Does Catholic Faith Dictate a Position on Gun Control?

The U.S. bishops back President Obama’s call for restrictions on civilian access to assault weapons, but others stress that the Church supports the right of self-defense.

(photo: Photo illustration Shutterstock/Vladimir Melnik)

STRATFORD, Conn. — Many in the congregation applauded when Father Tom Lynch completed his Sunday homily in which he said that all semi-automatic rifles, commonly described as assault weapons, should be banned and that the Second Amendment is not divinely inspired.

“Enough is enough. We want these semi-automatics, these weapons of mass destruction, taken off the streets of our country,” Father Lynch, pastor of St. James Church in Stratford, Conn., told the Register a few days after his Dec. 6 homily, which was recorded and posted on YouTube.

Father Lynch’s position aligns with many Catholic bishops, moral theologians and ethicists who argue that the availability of high-powered semi-automatic firearms like the AR-15 are undermining public safety and the common good and eroding social trust in communities with every mass shooting.

The Dec. 2 shooting spree in San Bernardino, Calif., where 14 people were killed and 22 others wounded, underscored those concerns. The FBI is investigating the incident as a terrorist attack, given evidence that the two suspects — Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik — were radicalized Muslims who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist group.The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Enrique Marquez, the friend of one of the San Bernardino shooters, would face federal criminal gun charges. Marquez allegedly purchased the rifles used in the spree.

In a Dec. 6 address from the Oval Office, President Barack Obama said his administration is attacking ISIS and terrorism, but he also called on Congress to take immediate action to regulate guns, such as preventing suspected terrorists on no-fly lists from purchasing firearms.

“We also need to make it harder for people to buy assault weapons like the ones that were used in San Bernardino,” Obama said.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops supported the 1994 federal assault-weapons ban, which expired in 2004, and the bishops testified in favor of banning those type of weapons again after the Dec. 14, 2012, massacre at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Conn., where a 20-year-old gunman armed with a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle and a .22-caliber Savage Mark II rifle killed 26 people, most of them young children.

“The bishops listed that as one of their priorities, from the perspective that, prudentially, these forms of weapons are not something civilians should have. It’s a prudential judgment that, generally, the bishops have not been supportive of civilian use of assault weapons. That position has not changed,” said Anthony Granado, a policy adviser for the USCCB’s Office of Domestic Social Development.

Granado also told the Register that the constitutional right to bear arms under the Second Amendment is not absolute.

“For the common good, the promotion of human life, there is a right and a moral duty on the part of the public authorities to regulate these things,” said Granado, who indirectly quoted  the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2316), which also says that regulating the production and sales of arms are necessary because they affect the common good of nations and of the international community.


Opposing Perspective

However, the reality of modern terrorism and the unlikelihood that law enforcement can stop every single attack also highlights the legitimate need for self-defense that Catholic teaching allows. Many Catholics point to that principle when arguing that civilians should be able to own semi-automatic weapons to defend themselves and their communities.

“You need to have guns to stop mass carnage,” said John Snyder, founder of the St. Gabriel Possenti Society, an organization named after the patron saint of handgunners that defends private gun-ownership rights.

Snyder told the Register that he believes the bishops and others who want to ban or limit so-called assault rifles are “just plain off the wall.”

“On one hand, we have the Catholic Church taking a leadership position on defending the right to life around the world. But then on the other hand, they’re telling law-abiding people that they can’t get the guns they need to defend their lives with. They’re being plain hypocritical,” he said.


The Catholic Moral Tradition

But other observers insist the bishops’ position, with respect to assault weapons, has broad Catholic support.

“Most Catholics, I think, would say that even if we don’t want to repeal the Second Amendment, we still want regulations, like we do with driver’s licenses, especially for weapons that can be dangerous,” said Tobias Winright, a moral theologian at St. Louis University.

Winright, a former police officer, told the Register that the Second Amendment may protect the right to own a handgun, but not a tank or a cannon.

“You shouldn’t be able to purchase a grenade launcher,” said Winright, who argues that the Catholic moral tradition presupposes that police, military and the governing authorities are the entities that are charged with the responsibility to defend society. The Catechism (2265) says those “who legitimately hold authority” have the right to use arms to repeal aggressors against the civil community.

“American Catholics have more of an individualistic view, as opposed to a Catholic common-good view, which encompasses individual rights but also includes the duties we have toward the common good of society,” Winright said.


Bishops’ Statements

Over the last few decades, the bishops have issued several statements favoring strong gun-control measures and have even envisioned a society where gun ownership is eliminated, with exceptions for police and military. The bishops hoped for the “eventual elimination” of guns from American society in the 1990 USCCB document “New Slavery, New Freedom: A Pastoral Message on Substance Abuse.”

More recently, Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich, in an Oct. 9 op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, called for Catholics and others to “band together” and demand gun-control legislation in Congress. He argued that the Second Amendment had been “perverted” by the gun industry and its desire for profit.

“Let’s be honest,” the archbishop wrote. “The Second Amendment was passed in an era when organized police forces were few and citizen militias were useful in maintaining the peace. Its original authors could not have anticipated a time when the weapons we have a right to bear now include military-grade assault weapons that have turned our streets into battlefields.”

Maureen O’Connell, the chairwoman for the Department of Religion at LaSalle University, told the Register that gun-related violence is undermining public safety and social trust.

“An armed citizenry undermines the role of the state being responsible for public safety,” O’Connell said. “When we have a lack of public safety, that erodes a sense of security, something that we provide to each other by virtue of being in right relationship with another and having meaningful relationships with one another in our communities.”

Said O’Connell, “Gun violence is eroding that: the trust we have in our neighbors and the trust we have in the people we work with and worship with.”


The Right of Self-Defense

Even as the bishops call for the elimination of handguns from society and the Catholic moral tradition stresses the common good over American notions of individualism, the fact is that the Church also holds up the right to self-defense and the defense of innocent life.

“We’re not pacifists. We never have been,” said Father Ron Floyd, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., who is a gun owner and has been shooting firearms since he was younger.

Father Floyd told the Register that semi-automatic rifles such as the AR-15 can be used for legitimate self-defense purposes.

“We give [AR-15s] to police for their self-defense and for the defense of the community,” Father Floyd said. “Do individuals have that right to self-defense? The Catechism says they do. Why would these weapons be something the police need for self-defense but not individuals?”

The Catechism does not directly address private gun ownership, but it does affirm (in 2264) that people have the right to defend themselves, even including deadly force, if necessary. In  2265, the Catechism also says that legitimate defense is not only a right, but “a grave duty,” for someone who is responsible for another’s life.

“There are reasons people need weapons to defend themselves,” said Father Floyd, who noted that the populace in Rwanda was mostly unarmed during the 1994 genocide, where an estimated 1 million people were killed. Perpetrators included members of the military, the national police and government-backed militias.

“The police and military stood by while the massacre happened, and defenseless people were killed,” Father Floyd said. “Why do people need guns? Probably for that reason.”

Chris Pereira, a military veteran in Dartmouth, Mass., who serves as the grand knight of his local Knights of Columbus council, told the Register that no amount of gun laws will stop violent criminals and jihadists from looking to kill people.

“You can tell an ISIS member, a terrorist, a criminal that guns are illegal, but they don’t care. It doesn’t matter to them. The only thing those laws are going to do is restrict law-abiding citizens from carrying weapons. You’re only going to hurt law-abiding citizens in the end,” said Pereira, who also criticized Obama’s Dec. 6 speech.

“It was a typical address for him,” Pereira said. “He creates a straw-man argument. It’s unfortunate that, after every tragedy, he’s not addressing the heart of the issue. He continues to go after the bogeyman: guns and people who have guns.”


Hunters Affected

Federal attempts to ban or limit semi-automatic firearms could also impact hunters and sportsmen in several states who use those rifles for legitimate hunting purposes.

“The semi-automatic firearms are used very frequently by millions of people for various worthy activities, for hunting and for self-defense,” said Snyder of the St. Gabriel Possenti Society.

Said Snyder, “People don't realize that it's more just, more equitable, more humanitarian to be able to have a semi-auto firearm when hunting. If someone fires a round at an animal and wounds it but doesn't kill, it is necessary sometimes to fire a second and third round immediately so it doesn’t suffer. That's an advantage of semi-automatic firearms.”

Father Floyd, who hunts and engages in sport shooting, said self-defense is the philosophical reason for his defense of the availability of semi-automatic rifles. Father Floyd said people have the right to self-defense and the common arms of the day.

Father Floyd added: “Those who seek to ban weapons have used this sort of argument to divide and conquer. First, they come for the big, bad guns; then they come for all semi-automatic; then all rifles; then all pistols; and, finally, shotguns. The pattern has repeated itself in a dozen other countries and even several states, ironically including California, where the weapons used in San Bernardino were already illegal.”


No Congressional Action Expected

Despite the president’s rhetoric, observers do not expect Congress to take any immediate action on the gun-control issue. The day after the San Bernardino shooting, the U.S. Senate voted down two weapons proposals from Democrats that would have prevented people on no-fly lists from buying guns and would have expanded federal background checks to include firearms purchased online or at gun shows.

“We don’t anticipate any form of meaningful legislation moving anytime soon,” said the USCCB’s Granado, who added that most of the gun-related legislative activity is happening at the state level. Connecticut plans to prohibit local gun sales to people on no-fly lists, while Washington state last year passed a law requiring universal criminal background checks on all firearm sales.

“I don’t think we have the courage in our country, in our Congress, to change this,” said Father Lynch, who told parishioners during his Dec. 6 homily that the nation’s gun violence and its coarsening culture are leaving many people, especially the young, with a sense of despair and mistrust.

Said Father Lynch, “We’re killing the young, not only with bullets, but in not allowing them to have hope.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.