By Dennis Sadowski, Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament got a boost in 2022 with one archbishop calling for widespread conversations on ridding the planet of the threat such weapons pose and peace advocates taking up his message with new enthusiasm.
As a starting point, the pastoral letter released by Archbishop John C. Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in January serves as an invitation for serious conversations on the road to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.
The document, “Living in the Light of Christ’s Peace: A Conversation Toward Nuclear Disarmament,” is the most recent and perhaps most heartfelt from a U.S. bishop seeking to end the nuclear arms race.
In it, Archbishop Wester explained that his message is rooted in St. John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical “Pacem in Terris” (“Peace on Earth”) and the teaching of Pope Francis, who has repeatedly said the possession of nuclear weapons is immoral because of their threat to human life.
His call for conversations — beginning in his own archdiocese, the home of two national laboratories where nuclear weapon development continues and an Air Force base with one of the largest repositories of U.S. nuclear weapons — buoyed faith-based peace advocates.
The pastoral letter’s message took on added significance with the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine in February and subsequent threats by Russian President Vladimir Putin to consider using nuclear weapons to reinforce his illicit claims on the Ukrainian regions.
Peacemakers and religious leaders, including Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Seattle, expressed concern at various points throughout the year about the “grave danger” of nuclear war.
Their earnest pleas for peace have included calls for ending the “irresponsible threats,” appeals to President Joe Biden to not respond in kind, and invitations to individuals to pray, study and act to prevent the possibility of a catastrophic nuclear exchange.
Archbishop Wester has said he is concerned that after decades in which arms control treaties led to reductions in nuclear armaments, a new arms race is already underway as the U.S. and Russia, the world’s primary nuclear powers, develop new weapons systems.
“I think we’ve been lulled into a false sense of complacency. I think it’s important as the archbishop of Santa Fe that I say something, that the archdiocese has a seat at the table on this discussion, because this is the birthplace of the nuclear bomb,” Archbishop Wester told Catholic News Service in June.
Since issuing his pastoral letter, Archbishop Wester has taken his message around the country, hoping to build the conversations he believes the country — and the world — must begin.
He addressed his concern during Pax Christi USA’s 50th anniversary national conference in August, at the annual United Nations prayer service in New York in September, in a reflection marking the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, as well as at liturgies and events in his archdiocese.
He also will take his message to Rome in December when he addresses a conference on Pope Francis’s efforts to promote Gospel nonviolence.
Programs at Fordham University, Georgetown University and other institutions have focused on the need to reduce nuclear stockpiles and the importance of diplomacy to achieve that goal.
Joining the call for eliminating nuclear weapons, Pax Christi USA renewed its Bread Not Stones campaign in the short term to call attention to mounting military spending, particularly on nuclear weapons systems on land and at sea.
Focused on raising awareness prior to the November election, the nationwide campaign was designed to “change the narrative on what it means for a country to be strong,” said Jean Stokan, one of the organization’s ambassadors of peace.
“In our estimation, security should not be about military security or military strength. It’s just a moral issue. Our budgets are moral documents. It shows where your priorities are as a country,” Stokan, justice coordinator for immigration and nonviolence for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, told CNS.
The effort raised awareness in parishes, schools and local communities about the amount of military spending — about 52% of discretionary federal allocations.
Nuclear disarmament efforts sustained a setback, however, when the 10th Review Conference for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons at the U.N. in New York in August failed to issue a consensus document on how to move forward.
Russia blocked agreement on a final document late Aug. 26, the review conference’s final day, by objecting to paragraphs raising concerns about military activity around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine.
The failure came despite the efforts of the Holy See, disarmament advocates and non-nuclear nations.
Catholic advocates said afterward they would work globally to build support for the treaty’s provision that parties to it “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”
They also said they would undertake grassroots organizing and education to build momentum around the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which went into force in January 2021. The Holy See was the first entity to sign and ratify the ban treaty.