National Catholic Register


The Question of Gun Ownership

With No Definitive Church Teaching, Believers Can Disagree

BY Wayne Laugesen

February 24-March 9, 2013 Issue | Posted 2/15/13 at 6:24 PM


WASHINGTON — Authentic Catholics oppose abortion in all instances and pray for world peace.

So when a maniac shoots up a school, some believe Catholics also should favor gun control, just as they support legislation to stop abortion.

"If I had my way, society would have no guns," said Franciscan Father Joseph Nangle, associate pastor of Our Lady, Queen of Peace parish in Arlington, Va.

Father Nangle spoke with the Register after joining 63 other priests, bishops, nuns and Catholic theologians in signing a letter that urges "fellow Catholics in Congress" to support more restrictive gun laws.

"Pro-life citizens and elected officials have a responsibility to show greater moral leadership and political courage when it comes to confronting threats to the sanctity of life posed by easy access to military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines," states an opening portion of the letter, which goes on to call out pro-gun-rights members of Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner and former vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, for receiving "A" ratings from the National Rifle Association.

The letter continues, "Members of Congress who take pride in their pro-life stance and appeal to family values have no excuse for inaction, and neither do any of us who share a firm commitment to these values."

Yet Father Nangle concedes that his views on violence incorporate a commitment to an ideal that is sometimes difficult to achieve.

"My support of more gun legislation is just to say, ‘Let’s keep moving in this direction,’" Father Nangle said, explaining that he believes no one will rid society of guns anytime soon.

The pro-gun-control priest also wants to clear up misperceptions regarding Catholic teaching on guns and gun rights.

"There is no clear Church teaching on this," Father Nangle said. "One can be 100% pro-life while owning a gun, for the purpose of defending life, for sure. There are no easy answers for Catholics on this issue."


Calls for New Controls

Since the Dec. 12 gun massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., Catholics have received a series of messages suggesting they should get behind President Barack Obama and other politicians who are leading the effort to pass more gun laws.

Among the most high-profile expressions of support for new restrictions on gun ownership by Americans were the January statement of Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi and the December statement of the chairmen of three committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Father Lombardi, in his weekly editorial for Vatican Radio, explained that guns may be "instruments used for legitimate defense" of life, but he also expressed his support for the statement signed by Father Nangle and for political moves in Washington toward more gun control.

"The initiatives announced by the United States government in view of limiting and controlling the diffusion and use of arms are certainly a step in the right direction," Father Lombardi said.

Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City and Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., issued their Dec. 21 statement in response to the Sandy Hook massacre of 20 children and six teachers. The bishops head the USCCB’s Committees on Domestic Justice and Human Development; Communications; and Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, respectively.

Their statement says, in part: "With regard to the regulation of firearms, first, the intent to protect one’s loved ones is an honorable one, but, simply put, guns are too easily accessible. The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in their document ‘The International Arms Trade’ (2006) emphasized the importance of enacting concrete controls on handguns, for example, noting that ‘limiting the purchase of such arms would certainly not infringe on the rights of anyone.’"

In a Jan. 18 statement discussing the U.S. bishops’ attitude with respect to new gun-control proposals that might be forthcoming from President Obama, Bishop Blaire cited the five priorities identified in the bishops’ 2000 document "Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice."

Noted Bishop Blaire’s statement, "These were: 1. Support measures that control the sale and use of firearms, 2. Support measures that make guns safer, 3. Call for sensible regulations of handguns, 4. Support legislative efforts that seek to protect society from violence associated with easy access to deadly weapons, including assault rifles, and 5. Make a serious commitment to confront the pervasive role of addiction and mental illness in crime."


Gun-Rights Defenders

Catholic defenders of gun rights argue that using a weapon, of any type, to defend the innocent against aggression is consistent with Church doctrine.

Romesh Ponnuru, a National Review writer who converted to Catholicism in 2004, said the mainstream media often misunderstand what actually constitutes authoritative Church teaching. He fears this may confuse Catholics on issues such as capital punishment and guns.

"Catholics should give serious consideration to proposals to reduce violence," Ponnuru told the Register. "But pro-life Catholics of good conscience can reach very different conclusions on what will and will not reduce violence."

Ponnuru said that a ban on assault weapons might serve no purpose other than to create an illusion of progress toward peace.

"With more than 350 million guns in circulation in the United States, I’m skeptical that gun regulations will do much of anything to reduce violence," Ponnuru said.

Georgia Sheriff Joe Chapman, a pro-life Southern Baptist, worries that gun-control legislation, taken too far, would discourage or forbid law-abiding citizens from owning the guns they need to defend themselves.

Chapman responded to the scene of a January burglary in which Melinda Herman, the mother of young twins, shot an intruder five times with a .38-caliber handgun — the type of weapon some gun-control advocates would ban. The suspect, whom Herman shot when he entered an attic room in which she and her children hid, remained on life support as of Jan. 30.

"There is no question that this burglary could have turned into a triple homicide, involving children, if she had not shot him," Chapman said. "Too often, I show up at these crimes, and it’s the aggressor who has done the shooting, injuring or killing innocent parties."

El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa, a Catholic who serves the most populous county in Colorado, believes any move in the direction of gun control favors the interests of criminals who do not obey laws.

Maketa was sheriff when a gunman, armed with more than 1,000 rounds, entered the New Life evangelical mega church in Colorado Springs with a plan to shoot up the arena. He killed two people in the parking lot before an armed congregant, Jeanne Assam, drew her concealed handgun and stopped him. The killer took his life before authorities arrived.

Maketa has licensed more than 22,000 residents to carry concealed guns in a county of 623,000 people. None had been arrested on a violent gun crime charge as of the Register’s Jan. 29 interview.

"Those who commit crimes with guns — any kind of guns — are criminals who don’t obey gun laws," Maketa said. "We had a serial rapist who was preying on senior citizens for about five months. When he broke through the door of [the home of] an elderly lady, she shot him with a 12-gauge shotgun, and we immediately apprehended him. It is not uncommon for citizens to successfully defend innocent lives with guns."


Anecdotal Accounts

Though Father Nangle signed the statement urging more gun control, he understands the arguments of staunch gun-rights advocates.

But Father Nangle is more influenced by an incident back in the 1990s, when fellow Franciscan friars in northern New Jersey were sipping scotch when a burglar broke into the friary.

"The intruder thought they had money from the collection plate, and he wanted it," Father Nangle recalls. "The friars invited him to sit down and join them for a drink. The bad guy took them up on it. After a bit, they suggested he sample a better bottle of scotch they had on hand."

"Eventually, the police showed up, and everything ended peacefully," Father Nangle said. "That’s the story I prefer to hear."

Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado.