SANTA FE, New Mexico (OSV News) -- The issue of nuclear weapons is a "scary, difficult topic" but one "we have to face," especially as Catholics, Santa Fe Archbishop John C. Wester told OSV News.
The archbishop joins Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Seattle in leading a "Pilgrimage of Peace" to Japan July 31 to Aug. 12, during which they and officials from their respective dioceses will travel to the Japanese cities of Tokyo, Akita, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
"Our Japanese brother bishops are very eager to talk with us," said Archbishop Wester.
The pilgrimage's mission is to "establish an ecclesial and personal relationship with the bishops of Japan to work toward the abolition of nuclear weapons, expressing our heartfelt sorrow for the devastating experiences endured by their nation," according to the trip's website.
During World War II, an estimated 140,000 people were killed in Hiroshima when the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the city Aug. 6, 1945, followed by a second atomic bomb Aug. 9, 1945 on Nagasaki that left 74,000 dead. Survivors, known as "hibakusha", faced numerous physical and psychological ailments in the aftermath of the bombings, which led to Japan's unconditional surrender to the Allies.
In May, both archbishops joined Archbishop Peter Michiaki Nakamura of Nagasaki, Japan, and Bishop Alexis Mitsuru Shirahama of Hiroshima in issuing a letter to leaders of the Group of Seven, or G7, nations, meeting then in Hiroshima, to take "concrete steps" toward ending the use of nuclear weapons.
Traveling to Japan in 2017, Archbishop Wester said he "recognized the connection" between that nation and his own archdiocese, which includes Los Alamos, where the atomic bomb was developed and tested. The newly released film "Oppenheimer" recounts the life and work of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the first director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, which housed the project.
"It seemed just right that we would be at the table for discussing verifiable nuclear disarmament," said Archbishop Wester.
In 2022, he released the pastoral letter "Living in the Light of Christ's Peace: A Conversation Toward Nuclear Disarmament," calling for "a serious conversation in New Mexico and across the nation about nuclear disarmament," since "we can no longer deny or ignore the dangerous predicament we have created for ourselves."
Speaking by phone to OSV News, Archbishop Wester noted the world's stockpile of nuclear warheads has declined over the decades -- down to some 12,500, according to the Federation of American Scientists, with Russia and U.S. possessing all except about 1,400 -- but "clearly, a good movement" to abolish such weapons has "stalled."
"A second arms race now would arguably be more dangerous than the first," Archbishop Wester said. "We have more awareness, but we still have a false sense of complacency. Nuclear arms don't make us more safe, but rather less safe."
Russia's full-scale war on Ukraine, which continues attacks launched in 2014, has brought renewed focus on the issue of nuclear weapons, while raising "difficult moral questions," he said.
In February, Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended his nation's participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. He has repeatedly threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, which voluntarily surrendered its nuclear arsenal -- then the world's third largest arsenal after independence from the former Soviet Union -- in exchange for security guarantees under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. are signatories to the memorandum.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy unveiled a 10-point peace plan for Ukraine at the G20 summit in November 2022, prioritizing among other items nuclear safety amid Russian occupation of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, the largest nuclear plant in Europe.
The U.S. working toward nuclear disarmament with adversaries such as Russia and China is both a "critical and neuralgic point," Archbishop Wester admitted.
"The question is, how do we get there?" he said. "It has to be through a huge effort of diplomacy, agreeing that this is for everybody's benefit and the common good, as Catholic social teaching directs."
The U.S "has to be a leader in really focusing on diplomacy and trying to work together, instead of resorting to war," he said.
At the same time, "Ukraine has a right to defend itself against unjust aggression," the Archbishop reminded. "Catholic social teaching has always talked about self-defense and the morality of it."
He pointed to the "tension" between such self-defense and "those who speak to absolute pacifism."
"I think we need that prophetic voice too," he said. "That's an ideal we haven't achieved in human history, but we need to strive for. ... I think we can strive for peace and at the same time understand somebody's right to defend themselves."
Along with nuclear weapons, nuclear energy presents urgent challenges, said Archbishop Wester. "We’re dealing with a very powerful and dangerous reality whenever human beings are dealing with the atom, whether to produce energy that gives life or (weapons) that bring death."
He stressed the need to address the long-term impact of nuclear energy as a whole, pointing to the work of the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, which advocates for those who suffered from nuclear testing in New Mexico as part of the 1945 Trinity Test.
In addition, nuclear disasters such as the 1986 accident at Chernobyl, Ukraine, under the Soviet Union, and the 2011 flooding of the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan following an earthquake and tsunami show the "dangers of nuclear waste," said the archbishop.
Addressing nuclear arms and energy successfully requires global cooperation, he said.
"It’s very positive, seeing what we can do when we work together for peace," said Archbishop Wester. "And the very, very first step is nuclear disarmament."