By Philip Pullella
ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Saturday urged world leaders to turn back from the brink of possible human annihilation, suggesting that some of them had an "irrational" attitude towards nuclear weapons.
The pope made his comments to reporters aboard the plane taking him back to Rome from a trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh, which was dominated by the crisis of Rohingya refugees affecting both countries.
In a speech last month, the pope suggested that he was ready to officially harden the decades-old Church teaching that possessing nuclear weapons as a deterrence was morally acceptable as long as the ultimate goal was their elimination.
In that speech on Nov. 10, Francis said even the mere possession of nuclear weapons should now be condemned because there appeared to be little or no intention by world leaders to reduce their numbers.
Aboard the plane, he was asked what had prompted him to consider changing the official Church position and specifically, what he felt about the war of words between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
"What has changed is the irrationality (of the attitude toward nuclear weapons)," Francis said.
"Today we are at the limit," he said. It can be debated but it is my opinion, my conviction, that we have reached the limit of the (moral) licitness of having and using nuclear weapons," he said.
"Why? Because today, with such a sophisticated nuclear arsenal, we risk the destruction of humanity or at least a great part of humanity," he said.
The pope has in the past suggested that a third nation should try to negotiate a deal between the United States and North Korea and had urged both sides to cool down the rhetoric and stop trading insults.
"We are at the limit, and because we are at the limit, I ask myself this question ... Today, is it licit to keep nuclear arsenals as they are, or today, in order to save creation, to save humanity, is it not necessary to turn back?
South Korea said on Friday that North Korea's latest missile test puts Washington within range, but Pyongyang still needs to prove it has mastered critical missile technology, such as re-entry, terminal stage guidance and warhead activation.
The test prompted a warning from the United States that North Korea's leadership would be "utterly destroyed" if war were to break out, a statement that drew sharp criticism from Russia.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Richard Balmforth)