With ‘Oppenheimer’ in Theaters, Two US Archbishops Embark on a ‘Pilgrimage of Peace’ Ahead of Atom-Bomb Anniversaries

With the blockbuster movie ‘Oppenheimer’ also focusing attention on the morality of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the bishops hope their ‘Pilgrimage of Peace’ helps bring an end to nuclear weapons.

A Catholic church in Nagasaki, destroyed by the Aug. 9, 1945, atomic bombing of the city
A Catholic church in Nagasaki, destroyed by the Aug. 9, 1945, atomic bombing of the city (photo: Public Domain)

Two U.S. archbishops whose dioceses include nuclear-weapons facilities are planning to meet with two bishops in Japan whose dioceses include the sites of the atomic bombings that led to the end of World War II.

“In 1945, sadly, our connection was through war and bombs,” Archbishop John Wester, who leads the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, which includes northern and central New Mexico, told the Register. “But we want our connection to be through the light of Christ and peace-building.”

The 78th anniversary of the only uses to date of such weapons has particular traction this year because of the release of the blockbuster movie Oppenheimer recounting the story of the Manhattan Project, which built the atomic bombs that were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Also currently focusing additional attention on the issue of nuclear weapons are the repeated warnings by Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials that Western support for Ukraine in its war with Russia risks the retaliatory use of Russian nuclear weapons.

Archbishop Wester said he wants multilateral nuclear disarmament — meaning that the countries of the world that have nuclear weapons agree to give them up at about the same time.

He noted that Pope Francis in November 2017 condemned not only using nuclear weapons but even having them. The Pope, calling to mind “the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental effects” nuclear weapons could have if they were detonated either on purpose or by accident, said “the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.”

The archbishop agrees.

“The reality is that these weapons are too powerful and they’re too dangerous for human beings to control. Providentially, it’s only with luck, and I would say with God’s grace, that we’ve avoided catastrophe. That’s not in my mind a reasonable and valid and a prudent way to defend ourselves. The clock’s ticking, and we’ve got to get rid of them,” Archbishop Wester said in a telephone interview.

Archbishop Wester and Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle are scheduled to travel to Japan next week for meetings in Hiroshima, site of the first atomic bombing on Aug. 6, 1945, and Nagasaki, site of the second (and so far last) atomic bombing on Aug. 9, 1945.

Their hosts are Bishop Alexis Mitsuru Shirahama of Hiroshima and Archbishop Peter Michiaki Nakamura of Nagasaki.

“These two U.S. archbishops’ visit to Nagasaki will serve as a powerful tangible testimony that people from former enemy nations during World War II are able to pray for peace together, oppose the production and possession of nuclear weapons together, and walk together toward peace on earth and peace in the Kingdom of God,” Archbishop Nakamura told the Register in a written statement. “… I pray that our collaboration and exchange over these few days will convey to the world our shared hope that the abolition of nuclear weapons is possible, that world peace is attainable, and that the circle of cooperation for the realization of peace will further expand.”


Where Are the Popes on Nuclear Weapons?

Popes have consistently taken a dim view of nuclear weapons since they were first deployed 78 years ago, though their approaches allow for some distinction.

“Nuclear weapons must be banned,” Pope St. John XXIII wrote in his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth).

In 1968, Pope St. Paul VI called for “putting an end to the nuclear-arms race.”

In 1982, Pope St. John Paul II called for disarmament in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly, but he also allowed that having nuclear weapons may be justified as a temporary approach of national defense.

“In current conditions ‘deterrence’ based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable. Nonetheless in order to ensure peace, it is indispensable not to be satisfied with this minimum which is always susceptible to the real danger of explosion,” John Paul II said.

In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI called for “progressive disarmament and creation of nuclear-free zones, with a view to their complete elimination from the planet.”

Pope Francis has gone farther than any of his predecessors by condemning even possessing nuclear weapons.


Acceptable or Unacceptable?

The Register sought comment from Catholic scholars who study nuclear-weapons policy.

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, who served on a nuclear submarine as an officer in the U.S. Navy, told the Register that using or even threatening to use nuclear weapons is immoral because the catastrophic force they possess is disproportionate and makes no meaningful distinction between combatants and noncombatants.

He said he would prefer multilateral disarmament through treaties among nuclear powers. But if that doesn’t happen, he said, the United States should begin getting rid of its own nuclear-weapons stockpile unilaterally.

“It’s best for the world to have multilateral disarmament. However, at some stage, you can’t just continue to use that excuse. You have to say, ‘No, we’re not going to do this because it’s unjust and immoral,’” said Msgr. Swetland, the president of Donnelly College, a Catholic university in Kansas City, Kansas, in a telephone interview. “To be preparing for a game that, if we ever play, we’ve already lost.”

Still, while no one supports nuclear war, some say the existence of nuclear weapons may have helped prevent general wars of the type that killed millions of soldiers and civilians in the early and middle parts of the 20th century because countries that have nuclear weapons have made extra efforts to avoid escalating military conflicts.

Michael Desch, director of the Notre Dame International Security Center and a professor of political science at the university, teaches a class called “War and Statecraft in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.” He supports the idea of nuclear deterrence, which he said is morally defensible and has had demonstrable beneficial effects.

“I think the practical argument is pretty clear and pretty compelling. We didn’t have World War III. What was different after World War II and the Cold War? There was nuclear deterrence and the assurance of mutual destruction,” Desch told the Register by telephone. “… The basic tenets of containing and limiting war, which are at the heart of the Church’s just-war tradition, can be furthered by nuclear deterrence. Nuclear deterrence is a theory of peace — a theory of peace with practical benefits but also with moral benefits.”


Close to Home

The Pilgrimage of Peace to Japan, as the U.S. archbishops are calling it, is scheduled to go from July 31 to Aug. 12. The delegations (five people from Santa Fe, three from Seattle) are set to visit Tokyo, Akita, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The delegations plan to pray a novena for peace between Aug. 1 and Aug. 9.

The archbishops are putting the journey under the patronage of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Nagasaki.

Archbishop Wester told the Register he and Archbishop Etienne feel a special responsibility to speak out against nuclear weapons because of current military activities in their archdioceses.

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe includes Los Alamos National Laboratory, which has been associated with nuclear research and development ever since the Manhattan Project produced the first atomic bombs in 1945. (J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), subject of a major motion picture currently in theaters called Oppenheimer, was the first director of the Los Alamos laboratory.) The Archdiocese of Seattle includes a U.S. Navy base with nuclear-weapons-bearing Trident submarines, as well as nuclear research facilities.

Archbishop Wester said the time to get rid of nuclear weapons is now.

“The issue has been urgent ever since 1945,” he said. “The trouble is we’ve kind of been lulled into a false sense of complacency all these years.”