Coming to Terms With Orlando

The Church Assists a Nation Wrestling With Horror

People attend a prayer service for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting at Delaney Street Baptist Church on June 15 in Orlando, Fla. The shooting, which killed 49 people and injured 53, is the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
People attend a prayer service for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting at Delaney Street Baptist Church on June 15 in Orlando, Fla. The shooting, which killed 49 people and injured 53, is the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. (photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — As news of the deadly June 12 attack on an Orlando, Fla., nightclub dominated the media, Maggie Gallagher, long a target of homosexual-rights activists for her leading role in the defense of marriage as a union of one man and one woman, found herself under attack.

In the wake of the Florida massacre, which took place at a nightclub that caters to a primarily homosexual clientele, a surge of Facebook posts blamed Gallagher and her colleagues for demonizing people with same-sex attraction. Initially, she pushed back against her accusers, but after reading a thoughtful message from John Stemberger, a fellow advocate for marriage and family, Gallagher decided to shut off her social media and take time to pray, reflect and to mourn the untimely deaths of 49 people.

Stemberger’s message described the dead as “image bearers of the Creator and worthy of dignity, value and respect.” He urged his audience to set aside the daily rough and tumble of partisan warfare to fully register that truth.

Reflecting on her friend’s call for a momentary reprieve from the culture wars, Gallagher told the Register that she needed to hear and respond to his spiritual guidance.

“People enjoy righteous anger on the left as well as the right,” she said. “The thing is: We can’t reach the terrorists, but we can reach each other with our hatred and anger, it seems.”

Gallagher’s gut check marked both the allure of partisan politics and the need for the kind of spiritual grounding and moral clarity that inspires a nation to unite in defense of the common good.

The terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, brought Americans together. But this time, election-year politics have contributed to a striking level of disunity. There have been angry disputes about whether the attack was motivated by Islamic terrorism or “hate.” While opponents of same-sex “marriage” have been accused of bearing some responsibility for the carnage, gun-control advocates have attacked Americans who back gun rights, and political leaders are fighting over proposals to bar Muslim immigrants from resettling in the United States.

In the immediate aftermath of the Orlando attack, many Church leaders sought to direct the public’s energies to prayer and to a clear affirmation of the sanctity of human life. The massacre left Americans shaken and fearful, acknowledged Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who reminded the faithful that Christ would not abandon them.

“Though it appears all too often that our civilization is walking through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil,” stated Cardinal Wuerl. “The Lord is in our midst, and he walks with us (Psalm 23:4).”

The nation’s political leadership also called for a period of prayer and mourning.

“Today, as Americans, we grieve the brutal murder — a horrific massacre — of dozens of innocent people. We pray for their families, who are grasping for answers with broken hearts,” stated President Barack Obama on June 12.


Discordant Views

Yet the day after the mass shooting, Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential candidate, argued that the massacre justified his view that Muslim immigrants should be barred from the U.S. until authorities could confirm that they posed no threat. And advocates of gun control, notably including presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, used the attack to defend their own stance.

Meanwhile, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union blamed the shooting on the “Christian right” and its opposition to same-sex “marriage.”

In many cases, commentators and partisan activists failed to distinguish properly between religious teaching that governs sexual activity while always condemning violence and unjust discrimination, and a homicidal attack on a club frequented by homosexuals, or between Muslims who respect human life and embrace democratic values and those who resort to mass violence, pledging allegiance to Islamic State, as the Orlando attacker reportedly did.

Why has this horrific event already sown so much division and confusion? Robert Royal, the author, most recently, of A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, believes that part of the problem is our lack of experience in dealing with the civilizational threat posed by modern terrorism.

“We have to recognize before all else that this fight against terror is something new in America,” Royal told the Register. “We’ve never had an outside enemy like ISIS that operates primarily through attacks on innocent civilians in public places as a way to instill fear and chaos in our societies.”

Royal said the Church could help ordinary Americans understand that core moral beliefs, beginning with respect for the sanctity of life and solidarity with the vulnerable, “don’t change just because we face a novel threat” such as that posed by Islamist domestic terrorists.

Indeed, as news of the Orlando shooting reached the nation, Church leaders, including Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston highlighted relevant moral and social teachings in statements that condemned the attack.

“The merciful love of Christ calls us to solidarity with the suffering and to ever greater resolve in protecting the life and dignity of every person,” said Archbishop Kurtz.

Cardinal O’Malley warned against the impulse to scapegoat peaceable Muslims.

“[W]e cannot allow ourselves to be defeated by the worst instincts in human nature, by efforts to divide us based on our differences or by an immobilizing fear,” said Cardinal O’Malley on June 14.


Mateen’s Motives

Political and religious leaders echoed his words of caution. But they had little impact on the angry debate over the reasons behind the attack on the nightclub.

Assailant Omar Mateen’s specific choice for a target prompted homosexual-rights activists and their supporters to define the attack as a hate crime motivated by bigotry and fueled by activists like Maggie Gallagher.

"Have Christians Created a Harmful Atmosphere for Gays?" asked the New York Times' opinion page, which solicited a variety of responses to the question.

At the same time, media outlets reported that Mateen had regularly frequented the Orlando nighclub in the past, and so investigators will be pursuing multiple lines of inquiry that might identify secondary or even alternative motives for his killing rampage. 

“Was the mass shooting fueled by homophobia? Was he struggling with his sexuality? Or was he inspired by the Islamic State terror group, like he said in a 911 call during the rampage?” asked a CNN report published three days after the attack.

R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, viewed the tentative treatment of the terror label as a refusal to grapple with the brutal reality of Mateen’s explicit commitment to the Islamic State.

“In a secular world, we have a great desire to give a therapeutic explanation for evil, by linking it to emotions,” Reno told the Register, echoing his reflections in a June 14 article on First Things.

“This is inaccurate. The killer had a political motive, similar to the Marxist-inspired terrorism of groups from an earlier era, like the Red Brigade.”

The attack, he added, “represents this man’s desire to ultimately defeat American power, and to see the world dominated by Islamic forms of governance,” he said, and claimed that some political leaders had trouble accepting that fact.


Other Viewpoints

However, Dominic Longo, the co-director of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, put most of the blame for the attack on gun violence and the persistent problem of bigotry based on race and sexual orientation.

“We have a culture in which possessing powerful weapons is held up as an American value. Yet these weapons are not needed for self-defense,” said Longo.

He also emphasized that Americans should not view Mateen as a “devout Muslim. He was a disaffected man who had trouble with his own love relationships, beat his wife and was trying to sort out his own sexuality.”

Likewise, he argued that the Islamic State’s political ideology has little to do with Islam.

“It is an ideological and political movement” that attracts “disaffected men who are reacting against modernity,” he contended.

Pope Francis and other Church leaders have distinguished between Islam and radical interpretations of the Quran that justify terrorist acts that have shocked the world. The Holy Father has consistently argued that religion never condones violence against innocents.

Now, some Catholic scholars suggest that more should be done to encourage Muslim leaders to challenge the extremist teachings.

“There are conflicting claims of authenticity within Islam,” John Lenczowski, the president of the Washington-based Institute of World Politics, told the Register. “Those Muslims who reject this must have the courage to condemn the killing of innocents as something that is not deserving of heaven, but ultimately deserving of hell.”


‘Vulnerability and Confusion’

The Orlando massacre poses a grave challenge to Muslim communities in the United States. They fear that Islamic State will target their children for recruitment, but they also worry that people of their faith will be held responsible for such attacks.  A Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests that Muslims and other immigrants believe they won’t be able to win the public’s trust.

Indeed, the specter of terrorism, combined with other fast-moving changes in U.S. politics, culture, and the global economy, has left many Americans uneasy, and looking for new leadership and fresh solutions. This unpredictable and polarizing 2016 election year reflects the public's intense anxiety about the state of the nation, yet the political process has offered little time for the kind of calm deliberation that yields moral clarity.

The country's deadliest shooting has taken place during a time of “vulnerability and confusion,” suggested Bradley Lewis, an associate professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America, and the nation’s political class has struggled to meet the challenge.

As Lewis sees it, “the whole of the West has been moving toward the decisive breakdown of what some call the ‘post-war consensus.’ After the Second World War, there was a whole project of development, integration and change that was both economic and political.”

“Values and assumptions went along with that project and animated the politics of all Western countries,” he said.

The current presidential cycle in the United States and Europe’s migrant crisis, which has revived the fortunes of right-wing parties, have put political elites in both sides of the Atlantic on the defensive. And violent Islamic militancy, which not only accentuates fears about migrants but also is often carried out with the expressed goal of destroying an “infidel” and allegedly decadent Western culture, compounds the threat to the status quo.


Credible Moral Leaders

In such a context, Lewis said, Church leaders need to be credible moral leaders to earn the public’s trust.

And while he believes the U.S. bishops should be cautious about weighing in on policy debates where people of goodwill can disagree, he says the Church should use its authority for drawing a clear line when voters are asked to endorse action that violate moral absolutes, especially the prohibition on the killing of non-combatants and the use of torture.

“There are clear lines you don’t cross, no matter how scared you are,” said Lewis. “In that kind of situation, the Church must counsel people to slow down, think things through, and not leap into the dark.

“That is what we need.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.