Archbishop John C. Wester can still remember the Cuban missile crisis, arguably the closest America came to a nuclear war. The year was 1962 and he was 12. One day while walking home from school in Daly City, California, he thought he saw Russian planes in the sky above him, preparing to drop bombs. He was so frightened he ran all the way home.

Admittedly, it wasn’t until 2017, when he visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that he began to think deeply about the threat of nuclear weapons again. Two years earlier, he’d taken the reins of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, which encompasses parishes in 19 counties and serves some 90,000 families.

Trips to New Mexico museums, including one with replicas of Fat Man and Little Boy on display, brought it all home — the region’s role in building the world’s first atomic bomb. Then came the realization that the Santa Fe Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi was less than a block away from 109 East Palace Avenue, a nondescript office where Manhattan Project staffers gathered before getting shuttled to the secret city of Los Alamos. 

“All these connections were such that it was providential — divinely providential — to write the letter,” he said.  

That letter, his pastoral letter to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, stands as a 52-page spiritual manifesto in support of nuclear disarmament — written from the epicenter of this country’s nuclear weapons complex. 

“The Archdiocese of Santa Fe has a special role to play in advocating for nuclear disarmament given the presence of the Los Alamos and Sandia nuclear weapons laboratories and the nation’s largest repository of nuclear weapons at the Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque,” he wrote. “At the same time, we need to encourage life-affirming jobs for New Mexicans in cleanup, nonproliferation programs, and addressing climate change.”

The timing of the letter is key: Los Alamos National Laboratory is mandated to produce 30 plutonium pits per year for nuclear warheads “as close to 2030 as possible,” according to the National Nuclear Security Administration. It’s a colossal expansion of LANL’s mission that critics believe will only ratchet up tensions between the United States, Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. To the Archbishop, this could be a replay of 1962, only worse. 

“We’re currently in an arms race that is arguably much more dangerous than the first one,” he said.

Searchlight New Mexico recently spoke with the Archbishop about his high-profile stance and his plans for peace in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and the world. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Searchlight: I’d like to start by talking about the pastoral letter. One sentence in it really stood out for me: “We must provide New Mexicans with employment and economic opportunities that do not require morally problematic nuclear weapons jobs.” Can you talk about what you mean by ‘morally problematic’? 

Archbishop: Pope Francis declared in 2019 that even the mere possession of nuclear weapons is immoral. So that really moved the moral needle. The 1983 “Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and our Response” — a pastoral letter put out by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops — did allow for deterrence: If you’re keeping nuclear weapons for deterrence, that would be morally acceptable. But Pope Francis took that off the table when he said they’re morally unacceptable. 

We all have our different terms, but in essence, it’s immoral, it’s unethical to have [nuclear weapons], because of their tremendous destructive capability. The 13,000 or so we have now in the world could destroy civilization many, many, many times over. So I think that blows the ‘just war’ theory out of the water, because there’s no way you can avoid killing civilians. There’s no way that you could have a reasonable hope for a peaceful solution in the end.

Searchlight: In New Mexico, LANL and Sandia are among the top employers. Given that some, if not many, parishioners work at those labs, is it difficult for you to be critical of their mission?

Murphy’s Law being what it is, we’re pushing our luck way beyond where we should. And so people in New Mexico, and indeed the whole human race, would benefit from getting rid of nuclear weapons.

Archbishop John C. Wester

Archbishop: Well, there’s a narrative out there that LANL and Sandia are really good for New Mexico because of all the billions of dollars they bring. But the point is, that narrative is not true. Very few people benefit from that money. 

There’s no question that Los Alamos County does very well, and the people living there do well, and the people who have jobs there do well. But in terms of that money trickling down to greater New Mexico, it’s just not true.

Yes, we have a lot of our parishioners who work at the labs as scientists and as engineers and physicists, maintenance, security. I’m keenly aware that this is an issue that’s real for people locally. That’s why I’m anxious to know how the labs can do more in the nonmilitary realm than they’re doing now. I’m comforted by the fact that there would be jobs to be had in disarmament. There are a host of other jobs the labs could perform in the health and technology field, as well. 

Murphy’s Law being what it is, we’re pushing our luck way beyond where we should. And so people in New Mexico, and indeed the whole human race, would benefit from getting rid of nuclear weapons.

Searchlight: Is there something in particular about nuclear weapons that defies religious doctrine?

Archbishop: Nuclear weapons, in my opinion, give human beings divine attributes, which we have no business having. …To my mind, nuclear weapons are blasphemous.

Searchlight: Let’s get a little bit of background about pastoral letters. What exactly are they and what prompted this one?

Archbishop: The pastoral letter in the Catholic church goes all the way back to St. Paul and St. Timothy and St. Peter and St. James and the whole body of the New Testament. So this pastoral letter that I wrote is really in the 2,000-year tradition of a bishop writing to the people of his diocese about things of importance. 

Since nuclear weapons were created and manufactured and deployed from Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project, that’s one connection for me. And then I went to Japan, to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I was very moved by what I saw in the museums and the displays. I was very touched thinking of the children seeing a bright light. And so I started to make that connection. 

We speak of the light of Christ as piercing the darkness of sin and war and ignorance. And I thought that [the atomic bomb] was the light of a much different nature that was not bringing enlightenment, but rather bringing death and destruction. 

I got some advisors, and we decided to write a pastoral letter on the necessity of never letting this happen again. And of course, for that to happen, we have to be about peacemaking and about eventual verifiable multilateral disarmament.

Searchlight: I’m imagining that people in Northern New Mexico — ground zero of the weapons complex, so to speak — might feel defensive if they hear criticism of LANL or Sandia. Do you think parishioners are open to having these conversations about disarmament?

Archbishop: That’s our hope and dream. We’re rebuilding the archdiocese after a bankruptcy and hoping the Catholic social teaching would be a major component of that rebuild — and that the parishes will have peace and justice commissions. And that we will have conversations on the parish level about peacebuilding.

I’m having talks with people who worked at LANL because I want their take on this, because they’re people who basically built atomic bombs. Their opinions are important to hear.

Searchlight: What kind of pushback do you get?

Archbishop: Mainly people say that we’re naive. You know, ‘You’re not in the real world’ — that we have to have our nuclear bombs to protect us from Russia and China, etcetera. But our response to that is, ‘Well, who really is naive?’ We’ve got the bombs that can destroy the world, and as long as we have them, we’re gonna continue to push our luck. 

Searchlight: How would you respond to critics who would argue that the church doesn’t have any high ground to make pronouncements on moral issues, given the history of sexual abuse by clergy and colonization in New Mexico and around the world? 

Archbishop: The horrendous sins of a few do not mean the entire church is at fault. What the church stands for and who the church is has integrity. Mistakes have been made, and serious sins have been committed, and the church has taken responsibility and expressed its sorrow for them. 

Searchlight: Do you think we’ve normalized nuclear weapons? In Northern New Mexico, a person can go about his or her life living next to a weapons factory without considering how surreal that is. 

Archbishop: Right. Every time I fly over the [Albuquerque] Sunport, I’m flying over thousands of nuclear warheads in different stages of readiness. …​​It kind of reminds you that we’re playing with fire and we don’t realize it.

Raised in the northern New Mexican village of Truchas, Alicia Inez Guzmán has written about histories of place, identity, and land use in New Mexico. She brings this knowledge to her current role at Searchlight,...