The gun-control debate: A Catholic block
THE most delicious moments in political discourse come when your opponents are tied up in fits of discord. Lefties love to see Ted Olson, the grumpy architect of George W. Bush’s legal victory in 2000, thumb his nose at conservatives and argue the case in favour of same-sex marriage. Righties are delighted when Democrats distance themselves from Barack Obama or call him out as “cocky”. So it is no surprise that Democrats are cheering this open letter from 64 Catholic theologians urging “fellow Catholics in Congress” to support gun-control legislation:
All Americans share responsibility for public safety. This requires reasonable measures to regulate the sale and use of lethal weapons. As faithful citizens—Catholic theologians, priests, sisters and social justice advocates—we join our bishops, the Catholic Health Association and Catholic Charities USA in calling for common-sense reforms to address the epidemic of gun violence in our nation. 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. 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.
The rhetoric is custom-made for partisan schadenfreude: Catholics berating Catholics for selective application of “the pro-life stance”, a central tenet of their faith. The letter does not mince words. Nor does it hesitate to name names:
We especially encourage our fellow Catholics in Congress, including prominent leaders such as House Speaker John Boehner, to stand up to the National Rifle Association and other gun lobbyists who choose to obstruct sensible reforms. Catholics who earn an “A” rating from the NRA—including Republicans like Speaker Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan and Democratic lawmakers such as Sen. Joe Donnelly and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp—should not put powerful special interests before the common good. We urge you to reflect on the wisdom in our church’s call for a “consistent ethic of life” as you consider legislation in the coming months that can provide greater protection for our families and communities.
John Boehner and other Catholic legislators may appear to be hypocrites when they condemn the abortion of fetuses while opposing gun-control legislation aimed at preventing horrors like the massacre of schoolchildren and teachers in Newtown. If the sacredness of life does not expire when the baby is delivered, and if an aspiration to consistency and a willingness to entertain revisions to one’s positions is at the heart of what it means to be reasonable, it may seem callous to carry a banner for life while failing to take action to preserve people’s lives.
Despite first appearances, the critique is intellectually hollow. There are cogent arguments for gun-control measures like banning assault weapons and limiting the size of magazines, but Catholic doctrine just has no purchase here. Say what you will about the wisdom of their positions, but Mr Boehner and his brethren are not advocates of mass murder. Ramesh Ponnuru explains how this nullifies the central argument of the letter:
The view that the slaying of an unborn child in abortion should be legal is in no way parallel to the view that a class of weapons should be legal. It is parallel to the view that killing people with one of those weapons should be legal. And nobody is for that.
Exactly. Catholics can call out members of their flock for supporting capital punishment, where the state actually puts people to death, without falling into fallacy. But the gun-control debate takes place largely on the level of expected outcomes, not principle, even if ridiculous warnings of weapons restrictions as a precursor to government-sponsored genocide fuel the cause of second-amendment fundamentalists, and even if Wayne LaPierre paints gun rights as "God-given freedoms" that "no government can ever take away". All this rhetoric to one side, no one in the NRA camp argues that the right to bear arms is so sweeping and so sacred that the cost of a few dozen or a few thousand lives is the unfortunate price of liberty. The guns debate is thus fundamentally different from disputes over the permissible range of freedom of speech, where ugly, offensive, ludicrous expression is seen as the cost we must bear to preserve a foundational freedom.
Catholic politicians who oppose the assault weapons ban put forward by Dianne Feinstein and similar measures do not believe their position will cost American lives. They contend, rightly or wrongly, that these regulations will have no effect on the level of gun violence and thus restrict autonomy unnecessarily. If they’re sincere in this belief—and not fooling themselves about the social cost of semi-automatic weapons—the anti-regulation position is in no sense a breach of Catholic teachings. On this question, at least, everybody is pro-life.