The Catholic response to Colorado

Responding to the Colorado shooting this week, Father James Martin, SJ, argues that gun control is a religious issue.

I respectfully dissent. This is the wrong response at the wrong time. In a moment when we should be presenting a united front on a more pressing issue, Fr. Martin is instead pressing to the fore an issue on which we are and may be divided.

This is the Bernardin problem in microcosm. Joseph Cardinal Bernardin had the idea of a “seamless garment”; he wanted the Church to present the fullness of teaching, especially on life issues (whence the “consistent ethic of life,” also used to refer to the same notion). There is much to be said for that. 1  The problem is that Card. Bernardin (intentionally or not) and his followers (some of them unintentionally) pressed this notion in a time and place when one particular issue stood out above all others, not because the Church in America had chosen the fight but because the fight was pressed on her by the context of contemporary America. Moreover, Bernardin’s acolytes wrapped up in the same package all manner of concerns that were and are matters of discretion, not magisterial teachings. In an age when abortion was the paramount concern, when millions of lives were being lost, Bernardin—doubtless unintentionally, doubtless with the best of intentions—did serious harm to the Church. His approach divided Catholics and created cover for slippery “catholic” politicians who could dissent on this and that, even participate and encourage the great evil of our age, while saying “hey, I’m with the Church on seven out of ten things, and the bishops say it’s important to consider the full ten.” That poisonous bequeathment is still a problem today. Whatever can be said for the “seamless garment” on the merits, the timing was desperately unfortunate.

And on a smaller scale, I fear that pressing “gun control” here and now is a similarly damaging thing to do. Others will say that Martin is wrong on the merits; I’m not going to take a position on that. I will stipulate that he is right. But what is very wrong, I believe, is the timing. In this specific moment—as opposed to this age, the more general concerns of which I have already addressed—the Church has a specific teaching of relevance to which all Catholics must adhere and give witness. 2 There is, moreover, enormous urgency that we give voice to that teaching, and a strong practical imperative that it be a united voice. 3 And yet Martin chooses this moment to divide us. He writes that gun control “is as much of a ‘life issue’ … as is abortion, euthanasia or the death penalty …, and programs that provide the poor with the same access to basic human needs as the wealthy….” (Emphasis added.) At a time when we should be providing a united front on a pressing issue, Martin seems, with respect, to be repeating the Bernardin mistake. He is wrapping up under one bow a number of issues; the Church has specific teachings on some, but for others she does not have specific teachings, 4 and other issues are hotly-disputed discretionary means of implementing teachings of various weights. 5 And he is doing it in a moment in which what is needed is clarity, wrapping a crystal-clear teaching in an obscuring fog of division.

Martin is very influential. In this column, I fear that he has unintentionally exercised that influence in a way that will make it harder for Catholics to provide a united witness on the more pressing issue in the case, and that makes it less likely that our voice will be heard. Gun control is a liberal cause; whether or not it should be deemed a life issue, it is not now, and will not become so in this moment. And what will happen? Catholic conservatives may become leery about speaking up, and even if they are not, non-Catholic conservatives will dismiss the Catholic response as a liberal trojan horse. Perhaps it is true, as I’m sure Card. Bernardin would say, that the truth cannot be ill-timed. But we are grownups, raised with a sense of tact and diplomacy, and we should know better. It can be, and, in this instance, it is.

Notes:

  1. Cf. Catholic social teaching and public policy, 1 MPA 151, 157 (2012); Is it time for a Catholic political party, 1 MPA 43, 44.
  2. See my post yesterday, linked above, in which I noted that the Church’s teaching on the death penalty makes necessity the criterion for its use. That is no surprise given that Catholic theology has always rooted the exception to “thou shalt not kill” in self-defense. See, e.g., Willard Oliver, Catholic Perspectives on Crime and Criminal Justice 209 (2008).
  3. The Catholic Church is the only significant religious group of which I am aware that has a credible and coherent teaching in opposition to the death penalty. We are the Christian witness for the consistent ethic of life.
  4. The word “gun” does not appear in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. It does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Google finds no results for “gun control” on www.vatican.va; the closest match it finds is October 2001 speech of Renato Martino—then the Holy See’s observer at the UN and titular archbishop of Segermes; appointed President of PCJP in 2002 and raised to the purple in 2003—to the UN General Assembly in which Martino laments that a conference report “did not include provisions that would have regulated civilian gun ownership and restricted arms transfers to legitimate States.”
  5. Cf. Catholic social teaching and public policy, supra.

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