Beyond covering vigils and funerals: What’s the Catholic church’s position on guns?

I have attended many vigils and funeral services in my years as a news reporter. I did so primarily as a general assignment reporter covering crime in New York City throughout the early 2000s.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, I attended dozens of funerals for firefighters and other first-responders who perished during the collapse of the World Trade Center in the biggest terror attack on American soil.

There is a new terror threat that faces our nation. The rise of domestic terrorists with easy access to guns have made even a routine weekend trip to the mall something to fear. Those memories of covering vigils and funerals — many involving children and teens shot and killed in senseless gang violence — came flooding back to my mind this past weekend.

The back-to-back massacres — one at a Texas Walmart on Saturday and another in an Ohio nightclub the following day — cast a pall on our nation at a time when many families are enjoying time at the beach.

Again, the violence had to do with guns. As flowers and candles piled up at both scenes of the tragedy, the political response was all about finger-pointing and racism. It was yet another example of our country’s increased political (and news media) polarization. Mainstream media news coverage could be summed out this way: Democrats blamed President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, while Republicans pointed the finger at mental illness and violent video games.

The news coverage was predictable, boilerplate even. As usual, it lacked any real focus on religion, either in the many main news stories of the first few days or the sidebars that evolved. You would think the aftermath of two major tragedies wouldn’t lack talk of faith. Instead, the focus was politics — both regarding the motives of the shooters in each case and the need for gun control.

It’s a topic that comes up each time there is a mass shooting. And each time the coverage lacks any real consideration for what faith-based organizations are doing to try and stop future incidents. That is, have religious leaders offered more than prayers.

In this case, what the Catholic church has done to reduce gun violence has gone largely unreported or underreported the past few years.

That the El Paso shooting was allegedly perpetrated by an alleged white supremacist (the Dayton shooting was committed by a left-leaning satanist) and that it involved Mexicans and Mexican-Americans put into the spotlight the issue of immigration. On this issue, the church has largely been at odds with the Trump administration. That friction has been widely covered and the focus, for example, of this New York Times opinion piece just last month.

What hasn’t been covered is the strong anti-gun stance the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops over the years. Compare that to the boogeyman-type coverage the church gets in most mainstream coverage on abortion and you can sense the difference. That the El Paso bishop has also been a vocal pro-immigration supporter (he’s also been to the border) got him mainstream attention. This is what The New York Times reported as part of their coverage this past weekend:

The Roman Catholic bishop of El Paso called for prayers to help guide the city as it grapples with shock and anguish after the mass shooting. He also demanded more: That the nation challenge the hatred he believed was a driving force behind the massacre, the same hatred he said he saw in the treatment of migrant families trying to enter the United States.

“In the last several months, the borderlands have shown the world that generosity, compassion and human dignity are more powerful than the forces of division,” Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso said in a statement. “The great sickness of our time is that we have forgotten how to be compassionate, generous and humane. Everything is competition. Everything is greed. Everything is cold. Tenderness and the love that knows no borders are crucified in a whirlwind of deadly self-seeking, fear and vindictiveness.”

Bishop Seitz has been especially vocal as the plight of thousands of Central American families trying to enter the United States has brought national attention to El Paso in recent months. Earlier this summer, he asked, “How do we begin to diagnose the soul of our country?”

“We have found a new acceptable group to treat as less than human,” he said, “to look down upon and to fear.”

The aftermath of these shootings triggered a renewed call for gun control.

One of the big stories here is the disconnect between the church’s efforts in this country on the issue and how the Vatican views it. That El Paso is largely Hispanic and Catholic means reporters and editors should have been prepared to focus on the religious response to the shooting. Since largely secular newsrooms are disconnected from people of faith (with many lacking a religion-beat reporter), a story like this is either never told or superficially reported.

The U.S. Conference of Bishops website can be a wonderful resource for journalists, detailing the church’s past and present positions on an array of issues. On the issue of gun violence, this is what the bishops say:

The news is filled with reports of violence, of news of mass shootings at home and raging wars abroad.  Many studies conclude that mass shootings—when defined as four or more people shot in a single incident—have reached one or more per day in the United States.  Overseas, the war in Syria has claimed hundreds of thousands dead, and displaced millions of refugees.  Other conflicts take innocent lives around the world.  More than ever, the Church and all people of good will must work together to confront the pervasive culture of violence.

The Church has been a consistent voice for the promotion of peace at home and around the world, and a strong advocate for the reasonable regulation of firearms. Christ's love and mercy must guide us. The church recognizes that recourse to self-defense is legitimate for one's own safety.  In today's world, however, weapons that are increasingly capable of inflicting great suffering in a short period of time are simply too accessible.

The USCCB webpage goes into great detail about where the bishops stand. That includes a total ban on assault weapons, which they supported when the ban passed in 1994 and when Congress failed to renew it in 2004.

Again, the Catholic press has been wonderful in regards to coverage. Following the June 2016 Orlando massacre, Crux ran a great piece under the headline, “What does the Catholic church say on gun control?” Here is the key section:

Catholics wondering what the Church has to say on the subject will find nothing firm from Rome, but a clear drift from the U.S. bishops in favor of stronger controls and the eventual near-elimination of guns from American society.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the official compendium of Church teaching, upholds the right to self-defense, including the use of lethal force if one’s life is threatened. It doesn’t specify, however, which means may be used, or the conditions under which it’s acceptable to acquire weapons to face such a threat.

There haven’t been any authoritative documents from popes or Vatican congregations on gun ownership for private individuals. Various popes and Vatican officials have condemned illegal trafficking in weapons, but generally the context is the use of those weapons in armed conflicts.

In 1994, under St. John Paul II, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace put out a document on the international arms trade that included this comment: “It is urgent to find an effective way to stop the flow of arms to terrorist and criminal groups. An indispensable measure would be for each state to impose a strict control on the sale of handguns and small arms. Limiting the purchase of such arms would certainly not infringe upon the rights of anyone.”

That phrasing would appear to suggest there’s no a priori ethical objection to gun control measures, although the document does not address the ability of citizens to have access to small arms for self-defense, recreation, hunting and so on.

Even among Catholics, the debate over gun control can get testy.

In its daily e-mail newsletter on Monday, America, the Jesuit magazine that leans doctrinally to the left, re-ran a column from February 2018 that called on church officials to do more to combat guns. On the Catholic right, EWTN’s evening newscast on Monday featured an interview with political commentator Michael Knowles. A Catholic, Knowles works for the politically conservative The Daily Wire.

As you can see, the church’s position regarding guns (and how Catholics react to it) can be fraught with tension. Since gun violence and mass shootings have become so pervasive in the United States over the past few decades, the church in this country has been responsive to that. The mainstream news coverage of abortion and immigration tend to feature church officials — but not so much when it comes to guns. That Rome’s response has been more tepid may be a result of low gun ownership and few mass shootings that commonly take place in Europe.

The Catholic News Agency reported on Sunday that Pope Francis mentioned the victims of the El Paso and Ohio shootings in his weekly address. Here’s what he said:

“I am spiritually close to the victims of the episodes of violence that these days have bloodied Texas, California and Ohio, in the United States, affecting defenseless people,” the pope said Aug. 4, after the recitation of the Angelus.

“I invite you to join in my prayer for those who have lost their lives, for the wounded and for their families,” Francis said. He then led those present in St. Peter’s Square in praying a ‘Hail Mary’ for the victims.

The pope’s words were covered extensively by other Catholic media websites, not so much by mainstream media outlets. The church and its position on gun control can be a complicated story. It’s one that is seldom told despite the many mass shootings that have taken place in this country over the years.

Journalists need to know that the Catholic church can be a voice for gun control. It would be a way to push their routine stories beyond covering vigils and funerals.

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