Archives‎ > ‎

Pope Francis and a Catholic Analysis of Gun Violence - March 2018

posted Mar 26, 2018, 4:09 AM by RSO The Fenwick Review   [ updated Mar 26, 2018, 4:10 AM ]

By Claude Hanley '18

In the memorable phrase of a disgraced conservative pundit, the Mandalay Bay attacks represented “the gruesome downside of American freedom.”  This argument gets trotted out after after every mass shooting: the Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms, and most gun regulations would violate it.  Either tyranny, or 36,000 gun deaths per year. Liberals, on the other hand, call for new a new weapons ban or the repeal of the Second Amendment, and accuse conservatives of wanting kids to die.  The NRA causes mass shootings because it funds a system that ignores violence. Both sides, in their haste to point to blood on the other’s hands, ignore the deepening cultural crisis that produces mass killing after mass killing.  Catholic social teaching, by contrast, recognizes the moral collapse that lies at the heart of the political crisis, and illuminates how we can solve it.

No pope has issued an encyclical about gun violence.  There’s remarkably little in the way of Vatican documents on the subject.  What makes the social teaching of the popes compelling is not their concrete policy proposals, but their integral vision of the problems facing human society.  Benedict XVI and Francis both hold that no problem is purely technical. Instead, every crisis has cultural roots that run deeper than the material ones. That insight informs a Catholic analysis of gun violence in America.  That isn’t to say, however, that material circumstances don’t contribute to the problem of gun violence.

Indeed, advances in weapons technology magnify the impact of mass shootings.  Pope Francis writes of technological advance, “Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing guarantees that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used.” It’s an observation that holds true of almost any sphere of technology—-biological, information, genetic and, yes, weapons technology.  The rapid development of weapons technology has placed tremendous power in the hands of almost every citizen who desires it. In terms of pure technical power, modern weapons make it easy for a single person to cause immense suffering.

The shallow logic of American politics meets this technological advance with one of two solutions. On one side is the “conservative” logic, memorably expressed in the wake of the Newtown shooting: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”  To prevent killings, we ought to put armed security guards in schools and give every teacher a Glock 9mm. It’s a deterrent approach to the problem: give good people guns, so they can kill the bad people with guns. On the other side is the liberal logic, demanding repeal of the Second Amendment, or bans on many firearms.  If you make buying guns illegal, people will stop committing murder. Both proposals proceed from the same false assumption: gun violence is a technical problem, and it can be solved by technical means. We assume that Parkland happened because a bad guy got a gun, and a good guy didn’t have one.

A Catholic analysis finds this answer too simplistic.  School shootings don’t happen simply because people can get their hands on more powerful weapons than they could in 1900, 1945, or 1990.   Although not referring to gun violence, the words of Benedict XVI are insightful: “It is man's darkened reason that produces these consequences, not the instrument per se. Therefore it is not the instrument that must be called to account, but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility.”  We cannot put the Second Amendment in the dock for Parkland, or Las Vegas, or Newtown. The problem primarily concerns moral culture. Francis makes the same point: “our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.”  Moral culture is collapsing, not developing, and it kills people as it falls.

First, a toxic individualism prevents society from establishing moral ideals, desirable characteristics which individuals ought to pursue.  We believe that the norms toward which society directs us prevent us from being individuals; we must rebel against them to be more authentically ourselves. Society has no right encourage us to be courageous, just, or selfless.  But, since we will nonetheless imbibe these ideals to some degree, society shapes our consciences, and works to constrain us from within. As a result, we can ignore the conscience, too. It is shaped by the preferences of others, and is consequently worthless.  It becomes legitimate, even necessary, to ignore the moral ideals that try to impose themselves upon our lives. In this regard, American culture makes people vicious, and begins to predispose them towards violence.

Second, unbounded individualism makes us consider others valuable only as far as they are useful.  By definition, this trait makes ultimate what is good for me. This applies what Francis calls a “use and throw away logic” to other people.  Because we care about other people only when they’re useful for us, we can ignore their suffering whenever they’re inconvenient. As Francis writes, “This is the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted.”  When we can ignore the damage done, our culture encourages the worst sorts of violence. We collectively ignore the innocents killed by drone campaigns abroad, the unborn and elderly whose lives are snuffed out by abortion and euthanasia, and the mentally ill whose lives “death with dignity” laws help to end. None of their suffering matters, as long as we can’t see it.  So kill the people who are inconvenient—but keep them out of sight, and call it “choice” or “dignity” or “precision strike.” Our vicious individualism has made killing the innocent a human right, or even a moral necessity.

Finally, and most obviously, our culture exults in blood and death.  The entertainment industry makes a killing by glorifying violence; take a look at cinema, games, or trashy novels to prove the point.  I suspect that all of this desensitizes us, but that’s not the heart of the problem. Most kids who play Grand Theft Auto don’t go shooting up schools.  More dangerously, the fascination with violence inevitably shapes our cultural ideals. It’s one thing to call a veteran’s courage and self-sacrifice heroic.  The trouble is, we don’t do much of that. Instead, in film or in reality, we lionize people for how many people they’ve killed. Americans ogle at the “Mother of All Bombs,” and go gonzo thinking about how many bad guys get zapped when it goes off.  We love people and machines that kill efficiently; they’re our favorite entertainers. Can we really wonder why nineteen-year-olds murder their classmates?

The collapse of American moral culture means that technical solutions won’t cut it.  For the Right, the “good guy with a gun” is worthless after Parkland. It relies on the virtues of courage and self-sacrifice: risk your life to save the lives of others.  But since non-judgmentalism claims freedom from such social norms, it’s impossible for society to inculcate them. The Republican solution relies on a citizenry both armed and virtuous—that is, good people with guns.  There are exceptions, of course, but a moral crisis doesn’t make good people.

In some regard, this explains the appeal of the liberal solution: get assault rifles out of the hands of the citizens.  But since the roots of the crisis are cultural, random killings won’t stop because people can’t buy assault rifles. You don’t need an AR-15 to slaughter dozens; a handgun does just fine.  Substantially reducing crime by banning guns would require banning almost every firearm imaginable, and repossessing the hundreds of millions currently in circulation. Confiscating legally acquired weapons is politically indefensible; banning the sale of the vast majority of guns is politically impossible.  

A Catholic analysis of American gun violence perceives the problem in all its intractable depth.  It makes us eschew the logic which promises utopia through a single policy proposal. At the same time, another Catholic principle forbids inaction.  John Paul II writes, “Every person...can come to recognize the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree.” The right to life is primary. It makes profound demands of us, and it must shape our freedom.  Furthermore, the infinite value of every life means that no reform that prevents a single death is worthless. Recognizing this, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has called for limitations on high capacity magazines, substantial regulations on the purchase of handguns, universal background checks, and increased resources for mental health.  The right to life demands every possible solution.

American culture makes mass shooters.  In order to “be ourselves”, we deny the authority of any moral ideal, preferring to be who we are than who we ought to be.  Our culture encourages us to be vicious if that expresses who we are. Similarly, our vicious individualism justifies the worst kinds of violence: killing is acceptable so long as it helps me.  Finally, death and violence have become our idols, worshipped almost daily in the news or on television. Parkland, Newtown, and Las Vegas aren’t a problem that minor policy changes can prevent.  Cultural trends of recent decades have destroyed the moral framework of society in the name of liberation, and given us a society uniquely vulnerable to violence. We are paying the price of freedom in the blood of other people.