Life Notes

VATICAN CITY — Only the strong opposition of the Bush administration has prevented the establishment by the United Nations of a global gun control policy.

This position appears to place the United States in direct opposition to the Vatican, which is a staunch supporter of the U.N. initiative.

The International Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in all its Aspects concluded last month in New York. A number of restrictions were removed from the final program after Undersecretary of State John Bolton declared that the United States would not accept them.

The deleted items included: restrictions on civilian gun ownership, curbs on weapon sales, the promotion of international advocacy by pro-gun control non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and a permanent gun control bureaucracy.

Asked for his reaction to the final policy, Msgr. Francis Chullikatt, a representative of the Vatican's permanent mission to the United Nations, referred to a speech made to the conference by Msgr. Celestino Migliore. “You could interpret the outcome in the light of that intervention,” he said.

In his July 11 address, Msgr. Migliore, Vatican undersecretary for relations with states, stated his opinion this way: “Unfortunately ... it is impossible to ban all kinds of small arms and light weapons.” He quoted a 1994 document by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace:

“In a world marked by evil ... the right of legitimate defense by means of arms exists. This right can become a serious duty for those who are responsible for the lives of others, for the common good of the family or of the civil community. This right alone can justify the possession or transfer of arms.”

Msgr. Migliore said, “Civil populations suffer the most tragic consequences from the use of light weapons and small arms; the majority of the victims of these arms are civilians, most of whom are women and children.”

Accordingly, he concluded, the Holy See “offers its full support and cooperation” to “mechanisms for prevention, reduction, accountability and control [of guns].”

He specifically endorsed:

— “The creation of systems of marking, tracing, and record-keeping;

— “The defining of criteria for the export of arms or for determining when there is effectively a surplus;

— “The regulation of brokering activity;

— “The inclusion of mechanisms for collecting and destroying arms in peace processes;

— “The establishment of adequate standards for the management and security of the stocks of these weapons;”

— “The implementation of educational and awareness activities aimed at promoting a culture of peace and life, through, among other things, the involvement of different protagonists in the civil society.”

In his July 9 speech to the U.N. conference, Bolton, the Bush administration's point man on gun control, had a sharply different view of the matter.

“The United States believes that the responsible use of firearms is a legitimate aspect of national life,” he said. “Like many countries, the United States has a cultural tradition of hunting and sport shooting. We, therefore, do not begin with the presumption that all small arms and light weapons are the same or that they are all problematic. It is the illicit trade in military small arms and light weapons that we are gathered here to address.”

St. Gabriel Possenti

Bolton stressed that the United States would not accept any “measures abrogating the Constitutional right to bear arms.” As well, he pointed out that the draft proposal “would preclude assistance to an oppressed non-state group defending itself from a genocidal government.”

John Snyder, of Arlington, Va., founder and chairman of the pro-gun St. Gabriel Possenti Society, said he is perturbed by the Vatican's U.N. intervention.

Snyder, a Catholic and a professional gun-rights lobbyist, is campaigning to have St. Gabriel Possenti (1838-1862) named patron of handgunners.

He said that in 1860, the then-Passionist seminarian so impressed a rampaging band of Piedmontese soldiers with his marksmanship (he killed a lizard with a shot to the head) that he single-handedly drove them from the Italian village of Isola del Gran Sasso.

Earlier this year, Pope John Paul accepted the presentation of a special St. Gabriel Possenti Society medallion. The society enjoys the support of Archbishop Custodio Alvim Pereira, vice president of the Chapter of St. Peter's Basilica.

Snyder said the U.N. move to regulate small arms would empower rogue governments against unarmed citizens.

“I find it hard to accept that a member of the Roman Catholic Church, the primary defender of the right to life in the world today, could conceivably support the right of governments to take away the only means that people may have to defend their lives and the lives of their loved ones from criminals, including criminal governments,” he said.

But Loretta Bondi, advocacy director of the Fund for Peace of Washington, D.C., a prominent gun control NGO, said such claims are “absolutely disingenuous and, in fact, even ridiculous.”

She said they are of a piece with arguments that the U.N. gun-control initiative undermines U.s. sovereignty, which Bondi said are “offered by a minority of people that do not even represent a majority constituency in the United States.”

Bondi praised the Vatican's work on the small arms issue and attacked what she called American “intransigence” and “isolationism.” It is yet another example, she said, of the Bush administration's refusal to support international diplomacy.

She denied that the ultimate goal of her organization was the disarming of Americans, and explained that gun control regimens are best accomplished nationally.

But when asked what sanctions should be taken against “rogue nations” that refuse to sign international gun control regimes or properly implement them, she replied, “Do you mean the United States of America?”

She later claimed this was a joke, but then argued that on this issue the Bush administration had more in common with Syria and Iraq than with its “closest allies.” Msgr. Migliore's speech was “an excellent statement that reflects NGO sentiment,” she concluded. “We really hope the Pope will take on this issue [personally] and speak about it.”

Charles Rice, emeritus professor of law at Notre Dame University, agrees that the right to bear arms “is not an absolute right,” but denies that Americans now accept that this right is limited only to personal self-defense. Said Rice, “The Founding Fathers made it clear that the Second Amendment recognized an armed citizenry as the best defense against tyranny.”

And not just in America. “Look at the Sudan,” he said, referring to the gradual enslavement in that country's civil war of Christian and animist southerners by Muslim northerners. “Do you think that would have happened if the citizen-ry had been armed?”

Throughout the 20th century, he noted, totalitarianism and genocide had been preceded by gun registration and confiscation.

J. Michael Stebbins, professor of ethics at Gonzaga University, said that he is not certain that the Vatican intervention represents a development in Catholic social teaching.

He is certain that it does not, as some have claimed, present American Catholics with an impossible dilemma of choosing between their country and their creed.

“There is always tension between the demands of country and the demands of religion,” Stebbins concluded. “This is something that Catholics always reconcile in the light of their faith.”

Kevin Michael Grace writes from Victoria,

British Columbia.