As Catholics who are committed to understanding the relationship between the Catholic social ethic and the most pressing and timely issues in American society, we applaud National Catholic Reporter’s series dedicated to coverage of the gun violence crisis. We write to call on American Catholics, the clergy and the lay, to consider this issue – whatever their intuitions may already be – through the lens of Catholic principle. Drawing upon rich Church teachings on the issues of violence, self-defense, and human dignity – many of which now form the foundation for secular principles on these issues – Catholics can not only deepen their faith but develop richer voices on this critical issue of our time.
As with so many social issues of our nation, the loudest voices in the gun reform debate are often those on the far extremes, leaving the great mass of people in the middle without clear guidance or perspective. As Catholics, as followers of Jesus Christ, and as members of the local and national community, now is a good time for all of us to take stock, to educate ourselves on the issues, and to faithfully prepare to participate in the debate over the extent and limits of gun rights that is likely to play out on the national stage for years to come.
The Church has long held that the legitimate defense of our own lives and the lives of those entrusted to us can be both a right and a grave duty. We live in a world in which evil exists, in which violence toward ourselves and our families is for some a daily and tangible risk. In the face of such threats and in recognition of a legitimate right to self-defense, many in our society have chosen to “keep and bear arms” as a means to hold real and perceived dangers at bay. When we read every day about random and senseless acts of violence, it can be difficult to deem such a choice unreasonable.
And yet, can we be content simply to answer violence with violence? Does our participation in the gun culture, even when motivated by a sincere desire for self-preservation, serve to perpetuate that culture? As followers of Jesus Christ we are commanded to be witnesses to His peace. Christ asked His disciples to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies. He told Peter to leave his sword in its sheath, and He did not defend Himself, even to the point of His own death. The example of Jesus Christ cannot be easily reconciled with our own decisions to arm ourselves against our fellow man.
So what is a Catholic to do? Perhaps we can begin by prayerfully considering two truths: First, no matter where we stand on the issue of gun rights, none of us should be satisfied with the present level of gun violence. We cannot accept a status quo which leaves the poorest residents of our inner cities to bear the heaviest burden of violence in our country, nor can we surrender ourselves to a status quo in which our own safety can only be secured by our willingness to meet violence with violence. It is imperative to demand that our elected officials openly and honestly seek out all means to reduce the level of gun violence. Second, following in the path of Jesus Christ requires courage. We all hope for a future in which the peace of Jesus Christ is embodied in our society – someday. But for that hope to be made real we must have the courage to see past our own fears, to leave our sword in its sheath.
The challenge of gun violence should be a prominent feature of the Church’s ministry and teaching, and a foundation for engagement with parish communities on the implications of Catholic moral teaching on the questions of gun ownership and safety. By connecting to Catholic faith, social issues in which people, particularly youth, are already interested given their prevalence and resonance in secular culture, the presence in our society of our Church and its teachings can be re-invigorated. It appears that Catholics possess a certain degree of ambivalence about guns. In our experience particularly, individual Catholics are concerned about gun violence. However, wherever their opinions might fall on the issue, most Catholics do not tie those opinions to Catholic teachings (“Catholic Response to Gun Violence is Contradictory and Confused,” Ken Briggs, NCR, Apr. 12, 2018). This is particularly so, as compared to other issues among the consistent life ethic of the Church, such as war (i.e., collective, rather than individual self-defense), capital punishment, abortion, and assisted suicide.
By tying this issue to a foundation of Church teaching – a teaching that recognizes self-defense, and recognizes the broader importance of all human lives, in and out of self-defense – we believe that even Catholics with diverging political opinions can recognize important common ground. In doing so, and espousing these teachings more broadly, the Catholic Church would be elevating the discourse not only among itself – in the process, placing importance on gun violence vis-à-vis the other consistent life ethic issues – but also among the broader, even secular public, which has consistently been unable to identify points of agreement.
– By Marvin Lim and Nancy Grogan, May 22, 2018