Is Pope Francis really an ‘influencer’ on nuclear matters?

St Peter’s Square, 2014. The Pope benefits from a wide popularity especially in Europe, but does it really influence people’ decisions on political issues? Alfredo Borba/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Nuclear diplomacy as well as anti-establishment movements across the world beg the same question: which elites’ judgement is still trusted? The likely disappointment following the upcoming Trump-Kim summit will be blamed on insufficient trust or untrustworthiness of one or both of the participants. Similarly, the demise of the 1987 Treaty on Intermediate Nuclear Forces is the outcome of the United States and Russia accusing each other either of breaching the terms of the Treaty or of scapegoating the other side.

In this context of increasing distrust of elites and institutions as well as renuclearization of international politics, Pope Francis is a most interesting case to study: while facing a crisis regarding sexual abuse within the catholic church, he has remained a relatively popular figure even beyond believers; he also radicalised the Vatican’s stance against nuclear weapons policy. He unconditionally condemned use as well as threats of use of nuclear weapons on political and theological grounds. Is his judgement trusted? Is his leadership influential?

An unusually active Pope on nuclear matters

The current Pope has been unusually active compared to his predecessors in nuclear diplomacy. For example, in 2017, the Holy See ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and offered to host summits after its entry into force. The Pope also recently claimed he would consider accepting a formal invitation from Kim Jong-un in the context of the nuclear crisis with North Korea.

This even goes beyond John XXIII’s forgotten mediating role in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

While young European citizens show very limited support for nuclear weapons policies conducted in their names and a sense of powerlessness in affecting them, how supportive have European citizens been of the Pope’s radical positions on the matter? How did the Pope’s message resonate among the European public?

Pope Francis speaks in front of the United Nations.

A European affair

Thanks to a cross-national survey conducted in June 2018 by the Nuclear Knowledges program through the VULPAN project on levels of knowledge and attitudes of the European public regarding nuclear weapons (funded by the French National Research Agency), we have a first glance on how adults in nine European countries perceive the Pope’s approach to nuclear affairs.

We interviewed more than seven thousand adults of age 18 to 50 years old – about 1,000 interviews were conducted in France and the United Kingdom, and about 750 in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and Turkey. This age range corresponds to approximately 55% of the adult population (18 years old and above) in eight of the surveyed countries, Turkey being the only exception with about 71% of the adult population in this age group. The eight European Union members included in the study cover approximately 69% of the EU’s population.

This survey is all the more relevant as the data was collected before the outbreak of sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic church which may overdetermine citizens’ attitudes today.

Europeans agree with the Pope upon his position on the issue but are mixed on whether he should be involved in nuclear politics and do not attribute much influence to him on their attitudes.

While most people (75% or more of respondents) surveyed from the nine countries support Pope Francis’ opposition to nuclear weapons, our survey revealed that his opinions have little impact on the public’s perceptions.

Public opinion on the Pope’s involvement in nuclear politics.

A genuine opposition to nuclear weapons

The European public supports Pope Francis’ relentless opposition to the very existence of nuclear weapons. Respondents who agree with the Pope also tend to believe that nuclear weapons make a country more vulnerable more often than those who disagree (except in Germany, where respondents are more evenly splitted).

Among respondents who agree with the Pope, only 5% or less of respondents also agree that nuclear weapons make them feel personally “absolutely safe”; in all countries but France at least 45% of those who agree with the Pope said that nuclear weapons do not make them feel safe. Finally, among those who agree with the Pope, at least 75% of the respondents believe to never be morally acceptable to use nuclear weapons. (Among those who disagree, responses are somewhat evenly split.) Those results from our survey do suggest that the Pope’s repulsion against the very existence of nuclear weapons finds support among European adults.

Pope Francis met president Vladimir Putin and discussed the situation of Christians of the Middle East at the Kremlin. Can he influence the Russian president on defence matters? Kremlin

Papal advice

However, respondents do not attribute much influence to Pope Francis on the shaping of their views. Three out of four of respondents in those nine countries agreed with the statement that “My opinion on nuclear weapons is independent from what the Pope has to say”.

Similar results appeared when we did solicit our respondents to agree or disagree with “What the Pope says makes me change my mind on the matter”, with just about one-fourth or less of respondents supporting such a statement. The only noticeable exception is the Roman Catholic stronghold in Poland, where 42% of respondent agreed that Pope Francis’ could change their mind on nuclear weapons affairs.

Such figures indicate that the European adult public is mostly immune to the Pope’s persuasion even though they might agree with his overall anti-nuclear policy positions.

Support for the Pope’s involvement in nuclear politics

In rejecting the influence of the Pope, are the European adults also rejecting his involvement in the debate on the future of nuclear weapons?

On this front, findings are mixed. In most countries, a majority of 55-60% of respondents agreed that “the Pope is a religious leader who should not be involved in politics”. In Germany and Italy only, a slight majority (55% and 51%, respectively) disagreed with the statement, indicating support to the Pope’s political engagement with the issue. Interestingly enough, in France and the United Kingdom, the two nuclear powers surveyed in our study, younger respondents (18-21 years old) are more favourable to the Pope’s involvement in politics than older respondents (47-50 years of age) by a margin close to 15%.

Interestingly enough, in France and the United Kingdom – the two European countries that possess nuclear weapons –, younger respondents (18-21 years old) are more favourable to the Pope’s involvement in politics than older respondents (47-50 years of age) by a margin of nearly 15%.

Pope involved in politics, per age.

Overall, our study has four main findings. First, a majority of adults in France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and Turkey agrees with Pope Francis’s opposition to nuclear weapons. Second, most respondents do not perceive the Pope’s opinion as having much (if any) influence on their views on that matter. Third, a slight majority of respondents opposes the Pope’s intervention in political affairs. Finally, in France and the United Kingdom, younger respondents, especially those who are 18-21 years old, are overall more sympathetic to the Pope’s involvement in the politics of nuclear weapons.