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Who Knew that the Catholic Bishops Support Gun Control?

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

Last Friday, in the small Connecticut town of Newtown, a disturbed young man who should never had access to an assault rifle murdered his mother, six educators, twenty children and then himself.  In a frighteningly brief period a nation was plunged into grief.

What is now needed is greater restrictions on assault weapons, perhaps with a buyback of those weapons that are still accessible to other would-be deranged gunmen. Of course this will trigger outcries of those who claim their Second Amendment Rights are being trampled upon. There is one force that can effectively answer this false charge if they choose to do so: Cardinal Dolan and the Catholic bishops. Will they use that power? So far, they have not.

As a Catholic, I wish the leaders of my Church would join in efforts to protect our families and our communities against such tragedies as Newtown, Aurora and Columbine.  I am disappointed by their silence so far.  Indeed, they have been so quiet that many Americans will be surprised to learn that the Catholic Church officially favors gun control. The Vatican position is described in an article posted at U.S. Catholic.org aptly entitled, “Gun control: Church Firmly, Quietly Opposes Firearms for Civilians.”  The article refers to a statement the U.S. Bishops’ November 2000 document, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice”:

“As bishops, we support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer — especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or anyone other than the owner — and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns.”

That’s followed by a footnote that states:  “However, we believe that in the long run and with few exceptions — i.e. police officers, military use — handguns should be eliminated from our society.”

“But who knew,”Maureen Fielder wondered in The National Catholic Reporter, “they even had a position?”

Buoyed by the thinking of Catholic libertarians such as Robert Sirico and Thomas Woods, and Catholic neoconservatives, an anarcho-capitalism has taken hold of this society where safety nets and even a sense of noblesse oblige has been discarded by many of society’s more economically powerful. As a result they (and too often we) lose touch with one another; discard respect for human dignity; and too often lose any sense of belonging in human society. Many of us no long see each other. We see commodities to be opportunistically used for personal advancement.  That violence would result in such an environment; is no surprise. Life is becoming cheaper.

But the libertarian and neoconservative Catholic factions that have exerted such influence on the Bishops have ignored a basic Catholic tenet: That all rights and private property are not absolute, but often come with a social mortgage. Property rights cease being defensible when they are no longer used in pursuit of basic goods (food, clothing, health) or are innocuous — but when they become agents of destruction, infringing on the basic rights of others. That, as Aurora and Newtown have demonstrated, is the case with assault rifles such as the AR-15 and other semi-automatic weapons – weapons designed for military applications, but are also turned on our communities and ourselves — while the Cardinal Dolan and the Bishops remain quiet.

This detachment from others manifests itself in crime or in the willingness to let assault weapons be marketed for profit in spite of the fact their primary purpose is to kill human beings with speed and efficiency. We now know that the gunman got the AR-16 assault rifle from his mother who purchased it because she feared a supposed coming economic Armageddon. Instead her own disturbed child murdered her with the weapon before he went to the Sandy Hook elementary school, apparently bent on slaughtering children.

Roman Catholic theology has long spoken of dignity being tied directly to a decent wage; good health care; retirement insurance. Based upon Aristotelian notions of respect, friendship and personality, these goods form the foundations of truer basic American principles such as to be free from fear and want.

An obvious extension of this proposition is that six and seven year-old children and their teachers have a right to learn in schools free from fear of slaughter by people armed with the kind weapons we use on our worst enemies in war. Can we end all such shootings with gun control? No, but it would be a start to try to reduce both the occurrences and severities of such incidents.

Some Catholic leaders, such as the Jesuits via the steady voice of James Martin, SJ and Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley have had the wisdom and foresight to speak out about the need for gun control.  But we also need to hear from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  They could take a page from Father Martin:

“To put the matter bluntly, if one is in favor of protecting the unborn–and advocate for them, march in protest on their behalf, donate money to pro-life groups and encourage voting for legislators who protect the unborn-one should be equally in favor of protecting those lives six and seven years out of the womb, the ages of several of the children murdered last week in Connecticut.”

USCCB President Timothy Dolan issued a call for prayers for the victims and their families. While this is appropriate, it is insufficient.

(It is also worth noting that William Donohue and company at the Catholic Leauge are as of this writing, keeping themselves busy with their imagined “War on Christmas.”)

This brings us back to the matter of human dignity, which the USCCB seems to relegate more to embryos than those who bring them into the world, and into the society in which they will live.  

This brings me to my central point: If any one group can effectively begin breaking the NRA’s stranglehold on our government it is the Catholic bishops. No amount of Wayne LaPierre’s 527 funds can adversely affect the elevation of clergy as it can with those running for elected office. Cardinal Dolan has the ability to restore sanity to the question of gun ownership by calling for an assault weapons ban, more stringent background checks and by the closing of gun show loopholes. As president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops he now holds in his hands the power to deal a long overdue blow not only to gun violence, but its great enabler, economic libertarianism.

The disturbing question must now be raised: Has the American Catholic hierarchy acquiesced to movement conservatism on issues such as economics and gun violence in exchange for its support on culture war issues? Is there a quid pro quo between America’s Catholic Right and today’s secular Right, one that accepts a tacit agreement that if the Church is helped prosecuting its culture war agenda the current hierarchy will not interfere with the prosecution of a dog-eat-dog economic agenda, one that extends to the unfettered sale of assault weapons?

So I can’t help but wonder how and why the leaders of my church have come so far from their unequivocal 1975 statement, Handgun Violence: A Threat To Life, Statement on Gun Control..  

I also can’t help but wonder about their silence.

The Bishops Can’t Have It Both Ways

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

There is a profound and easily spotted hypocrisy when someone, or some institution declares in favor of freedom for me, but not for thee.   The Catholic Right and and their political allies have been trying to make this hypocrisy work for them for many years. They have certainly had their moments, but the utility of this obvious hypocrisy may have finally run its course.  

This time, they have tried to frame the Obama administration’s policy of requiring that insurance cover contraception as a violation of religious freedom.  They characterize the Affordable Care Act’s original requirement that religious employers provide women with insurance coverage that pays for contraception as “a direct assault on the First Amendment, not only a direct assault on the freedom of religion, by forcing people specifically to do things that are against their religious teachings.”

As an American Catholic, I see it differently.  And I think growing numbers of Americans are see it too.

The institutional Church has been escalating the culture war on multiple fronts since the beginning of John Paul II’s papacy.  We have seen this in action in the elevation of socially conservative Cardinals, and the strengthening ties with far right Catholic groups such as Opus Dei as well as the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), as well as Catholic neo-conservatives and providing at least tacit approval of the controversial views and actions of Bill Donohue and the Catholic League.

A common link among all these groups and individuals in their relative diversity, is the desire to break down the wall that separates church and state. For them, orthodox Catholic dogma is not merely something to be honored by individuals but must be embodies in law  and enforced by the government on everyone.

In 2000 when embryonic stem cell research became an issue, offering hope for the eventual cure or treatment of a myriad of ills, this alliance led the way in stifling the federal funding and oversight of the research simply because it didn’t conform to Catholic theology.  They framed their opposition as if they spoke for all people of faith despite the reality that other major faiths such as Judaism, the mainline protestant United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, and Presbyterian Church (USA) believe otherwise and supported the research.  Even a clear majority of American Catholics were supportive.

Throughout the child sex abuse crisis, the bishops and their conservative allies have fought legislation that would lengthen statutes of limitations for filing law suits against child predators and those who shielded them from being brought to justice.  In so doing, they have revealed themselves as seeking to be exempt from accountability to secular law.

When marriage equality was recently achieved in New York State, the hierarchy howled its displeasure — even though the legislation does not require religious institutions to perform same sex marriage ceremonies.  (Nor has anyone ever been required to perform any marriage ceremony,  whether same sex or opposite sex.  The right to marry belongs to individuals, but no religious institution is obliged to perform a religious ceremony just because somebody wants one.)  Once again, the Catholic Right demanded legislation that was contrary to the wishes not only of the aggregate citizenry, but also of American Catholics.

What emerges is a picture of a religious institution that has increasingly demanded that secular civil law reflect its specific theology, even when doing so may trample upon the religious freedom of others. The blow-up over birth control is but the latest example.

How tone-deaf can the hierarchy be on birth control? The Church’s history on this is illuminating.  In 1966, a pontifical panel on the subject consisting of seventy-two members that included sixteen theologians, thirteen physicians and five women without medical credentials, plus an executive committee of sixteen bishops, including seven cardinals overwhelmingly concluded that that artificial birth control was not intrinsically evil.  There were only seven dissenters. And yet those dissenters heavily lobbied then-Pope Paul VI and carried the day.  One of those dissenters was the future John Paul II.

I do not pretend to speak for the Church, let alone all American Catholics.  But I do know my views are representative of a large number of my fellow congregants. We see a hierarchy that is hypocritical in its approach to the great issues of the day, taking to invoking religious freedom when it is convenient, but stomping on the religious freedom of others when it gets in the way.   Almost, as if on cue, Rick Santorum, is running for president showing how the darkness of religious intolerance is growing in the Church.

There is hardly a better example of hierarchical hypocrisy, when it extols the virtues of religious freedom to exempt itself from providing insurance coverage for birth control to employees who do not share its view on the subject, including employees who are not even Catholic.

We have seen it play out differently on the issues of stem cell research and marriage equality — two issues where they are exempt from participation — the hierarchy and its allies still seek to impose their will on those who do not share their beliefs.  That is not how the freedom of religion works.  They cannot have it both ways.

We saw their strident hypocrisy on display when the Obama administration amended its contraception policy so that it was insurers and not religious institutions that would be responsible for provision of contraception insurance, several key Catholic health organizations hailed the compromise; sadly, the bishops did not.

We now know that the bishops have been long preparing for this fight.  But do they really believe that they can win?  I guess that depends on how they define win.  If they define it as achieving a faith devoid of reason and a smaller but angrier following — which is the stated goal of some then victory may be theirs:  Pyrrhic though it may be.  But the effort to redefine religious freedom as meaning only what the bishops say that it means, has become so shockingly evident, that the image of the bishops as out of touch, hypocritical and self-serving, seems likely to deepen.

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