Reverence for human life is a Catholic principle that, quite obviously, should shape how we, as Catholics, think through the problem of gun violence. This reverence manifests itself in our respect both for the human right to self-defense, as well as the need for limitations on that right, to protect all human lives. Both are important ethical considerations for determining the boundaries of the right to firearms.
But there is a particular aspect of the reverence for human life that might specifically draw less attention, but should speak equally to this issue: our religion’s reverence for the human body itself. How should this corporeal reverence speak to gun violence?
The sacrosanct nature of the human body is affirmed in Catholic writings through the times. In more recent times, for example, it has been affirmed most visibly throughout the works of Pope John Paul II. In the Evangelium Vitae, where he critiques practices like abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty, the Pope laments that, within the contemporary climate, “the body is no longer perceived as a properly personal reality, a sign and place of relations with others, with God and with the world. It is reduced to pure materiality: it is simply a complex of organs, functions and energies to be used according to the sole criteria of pleasure and efficiency.”
And in his Theology of the Body, which concerns human sexuality, Pope John Paul II notes: “The human body … is not only a source of fruitfulness and procreation, as in the whole natural. It includes right from the beginning the nuptial attribute, that is, the capacity of expressing love, that love in which the person becomes a gift and – by means of this gift – fulfills the meaning of his being and existence.”
It is clear that Catholic doctrine – and the way that doctrine drives beliefs on a variety of social practices – is rooted in a respect not just for life, but for the human body itself. That body is not just a material being, but an entity manifesting of love – and meriting our care and love in return.
So what does this have to do with guns, and gun violence? To answer that question, it’s important to look at what actually happens to a human body when it gets shot – something that, whether we are religious or not, and whatever our position on guns, so few of us rarely look at. Medical professionals, perhaps more than anyone, can testify to this phenomenon. And, if we allow ourselves to read the graphic descriptions that many such professionals who have seen gun-riddled bodies have given – if we don’t follow our natural instinct to turn away – we can have a deeper understanding of the corporal trauma that guns can inflict.
A few such descriptions are particularly noteworthy. As one doctor has described the trauma particularly from assault rifles:
I once treated a patient shot in the pelvis with a similar weapon. The bullet shattered the hipbone into hundreds of pieces. It shredded the femoral artery, causing life-threatening bleeding and destroyed whole portions of the bowel and bladder…. Trauma doctors and nurses who treated patients in these tragedies, and medical examiners who investigated the aftermath, all commented on the unbelievable devastation resulting from the bullet wounds. Indeed, this is the intended consequence of assault rifles. When they discharge expanding bullets, the bullets don’t follow a straight line through the body; they fragment and explode, destroying as much living tissue as possible.
And as another trauma surgeon testified, with respect not just to assault rifles, but guns in general:
When you’re shot in the head, you at least lose consciousness; there’s certainly less suffering. But with an abdomen wound, or a back wound, or a wound to the groin or neck — pretty much anywhere except the outermost areas of extremities—it’s always agonizing. Unless you get shot in the heart — in which case you will die in minutes — it will usually take hours to die. In the movies you always die quickly from a gunshot wound. But not in real life.
Still another piece, whose author interviewed a trauma surgeon:
The main thing people get wrong when they imagine being shot is that they think the bullet itself is the problem. The lump of metal lodged in the body. The action-movie hero is shot in the stomach; he limps to a safe house; he takes off his shirt, removes the bullet with a tweezer, and now he is better. This is not trauma surgery. Trauma surgery is about fixing the damage the bullet causes as it rips through muscle and vessel and organ and bone. The bullet can stay in the body just fine. But the bleeding has to be contained, even if the patient is awake and screaming because a tube has just been pushed into his chest cavity through a deep incision without the aid of general anesthesia (no time; the patient gets an injection of lidocaine). And if the heart has stopped, it must be restarted before the brain dies from a lack of oxygen.
And another, from a combat medic:
Penetrating trauma and tissue damage from projectiles are a bit different. They have the potential to cut through arteries and large veins without alerting the body’s muscles to problems. With bullets, it all comes down to shot placement and passage—which, without the gift of surgical precision that no gunman will ever have, is another way of saying it comes down to luck. Aiming for limbs to create “flesh wounds” is a movie myth, and generally not something that police or soldiers ever train to do.
This understanding of what a bullet does to the human body is critical to how we should look at gun violence through the Catholic lens, considering how our religious principles view our physical being. To us Catholics, the physical human body is sacred, because it is part and parcel of our earthly existence. To use Pope John Paul II’s words again: it is a “personal reality, a sign and place of relations with others, with God and with the world.” Violent destruction of that body, then, is hardly compatible with that reality.
This does not mean, of course, that we do not affirm self-defense itself: gun violence happens to the defenseless as well (and it is the power of the firearm to disarm, even traumatize the human body that, to many, makes it a critical method of self-defense). It does mean, however, we should give great consideration to how we must limit gun violence beyond the bona fide necessities of self-defense.
Consideration of the Holy Innocents slaughtered – the babies King Herod killed in an attempt to kill Jesus – might be appropriate here. What of the innocents whose bodies are traumatized and slaughtered by guns?
- John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (Mar. 25, 1995), available at http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae.html. ↑
- John Paul II, Theology of the Body (Sep. 5, 1979-Nov. 28, 1984), available at https://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/JP2TBIND.HTM. ↑
- Leana Wen, What Bullets Do to Bodies, NYTimes (Jun. 15, 2017), A23, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/15/opinion/virginia-baseball-shooting-gun-shot-wounds.html. ↑
- Mike Spies, When a Bullet Enters a Body: Gun Violence as Seen by a Trauma Surgeon, The Trace (Sep. 21, 2015), https://www.thetrace.org/2015/09/bullet-injuries-wounds-trauma-surgery. ↑
- Jason Fagone, What Bullets Do to Bodies, The Huffington Post (Apr. 26, 2017), https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articlesvin/en/gun-violence. ↑
- Connor Narciso, What Really Happens When You Get Shot, Wired (Dec. 8, 2015), https://www.wired.com/2015/12/what-really-happens-when-you-get-shot. ↑
*Marvin Lim holds a law degree from Yale Law School. He is Counsel to the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus and a consulting attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice, on issues of gun violence prevention litigation and advocacy.