CST Corner: Thoughts on Gun Violence

March 1, 2018

In this Catholic Social Teaching column, Fr. Francis Belanger, O.P. reflects on gun violence and the common good.

The senseless shooting in Parkland Florida has brought the issue of gun violence back into the forefront of public consciousness. As debates about gun control rage again, one might ponder whether there is a “Catholic position” on the matter. In one way there is not, since the matter admits of prudential differences of opinion. But, in another way, Christian principles shed light and steer us towards clear-headed solutions, not always appreciated in the public debate. Moral conversion, society’s duty to protect the innocent, and the common good are three pertinent tenets of Catholic Social Teaching when it comes to guns.

One thing the shooting shows again is the presence of a moral sickness in our country. How depraved and foolish a person is to shoot and kill innocent young people. Again and again we hear of such crimes and we almost, Heaven forbid, become inured to them. Children, who are perhaps too often raised in a context of media saturation, must instead be loved and taught right from wrong. The breakdown of the family in many places undoubtedly contributes to the problem of violence among the young. Our society needs to be brought back to a loving God and the natural law.

But it is insufficient to speak merely about the need for moral conversion. According to Catholic Social Teaching, the duty of the government is to protect the innocent from the unconverted. (Cf. Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the United Nations, 18 April 2008) Government bans or restricts all kinds of things that, although morally neutral in themselves, are too susceptible to misuse or harmfulness – e.g., prescription drugs, automatic weapons (as opposed to the semi-automatic weapon used in Florida), various pesticides, used batteries, etc. Given that the United States has both the highest rate of gun ownership and the highest rate of gun violence in the developed world, it seems legitimate to ask whether the government is failing to protect the innocent as well as it can.

The individual rights of gun owners are a factor in the debate. But rights must be balanced by the oft-neglected principle of the common good. When it is the case that parents are legitimately frightened to send their children to school, or that at ecclesiastical gatherings – as is the case in Baltimore where I live – Church officials must talk about what to do in case of an “active shooter” at Sunday Mass, the common good is already harmed. There is a sufficiently grave problem to indicate that action must take place. Regardless of what the Second Amendment actually means, the natural law takes precedence. Catholics know that from other Constitutional arguments concerning human life.

In recent years an argument has taken hold in some quarters that the solution to gun violence is that more people should be armed – even teachers at schools. This is frightening and ridiculous – as if violent action movies could be made a pattern in real life. One can only imagine the potential harm in such a culture of vigilanteism. No one would benefit except the manufacturers of firearms. Instead, Catholics should work towards a culture of life. When it comes to gun use, that means moral conversion, insisting our leaders make laws that protect us, and working towards the common good of a safe and just society.

Fr. Francis Belanger, O.P.
Promoter of Social Justice
Pastor, SS. Philip and James Parish in Baltimore

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