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NM archbishop can’t stay silent on LANL’s arms work

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Archbishop of Santa Fe John Wester praises much of the work being done at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The lab’s expertise greatly contributes to developments in bioscience, computer science, engineering, medicine and modeling that helped the nation navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic.

But it also builds bombs – the kind capable of killing massive numbers of people. And that’s not an easy thing for him – and some Catholics working for the lab – to reconcile.

Archbishop John Wester

Wester says that as the archdiocese within which the lab operates, the Santa Fe Archdiocese has a “moral responsibility” to facilitate discussion about the lab’s national security mission, most of which is dedicated to weapons production.

“I believe strongly that Pope Francis is right. For peace to flourish, we have to lay down weapons,” he said, referring to Pope Francis’ statement that even the possession of atomic weapons of war was immoral. “And any continuing development of nuclear weapons, and refining them, is going in the wrong direction.”

Wester’s remarks come just as Los Alamos National Laboratory is expanding its national security mission through production of plutonium pits, the cores of nuclear warheads that detonate the bombs. As a direct result of the project, the lab has begun expanding into Santa Fe, the city named for St. Francis of Assisi.

The pope’s 2019 statement was the harshest condemnation of weapons of mass destruction to date from the church. He could have been speaking about LANL and its new mission to manufacture plutonium pits when he said, “In a world where millions of children and families live in inhumane conditions, the money that is squandered, and the fortunes made in the manufacture, upgrading, maintenance and sale of ever more destructive weapons, are an affront crying out to heaven.”

As archbishop in an area where the U.S. nuclear arsenal is manufactured and stored, Wester said the words hit close to home for him. But they were poignant for another reason.

Pope Francis’s statement came during a visit to Nagasaki, one of two Japanese cities bombed with weapons developed in Los Alamos in 1945, inflicting mass casualties but effectively ending World War II. Wester had visited the city, and Hiroshima, two years prior to the pope’s visit.

“It was a powerful moment for me to see the destructive power of atomic weapons, and to possess that kind of destructive power is a very scary proposition,” he said.

Wester said he was still deciding on how to begin the conversation he hopes to help facilitate. Conscious that many Catholic church members depend on the lab to make a living, he wants to be careful not to create any controversy, discord or polarization. He said he is working with the archdiocese’s Office of Social Justice & Respect Life on how best to open up the dialogue. And he feels the archdiocese has a moral obligation to do so.

“Being in New Mexico as we are, where the first atomic bomb was manufactured, I think it’s important for us not to be silent about this,” he said.

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