Nukes and the new Cold War

A Pillar interview

Feb 4

Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, issued a pastoral letter last month on the need for a new commitment to nuclear disarmament. The letter warned about a new nuclear arms race, one that is arguably more dangerous than the past Cold War. Weeks later, tensions are high on the international scene, and fears of conflict, even war, have begun to swirl around the Russian-Ukraine border. 

But are fears of nuclear conflict overblown? And what would a new conversation about nuclear disarmament look like in the Church?

Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

To talk this through, Charlie Camosy sat down this week with Michael J. Baxter, director of the Catholic Studies Program at Regis University in Denver. 

From 2001 to 2012, Baxter was the director of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, an organization dedicated to supporting conscientious objectors to war through education, counseling, and advocacy. He was also editor of the CPF’s journal, The Sign of Peace, and is currently working on a book entitled “Blowing the Dynamite of the Church: Radicalism Against Americanism in Catholic Social Ethics” (Cascade Press).

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We seem to be picking up everything from the 80s these days: from our TV shows, to our jean jackets, and now our pastoral letters — Archbishop Wester’s look at ‘Living in the Light of Christ’s Peace: A Conversation Toward Nuclear Disarmament.’

Why do you think the archbishop wrote this letter, on this topic, here in 2022?

For one thing, as he explains at the outset of his letter, he visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki in September, 2017, and was deeply moved by the memorials to the victims of the U.S. attacks, especially to the school children. For another, as we can infer from the letter, he has strong ties to Catholics in the peace movement; Fr. Louis Vitale and Sr. Megan Rice are mentioned by name.

And then there is the fact that the Archdiocese of Santa Fe is home to two major nuclear research facilities, the Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, and the largest repository of nuclear weapons in the country, with some 2,500 warheads deployed at Kirkland Air Force Base near Albuquerque. 

As Archbishop Wester observes, “if New Mexico were a separate country, it would be the third largest nuclear weapons power in the world.” That’s a chilling reality that would be a pastoral concern for any good shepherd. 

Concerns about Russia play a major role in this letter—and it was written before the most recent drama with Ukraine unfolded—not least because Russia very clearly has offensive-minded nuclear capabilities.

The Russian threat to Ukraine certainly adds a level of volatility to politics in the international arena. But Wester points to a conspiracy regarding nuclear weapons that is truly multinational.  

The United States leads the pack, of course, with 3,750 warheads in its active stockpile and a plan to improve delivery systems from the land, sea, and air. Russia has announced new nuclear weapons that cannot be defended against. China is building hundreds of hard silos for ICBMs, which will push U.S. policy in a more hawkish direction. 

Pakistan is expanding its arsenal, as is  the United Kingdom, which recently pledged to share its nuclear submarine technology with Australia. North Korea has about 45 nuclear weapons and conducted seven missile tests last month. And then there is Iran’s clandestine efforts to develop nuclear weapons, which Israel vows to prevent, even though it has a secret arsenal of its own. 

In short, Russia is only one nation of many nuclear powers, albeit a very reckless one at the moment. 

Wester’s overall point is that a multinational nuclear system, made up of more than 13,000 warheads, 2,000 of which remain on high alert, makes for a dangerous situation indeed. Any serious friction on the international scene could set off a calamitous chain of events, as could an accident. He suggests that the present nuclear arms race may well be more dangerous than the one during the Cold War—a startling thought, but one that analysts have been voicing for years.

Speaking of messages: What is the main thrust of the letter? Does it, in your view, have anything new or fresh to say?

The message is straightforward: amid the dark prospect of nuclear war, we are called to live in the light of Christ’s peace. It notes that Pope Francis is leading the Church in “a dramatic shift away from supporting nuclear weapons and deterrence to denouncing them and calling for their complete abolition.”

After citing preceding popes and documents, Wester elaborates on Pope Francis’ account of nonviolence as “a style of politics for peace,” rooted in the teaching and example of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount and the way of the cross. 

The archbishop ponders the passage where Jesus rebukes the disciples for wanting to call down hellfire from heaven on a group of Samaritans (Luke 9:54-55), then offers a poignant application: “Two thousand years later, here in New Mexico, we not only want to call down hellfire from heaven, but we have also actually built the most destructive weapons in history to do it, and then we used them .. . and [we] have built tens of thousands of more nuclear weapons that can destroy the entire human race.”

Wester challenges us “to face the violence that is being prepared in our name here in New Mexico, and to start the process of nuclear disarmament so that no one ever again calls down hellfire from the sky.” In the manner of the pope, he calls for dialogue about these matters throughout the Archdiocese of Santa Fe—which, he notes, “is named for the ‘Sacred Faith’ of Saint Francis, the patron saint of the environment and tireless advocate of peace and for the poor.” 

The fresh aspects Archbishop Wester’s pastoral letter have to do with the deleterious effects of nuclear weapons on the local region and peoples: uranium mining on the homeland of the Diné; radiation and chemical exposure suffered by workers at munitions factories; radioactive and hazardous wastes buried in unlined pits and shafts; fallout from nuclear weapons testing, going back to the Trinity Test downwinders, who were never compensated.

It is haunting how the nuclear production process has ravaged “the Land of Enchantment.”  Of course, it does bring jobs to the state, but at what cost?  Besides the effects of contamination, New Mexico ranked 49th both in per capita income in 2019 and in overall child well-being. 

The wealth pouring into Los Alamos County, which boasts more millionaires per capita of any county in the nation, is not reaching the Hispanic and Native populations. Why not?  These are questions that Archbishop Wester wants people in his diocese to take up in conversation and action. The letter shows that “peace” is no mere abstract ideal but a concrete concern here and now. 

As a long time scholar and activist in this area, what’s your critical evaluation of the letter?

The first and last thing I want to say is this: Archbishop Wester’s pastoral letter is an example of genuine pastoral care, in keeping with the message associated with the San Damiano cross that hangs suspended in the cathedral in Santa Fe: “rebuild my Church.” I welcome the perspective he brings, the sincerity with which he brings it, and the dialogue and debate it promises to incite. The letter is (in the deepest sense of these words) good news.

One weakness of the letter is its reliance on [historian and political economist] Gar Alperovitz’s claim that the motive in dropping the atomic bombs was to forestall a Soviet takeover of Japan. This is a contested claim among reliable historians. And it is not needed to denounce dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whatever the motives, the intention intrinsic to the actions that constituted dropping the bombs is clear: it was to murder the innocent. 

Relatedly, the letter could have marshaled the just-war principle of discrimination to buttress its condemnation of the possession of nuclear weapons. Some just-war thinkers have tried to justify the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most notably the public intellectual George Weigel.

But, I’d argue, those arguments consistently fail. The philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, for one, refuted them in her protest of Oxford University granting Truman an honorary degree in 1958; she later became a leader in the UK on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Likewise, the moral theologian Germain Grisez refuted the use and also the possession of nuclear weapons in the debates in the run up to the USCCB’s 1983 letter The Challenge of Peace, but the drafting committee ignored his argument and its logical implication: unilateral disarmament.

Soon after, Grisez, along with John Finnis and Joseph Boyle, in “Nuclear Deterrence, Morality, and Realism” (1987), made a thorough and compelling case that deterrence strategy entails the evil intention of murdering the innocent and must be condemned. Archbishop Wester could have strengthened his (and the pope’s) condemnation of the possession of nuclear deterrence by grounding it in both the Gospel and the natural law. It is my hope that this two-fold theological and philosophical perspective emerges in the dialogues and debates that arise in the wake of his letter. 

Where does the Catholic Church go from here? Many of us, I suspect, consider this to be an issue that has already played itself out years ago. 

How do we get it back on our cultural and moral radar? 

The philosopher Michael Walzer once wrote, cribbing from Trotsky, “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” This is certainly true of nuclear war. It’s coming to a theater near you; in fact, it’s been in your neighborhood for decades: California (Livermore Labs), Tennessee (Oak Ridge), at Air Force bases, research corporations, and universities around the country. We are ensnared in a spider’s web of carefully crafted lethal destruction, a “culture of death” to use Pope John Paul II’s sobering phrase. 

In response, dioceses should follow Santa Fe’s lead: determine when and where nuclear weapons research and development is conducted, identify the financial and human costs, engage in dialogue and action. 

Here in Colorado, we have the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) built into Cheyenne mountain near Colorado Springs, missile silos scattered about the eastern plains with military personnel pledged to turn the launch key on command. The personal, pastoral questions must be asked: What is your job? What do you think and feel about it? Are you cooperating with evil? What would you do if . . . ?  

The concern one hears from Catholics these days about “Eucharistic coherence” applies to nuclear weapons as well as to abortion. If we follow through on the implications of our moral teaching, we would be setting out a difficult path, in pursuit of what Aquinas called “the arduous good,” but we would walk that path enlivened by the fruits of the passion, our steps illumined, in Archbishop Wester’s words, by the light of Christ’s peace.

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