Saturday, October 10, 2015

Reflections on Firearm Controversies and the Church

(See: To gun violence, Archbishop Cupich says 'Enough!' - Chicago Tribune, USCCB Testimony before Congress 2013and Confronting a Culture of Violence: A Catholic Framework for Action)

The Second Amendment is one of these things that people tend to fall into the either-or fallacy. Either one supports their perspective or one supports all sorts of horrible things. For the person who believes more legislation is needed to prevent gun massacres, people who oppose them are seen as callously disregarding suffering in the name of politics. For the person who believes that there are legitimate reasons to own firearms, the calls for legislation and restrictions are seen as a confiscation which punishes the legitimate gun owner. There is no middle ground in this rhetoric.

But what I don’t see in this dualistic debate is taking people on each side and asking them, “What do you think needs to be done to change this?” There is no dialogue to try to find a solution that both sides can work with that protects the innocent and keeps lethal weapons out of the hands of those likely to misuse them. In saying this, I am not saying “Can’t we all get along?” The problem is, neither side strikes me as wanting to compromise. To the person who thinks personal ownership of firearms is the cause of the problem, it appears that they will not be happy with anything less than a model for gun ownership along the lines of European limits. To the person who believes that personal ownership of firearms is necessary for defense against criminals or a government turned dictatorial, they will not hear any proposal for limits.

This is why I do not blame the Obama administration or the NRA—I actually blame both of them for contributing to the problem, demonizing the other side and not willing to achieve a compromise. Indeed, any possibility of compromise is seen as ignoring what one side holds important.

So, people continue to die from violence. Statistically, that number probably will never be reduced to zero, regardless of whether we outlaw every firearm in America or arm every individual in America with firearms. So we need to avoid two types of thinking:

  1. Thinking that if only we eliminate all firearms, everybody will be safe.
  2. Thinking that defending the Second Amendment means we can’t have any restrictions.

It is this mindset that the Church has to face when it weighs in on the issue. The American bishops recognize that some restrictions are necessary, but they also speak on how there needs to be more than only restrictions. Now, there is not any official document which teaches “Catholics must support X on pain of sin.” I don’t expect there ever will be either. The Church rarely speaks by saying “support this bit of legislation!” Rather the USCCB sets forth what she sees as important considerations and encourages lawmakers to apply them to their work.

Now, the USCCB does actually make some good points in talking about the culture of violence—it demonstrates that firearms by themselves do not cause the situation we have been in since the 1990s, and that we need to address these core issues. Again, this is not an either-or issue. It’s not a matter of either addressing core issues OR restricting guns. It’s a both-and situation. We need to both address the culture of violence and keep firearms out of the hands of people most likely to use these firearms to harm innocents. I think the weakness with the current approach is that the bishops sometimes are not precise enough in their language, allowing partisans on both sides to either make it sound like the Church endorses their position or to vilify the Church.

For example Archbishop Cupich, wrote today in the Chicago Tribune. He rightly speaks about the issue of the Second Amendment, saying, "Surely there is a middle ground between the original intent of the amendment and the carnage we see today.” That’s very true, and I applaud this. But, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. He speaks about needing “reasonable legislation” and “better gun controls.” But what does that mean? This can span the range from “keep them out of the hands of crazies” to “ban them outright.” That uncertainty leads people assuming things based on their own political beliefs.

The whole problem, as I see it, is the polarized society we have cannot come to an agreement on what is “reasonable” or “better.” As a result we see people acting offended or self-righteous over the Archbishop’s words.

Now, the right of self defense is recognized by the Catholic Church. Indeed, the Catechism says:

2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor.… The one is intended, the other is not.” (1737)

2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow: (2196)

If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful.… Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.

So the question is, how does one reconcile the Catholic recognition of self defense as legitimate, the Second Amendment and calls for firearm restrictions? I think we Catholics in America do need to have our own discussion on the issue, guided by the bishops. That means we need to set aside our own political preferences and set aside demonizing people who think differently on the issue. I mean Archbishop Cupich takes a position (but not using his teaching authority as bishop in doing so) that might be more politically “liberal” than what I am comfortable with, but what he has to say is not to be written off as “partisan” and rejected out of hand. He is certainly not heretical or holding a position inimical to Catholic teaching. 

Ultimately, I think the problem in America is we have become so polarized that we no longer trust anyone who does not share our position. The result is we no longer have any way of finding a compromise that protects the innocents while keeping lethal weapons out of the hands of those who are dangerous. I think ultimately, we need to understand the scope of our responsibilities in order to stake out an informed position. I think the bishops can indeed help us understand how to do so. They have a lot to say which is worth studying. But to do so more effectively, I think it would help for them to avoid vague terms that can be misinterpreted.


  1. As a lifelong gun owner, I have never had to contemplate whether my ownership of guns and the responsible use of them was sinful until recently My father carried a gun in his pocket everyday of his life and only took it out when he went in the church for mass. I don't see this as a moral issue but as a political one, I will remain open to pastoral guidance but don't see any change in my conscience as a responsible gun owner.
    I think the laws for owning a gun here in Georgia are responsible and reasonable, any further restrictions would be punitive.

    1. I am also a long time gun owner, and I do not believe the Church is calling for a disarmament of Catholics. Unfortunately, at this time the polarized political landscape means we do not have two factions asking "what can we do to prevent this?" Rather we have two sides each demanding the total capitulation of the other side.

      So, we have gun laws and despite them, people who use them to cause harm continue to acquire firearms. So as I see it, both sides in this debate has to ask what needs to be done and whether there is any ideology on their part which is preventing this asking.

      God Bless.