In 2017, I went to Japan with two of my bishop friends for vacation. I wasn’t prepared for the horrors I saw in Hiroshima, Nagasaki. The stories of those who survived the nuclear bombings were told to me, as I stood among the still-charred remains of Genbaku Dome at Hiroshima Peace Memorial.
It was a particularly poignant moment for me as the Catholic Archbishop of Santa Fe, N.M., where the first bombs were built, where the Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories continue nuclear weapons research and production, and where the country’s largest repository of nuclear weapons sits at the Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. Our Archdiocese does not have nuclear weapons but we are still inextricably connected to them. It was on this trip that I was most influenced by the memory of schoolchildren sprinting to their classroom windows to view the brightening light from the atomic blast overhead.
As it should not surprise, I’ve been closely following the progress of the Biden Administration in its Nuclear Posture Review. Every administration since Bill Clinton’s has completed its own version of this policy document, detailing its approach to nuclear weapons strategy. Biden’s Review is expected any day now and its decisions could hardly be more urgent.
We see the stakes in rising tensions around Russia’s movements toward Ukraine, in reports that China and other powers are growing their arsenals, and, in the U.S., in plans to spend at least $1.5 trillion to refit our own nuclear arsenal with new military capabilities. We cannot ignore the suffering of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima children, but we must acknowledge the dangers we are creating for ourselves. A new nuclear arms race is unavoidable, which could prove to be even more deadly than the Cold War. Experts say that we’re closer to catastrophe than ever, partly due to increasing nuclear threats.
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Inherently, a nuclear arms race will continue to grow. This spiral is inexorable and leads to destabilizing responses by all involved, even the United States. There is no end to this race. The race can be unstable and potentially dangerous. There is always the possibility of a catastrophic mistake or accident with any nuclear weapon. This risk increases as the pace of the nuclear arms race accelerates. To me, it seems a subtil form of blasphemy for us humans to have invented weapons that can destroy the planet and sustain life thereon. That is something that only God could give or take away.
An arms control solution is the best historical remedy for an arms race. In a pastoral note, I called for an intensified public discussion to identify concrete steps towards abolishing nuclear weapons permanently and ending the threat from them.
This conclusion is not revolutionary. Kennedy made reference to it shortly before his death. By ratifying The 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty, the U.S. made its commitment to this. President Reagan echoed it in joining Soviet President Gorbachev to say “[…]a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” President Obama reiterated it in Prague in 2009. President Biden himself has committed to “reducing our reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons” in our defense strategy.
It is not a new practice. Since the end of the Cold War, the number of world nuclear weapons has fallen by over 80%. Multiple countries have stopped nuclear proliferation. While there are not easy or quick fixes to nuclear proliferation, we have the diplomatic and technical capacity necessary for a world free from nuclear threats. It remains to be determined if we possess the moral capability to pursue it.
My faith has always believed that this moral pursuit is right. The Vatican was the nation that signed and ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017. Because of the indiscriminate mass killing caused by nuclear weapons, Pope Francis has made clear statements about the immorality of possessing them, moving the Church from past conditional acceptance of “deterrence” to the moral imperative of abolition. And Jesus teaches in the Gospels that “blessed are the peacemakers” and to “love your enemies.” I sincerely hope that our Catholic President and all world leaders will be persuaded by the voice of Pope Francis and the witness of the Gospel.
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This weaponry is not just a tool for strategy and policy. Spending on weapons in my Archdiocese results in jobs and income. My community is equally capable of making a difference in the lives of others, and I trust that they will. Instead, let us invest in cleanup after the decades-long buildup of these weapons as well as in compensating the victims. Make disarmament real by investing in nonproliferation verification programs. Let us instead of fostering a problem such as a new nuclear arms race, let’s invest in solving poverty and climate change.
The Nuclear Posture Review is a chance for President Biden to display his moral leadership. His capabilities are evident. After all, much of what is needed is only to turn his own past words into new policy—and to reject today’s fearful status quo, embracing a new path that we can all live with.