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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.

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