When I traveled to Japan in 2017 for a vacation with two bishop friends, I was not prepared for what I witnessed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I heard the stories of survivors of the nuclear blasts and stood at the charred remnants of the Genbaku Dome at the 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. While our Archdiocese is not defined by nuclear weapons, we are nevertheless inextricably linked to them. And on that trip, the image of schoolchildren running to the windows of their classrooms to see the bright light caused by the atomic explosion overhead was seared into my mind.
It should come then as no surprise that I have watched closely as the Biden Administration nears completion of 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. Just as we cannot forget the children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we can no longer deny or ignore the dangerous predicament we have created for ourselves: a new nuclear arms race, one that is arguably more dangerous than the past Cold War. In fact, experts say we are closer to disaster than ever before, in part due to rising nuclear threats.
A nuclear arms race is inherently self-perpetuating. It is a vicious spiral that prompts progressively destabilizing actions and reactions by all parties, including our own country. It is a race with no finish line. It is also unstable and risky. Every existing and future nuclear weapon has the potential for catastrophic accident or miscalculation, and the quickening pace of the new nuclear arms race only increases the risk of disaster. It strikes me as a subtle form of blasphemy that we human beings have created weapons that can utterly destroy our planet and the life sustained by it, a life that only God can give or take away.
The only proven historical solution to an arms race is arms control. That is why in a pastoral letter I have called for a renewed public dialogue around identifying concrete steps toward abolishing nuclear weapons and permanently ending the nuclear threat.
This is not a revolutionary conclusion. President Kennedy spoke of it before he died. The U.S. committed to it by ratifying the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty. 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.
Nor is it a revolutionary practice. We have seen the total number of nuclear weapons in the world fall by more than 80% since the height of the Cold War. We have slowed nuclear proliferation and ended nuclear programs in multiple countries. There are no simple solutions or fast fixes, but the technical and diplomatic capacity needed to pursue a world without nuclear threat exists. What remains to be seen is whether we have the moral capacity to seek it.
The morality of this pursuit has a history in my faith. In 2017, the Vatican was the first nation state to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. 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.
Of course, these weapons are not just embodiments of policy and strategy. In my own Archdiocese, spending on these weapons translates into jobs and livelihoods. But I am confident that the members of my community are equally capable of life-affirming work. Let us instead invest in the cleanup needed after decades of building these weapons and in compensation to the people this build-up has already hurt. Let us invest in the nonproliferation and verification programs that will help make disarmament a practical reality. And let us invest in solving problems like poverty and climate change rather than fueling a problem like a new nuclear arms race.
With this pending Nuclear Posture Review, President Biden has the opportunity to show his moral leadership. I know he is capable. 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.
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