid to the accurate use associated with the exposure to these agents. Due to the rapid development in its technology. The moral ambiguity and legal doubt concerning this issue has thus far posed a threat to the Catholic Church. The Church responds to technology development as a gift from God that need to be informed by and put to the aid of Christian ethics. This prohibits warfare and is crucially important regarding the development of CW in modern society.

The history of chemical warfare extends long before even realised, with the earliest notation in 600BCE. During the time the Athenian military attacked the city of Kirrha by contaminating the water supply with poisonous hellebore plants. (Ref:…) However, it has first been used on a large-scale during WW1. In 1914 the military objective of breaking out of trench warfare has led Fritz Haber a Prussian chemist to suggest the idea of releasing chlorine gas from pressurized cylinders. (Ref:…) At Ypres April 1915, once Germany first broke the taboo against CW all other major combatants followed. By the end of WW1, attacks with toxic agents had inflicted 1,000,000 casualties, with 90,000 fatal (Ref: Jonathan B. Tucker). Chemical weapons also thrived to several countries in the current world including the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). The most recent attack of CW was in 2013 when the Syrian military used sarin gas against civilians during the Syrian Civil War. The attack killed at least 89 people and injured more than 541 (Ref: opposition Idlib Health Directorate).

The current status of CW is like a chiaroscuro painting by Rembrandt, consisting light and shadow. On the bright side, the implementation of CWC in 1997 has ‘ban the development, production, possession, transfer, and use of all toxic chemicals except for peaceful purposes and the preparation of defences against chemical attack’ (Ref:…). However, the treaty doesn’t cover the entire universe of expanding toxic chemicals due to technological advancement in chemical industry. This could erode the effectiveness of the CWC’s provisions. For example, a recent technological development in CW is micro-reactors that range in sizes from a credit card to the dimensions of a notebook to replace large batch reaction vessels. According to Tuan Nguyen director emeritus of institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, ‘the key issue with these advancements in science and technology is that it’s going to make it more difficult to monitor and verify compliance of the Chemical Weapons Convention’ (Ref: Tuan Nguyen…). These advances in chemical technology have implications for CW threats in the future. The purpose of CW is to….

From a pure military perspective chemical warfare serves as an advantage as it is highly effective in attacking the opposition and reduces the risk of close interaction with the enemy. It lowers the cost in human resources as less soldiers would be needed in trenches and reduces deaths whilst still bringing the maximized damage to the target. Therefore, help in increasing the chance of victory for the attacking side. Another advantage brought by chemical warfare is that whilst it is continually advancing more alternative technologies have been developed to overcome its impact. It acts as a driving force to people’s curiosity in creating a piece of technology that could potentially exclude the society from the damage of chemical weapons. Currently there are a number of organisations formed for this purpose for example the environmental protection agency (EPA) and projects such as the incineration plant at Tooele, Utah have been developed in order to decompose the left over agents after CW. (Ref:…) It is also to be noted that interestingly CW is also used as psychological weapons, it is an instrument of fear used to reduce the chance of war in the first place.

The disadvantages can be separated into two categories of moral conscience and technical. From the moment CW appeared on the stage of armed conflict it is against morality as the military advantages of it is at the expense of human life. The use of it during battlefields increase the death rate as statistics have shown that approximately 30% of all war casualties were victims of gas exposure. (Ref: Gerard J. Fitzgerald 7/2008). The moral disadvantage of CW not only stops at soldiers died on frontlines but violates the non-combatant communities. It kills and injures children, women and the elderly, causing extremely painful deaths including complete organ failure. Another disadvantage of CW is from the technical perspective. Although chemical weapons are highly effective it is very difficult to use it effectively as they are unpredictable. As Omar Lamrani said at Stratfor worldview, “ideal conditions and perfect handling are necessary….even the slightest change in wind, dampness, or sunlight can hugely affect their potency.” (Ref: Martin Robbins 6/9/2013) This case was recorded during WW1 when the British launched chlorine gas attacks against the Germans. However, the wind below the gas back killing 20 soldiers. (Ref:…)The unpredictable outcomes and risk in handling of CW make it a disadvantage in use.

Over the time the church recognises technology development in military is certainly a risk and challenge, but that doesn’t make it intrinsically evil. However, the furious speed with which CW is plunging towards disaster is evidenced. The Catholic Church is in opposition to the issue from the very basis of its beliefs. It impacts the place of Church both physically and spiritually. Physically CW brings power to whom uses it and could potentially cause physical intimidations to the Church who is against it. Pope John XXIII has once addressed that “the church is the trustee of the highest spiritual power.” (Ref: Thomas Merton 3/1/2018) Meaning that in challenge of physical destruction the church will fight against it without any weaponry but intends to call upon others from the highest spiritual power that we are all humans. Spiritually the development of CW impacts the Church as it is against many beliefs and teachings of the Catholic faith. One of which is most important that Catholics is and must be as a son of God, in Christ, a peacemaker. (Matthew 5:9). Therefore, CW impacts the place of Catholic Church physically and spiritually.

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The Catholic Church responds to CW due to two main reasons of scripture and Catholic Social teachings (CST). Firstly, from the scripture point of view our Lord said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” (Ref: Matthew 5:9) This is a potential reflection of God’s kingdom and the idea of CW is against this image. The use and result of CW are also against many commandments of the Church. One of which is the fifth commandment “you shall not kill” (Ref: Exodus 20). As the main use of CW is to kill, injure or incapacitate the opposition this is against the commandment. Consequently, there is a responsibility in the Catholic faith to respond to this issue.

Secondly, the use of CW is against many CSTs including human dignity and stewardship of creation. Human dignity is intrinsic to our existence as the church documents suggests that “being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 357). We should respect it from the basis of humanity. The use of CW causes increased number of unmerciful deaths which is in contradiction with this teaching.

Stewardship of creation suggests that all humans are ‘stewards’ of earth for which we must appreciate and value. We as humans must obtain the Earth and its resources for the future generation. The use of CW destroys the purpose of being ‘stewards’ of creation in many ways. For example, mustard gas when spilled into seawater would sink and remain on the bottom where it would slowly dissolve getting consumed by species and run into our underwater systems. Causing chronic health problems and destroys populations of species. (Ref: Andrew Reginald & Abhay J.Simha 2014) Thus the Church is called to respond to the development in CW as it is against the scriptures and many CSTs.

Many responses have been made by Church towards the to the development and horrors of CW. On a global level the Vatican II taught “the development of armaments by modern science has immeasurably magnified the horrors and wickedness of war…. Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation” (“Gaudium et Spes,” No.80, also quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2314.) This suggests that the use of CW affecting both the soldiers and the innocent is a crime against God and being human.

On a national level Pope Francis during his Angelus address 1st of September have also pleaded that “I appeal strongly for peace…with utmost firmness, I condemn the use of chemical weapons…there is a judgment of God and of history upon our actions which are inescapable.” (Ref:…). The Pope have also responded to the recent chemical attack in Syria civil war. He has told thousands of people at St Peter’s Square to pray for “the defenceless victims, including many children.” (Jerusalem Post, 2/4/2017) The Pope’s response suggests that there is nothing that can justify the use of chemical attacks on innocent civilians and call for those responsible to seek negotiation and action.

There are also many Catholic charities that seeks in providing emergency aid to victims of CW. For example, the World Help organisation which dedicates in providing humanitarian aids to countries like Syria after CW. (Ref: World Help online) They provide basic lifesaving resources to people as their land have been invaded by CW and there is no food or shelter left behind.

In conclusion the existence of CW from WW1 until today serves as both advantages and a disadvantage. It helps in the military battlefields and drive curiosity in positive developments but also takes away human lives and is very unpredictable. The rapid development of it poses a threat to the Catholic Church physically and spiritually. The Church responds due to scriptures and CSTs and does so through encyclicals, Pope’s address as well as catholic charity aids. Some of us may blame the development of CW to ‘history’, but we cannot go playing with chemical weapons and then shrugging off the results as ‘history’. We are the ones concerned and should be responsible for it. History may have caused the current situation, but it is for us to make a positive influence on the rapid technological development in chemical warfare.

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Chemical Warfare And The Catholic Church. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved August 7, 2022, from
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