Jordan Anchondo and her husband, Andre were shopping for school supplies for their five-year-old last Saturday morning at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. They were shot and killed by a gunman who opened fire on the hundreds of people in the store.
The parents used their bodies to shield their two-month-old son, Paul, from the bullets. He survived. At least 20 other people died, many similarly attempting to protect their loved ones.
Less than 14 hours later, some 1,500 miles away, another gunman opened fire in a crowded bar in Dayton, Ohio, killing at least nine others, including his own sister.
In the span of just a few hours, 31 people lost their lives in mass shootings in the US.
In the hours and days that followed, renewed calls for gun law reform came from politicians, citizens and clergy in a country exhausted and seemingly plagued by mass shootings. According to ABC News, at least 17 other deadly mass shootings have occurred in the US so far this year.
“We encourage all Catholics to increased prayer and sacrifice for healing and the end of these shootings,” the US bishops wrote in an August 4 statement.
“We encourage Catholics to pray and raise their voices for needed changes to our national policy and national culture as well.”
“God’s mercy and wisdom compel us to move toward preventative action,” they added. But what kinds of preventative action are permitted, or not permitted, under the teachings of the Church when it comes to gun control and regulations?
CNA spoke with two moral theologians about what principles of Church teaching Catholics should consider when voting or advocating for gun control laws.
The principle of self-defense
Fr. Thomas Petri, OP, a moral theologian and professor at Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies, told CNA that the issue of gun control is one that is not definitively settled in Church teaching, in terms of exactly what practical policies to enact.
“It’s important to say that firearms…are something relatively modern in the life of the Church and the history of the Church. The Church tends to think in terms of centuries and not in years,” he said.
While Church teaching does not explicitly spell out exactly which gun regulations should and should not be enacted, Petri said, the Church does give Catholics some principles to take into account when they are considering or voting on gun control policies.
One of these principles is the principle of self-defense, he said.
“This is part of the Church’s moral teaching, that you have a right to defend your life and to defend the lives of those under your care,” he said, such as one’s family or anyone else one has been entrusted to protect.
“If it ends up being that you, inevitably, must kill an assailant to protect your life or the life of those under your roof, then that is a moral choice you can make. That would be a legitimate choice,” he said.
Dr. Kevin Miller, a moral theologian and assistant professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, told CNA that self-defense falls under the Church’s teachings about the respect for life.
“You are commanded to respect the life of others,” Miller said. “You are also commanded to respect your own life – love your neighbor as yourself. So out of love for your own life, you’re allowed to protect your own life.”
There is an important distinction to be made in intent, both Petri and Miller noted. The Church teaches that one must never intend to kill someone as an end, or as a means to an end.
It is only morally permissible to apply lethal force when someone intending to defend themselves or their family must apply lethal force because it is the only thing deemed reasonable to stop the assailant.
“Out of protection for your own life, if the minimum amount of force that you can reasonably judge in the heat of the moment is such that it is also likely to cause the death of the other person, then you’re allowed to do that,” Miller said.
Paragraph 2264 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow: If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful…. Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.”
A claim that does not seem to be morally or reasonably supported by Church teaching is the supposed right of citizens to protect themselves against their government, Petri said.
“You’ll hear people say, ‘Well, we have a right to bear arms so that the government can’t oppress us.’ Well, that’s a harder thing to swallow, because….as we’ve seen in the last 50 years or so, there is no amount of firearms that a private citizen could collect or gather that would overpower a government invasion of the ATF if they wanted to get into your house. There’s no way to do that in the modern world,” Petri said.
Hunting, on the other hand, would be a valid use of a gun or other lethal force, Petri said, as the Church recognizes man’s “governingship or stewardship over creation,” which includes hunting animals for food. Catholics who do so are also required to maintain a respect for animals in “not forcing animals to suffer in pain extensively,” he added.
The right of states and the common good
Another principle to take into account when considering gun regulations is the rights of states to protect the common good, Miller said.
“The production and the sale of arms affect the common good of nations and of the international community, hence public authorities have the right and duty to regulate them. The short term pursuit of private or collective interests cannot legitimate undertakings that promote violence and undermine the international juridical order,” states paragraph 2316 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
“If the state were to say, ‘you’re never allowed to defend yourself in any way,’ or ‘you’re never allowed even to do anything that might involve using lethal force as self defense,’ that would simply be to take away a basic right, and the state even in the name of the common good would not be allowed to do that, that would be unjust,” Miller told CNA.
However, Miller said it would be fair to conclude that the rights of states to ensure the common good could include gun regulations, including “what kind of guns people can own and under what circumstances people can own them.”
“For the state to say, for example, that widespread access to certain kinds of guns might end up endangering the safety of people more than promoting the safety of people, therefore we’re going to regulate to some degree what kinds of guns can be bought and sold, and under what kind of circumstances they can be bought and sold, I think that would be also absolutely in keeping with what the Church teaches,” Miller said.
Petri added that the state is regularly entrusted to regulate other things that affect the common good, such as who is and is not allowed to own and drive cars, or who is allowed to distribute and obtain certain kinds of medicine.
“The thing is, when you talk about firearms, you’re talking about a larger impact on the common good precisely because guns can be all the more harmful to others and to oneself than, say, simply driving a car,” he said, the primary purpose of which is transportation.
“A car’s normally used for getting around. Not a firearm,” he said.
“A semiautomatic weapon is used for firing a lot of bullets very quickly, and what’s the reason for that? Well, it’s to do maximum damage to multiple targets at one time. So yes, I think Catholic moral principles would dictate that the state does have not only a right but a responsibility to monitor who has such means, and that they’re in good mental condition and are able to use them properly.”
A right to bear arms?
Another important thing to bear in mind when considering gun laws is that the founding fathers of the United States, who wrote the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing the right to bear arms, were largely following the principles of English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, Petri noted.
Lockean principles dictated “that we basically exist as human beings in a state of violence, in a state of nature,” Petri said.
But the Church views human nature differently, he said.
“The Catholic view is that human beings are not inherently violent towards each other. I mean, we are fallen creatures, but when we talk about rights, we’re talking about it in the context of a community of friendship and common goals and a common life together.”
Nowhere in its teachings does the Church state that people have “an inherent natural right to bear arms,” Petri said, even though their legitimate use could fall under the principle of self-defense.
“I think it’s a more than fair interpretation of (the principle of self defense) to say that it might include using guns,” Miller noted.
Catholics who choose to not own or use guns or other weapons are morally permitted to do so, added Petri.
“There are Catholics who are absolute pacifists, (who believe) we shouldn’t get into war, we shouldn’t bear arms,” he said. “I think especially with religious monks or religious sisters – they’re classic pacifists. And we have examples, even in the last few years, especially in the developing world, of them just being killed. I mean, they’re not going to defend themselves. So that is a legitimate position.”
What the Church does not say, Petri added, is that the Church “is absolutely against the possession of firearms. I don’t think you can go that far to the other side, because it’s not a settled question. Possessing firearms is not an intrinsic evil. It’s a prudential matter.”
Owning a firearm is different than if one were to own a nuclear weapon, Petri noted. Weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear weapons, are considered intrinsically evil by the Church, and there would likely not be a circumstance under which a person could legitimately and morally own them.
What should Catholics do?
Given that Church teaching allows for a lot of middle ground between two extreme positions on gun control, Catholics are to use their best prudential judgement when voting on gun policy or electing government officials, Miller said.
“Any Catholic who wants to take this into account when voting has to do what he or she reasonably can to inform him or herself regarding the evidence…on what kinds of gun control measures are or are not helpful in making communities and states safer rather than unsafe places,” he said.
Because there is a “plethora” of sometimes conflicting studies and claims out there, this can prove difficult, Miller admitted, but Catholics must do their best to be “intellectually honest” and to take a serious look at the evidence surrounding gun policy when making these decisions.
“That doesn’t mean people should simply throw up their hands…you have to give it your best shot in figuring out what experts in the field think make sense, and what they don’t think makes sense,” he said.
People should also take into account the different social and cultural circumstances of their region that relate to the use of guns, Miller added.
“I think what you have to do is be honest with yourself,” he said. “Make a kind of mini examination of conscience. Ask yourself, ‘Am I really doing my best not to be an idealogue or partisan about this? Am I really doing my best to try, based on the evidence that I have access to, to figure out what policies do and don’t make sense?’”
Within those prudential decisions, there is room for disagreement, but there should not be room for Catholics to accuse other Catholics of violating Church teaching, Miller added.
“I think if a Catholic in good faith is making every effort to be intellectually honest in his reasoning, and stakes out a position almost anywhere between those extremes (of a total gun ban, or total unregulated access to guns), I don’t think it would be right to say they are somehow taking a position that is explicitly contrary to the teaching of the Church,” he said.
“You have to say, ‘Ok, fair enough. Your prudential judgement might somehow be mistaken, but you’re not somehow violating the teachings of the Church,’” he said.
Petri added that he agrees with other Church leaders, such as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who have said that the solution to the crisis of mass shootings has to go beyond gun regulations or mental health interventions.
In his August 5 column, Chaput wrote that while he supports background checks and restrictions firearms, “only a fool can believe that ‘gun control’ will solve the problem of mass violence.”
“The people using the guns in these loathsome incidents are moral agents with twisted hearts. And the twisting is done by the culture of sexual anarchy, personal excess, political hatreds, intellectual dishonesty, and perverted freedoms that we’ve systematically created over the past half-century,” he said.
“You’ve got to go deeper than that,” Petri said, “and our culture is one that seems to glory in excessive violence, seems to promote excessive violence.”
“It also seems to promote a throwaway culture in which those who are not wanted are not allowed to be born, and those who are a burden are increasingly pressured or encouraged by our culture to go away, which is to say, to get assisted suicide. So when you have a culture that doesn’t seem to value life intrinsically anymore, it should be no surprise that we have these events happening.”
He encouraged Catholics to consider what kinds of entertainment they support with their money, and to consider whether it glorifies violence or a “throwaway” culture.
“It’s just a general cultural attitude. And nothing will change until enough people stop buying tickets or stop paying for these sorts of entertainments.”