Sunday, January 23, 2011

Catholics and Guns

There's an article published by U.S. Catholic that's been getting a lot of press recently. Entitled "Gun control: Church firmly, quietly opposes firearms for civilians," this article quotes from the November 2000 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops document "Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice". The implications of the U.S. Catholic article have raised questions among some Catholic gun owners and others.
"As bishops, we support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer -- especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or anyone other than the owner -- and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns."

That's followed by a footnote that states: "However, we believe that in the long run and with few exceptions -- i.e. police officers, military use -- handguns should be eliminated from our society."

That in turn reiterates a line in the bishops' 1990 pastoral statement on substance abuse, which called "for effective and courageous action to control handguns, leading to their eventual elimination from our society."

That has led many in the press to make the claim that faithful Catholics may not own guns, or that it may be sinful to do so. A respected gun rights writer tries to make hay by framing this as a Catholic teaching. Even some whom we would expect to use more care have erroneously implied that this view marks the "Catholic Church's position on gun control".

However, this interpretation is incorrect. The Bishops' statement on eliminating firearms from society IS NOT part of Catholic doctrine. In fact, the USCCB has no authority to dictate what is, or is not, part of the magisterial teaching on morality. Simply put, they cannot make doctrine. What this statement refers to is a social norm that the Bishops would like to see come to pass in a perfect world. Wouldn't we all? In a perfect society one would not need guns. However, any hope for that was lost when man was thrown out of the Garden of Eden.

The Church supports the right of self defense for all people. The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly addresses this issue.

"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." (CCC 2264).

This actually meshes quite well with secular regulations on self defense. A person is obligated legally use only the force necessary, up to and including lethal force, to stop an attack when one is at risk of imminent serious injury or death. The Catechism also remarks on the defense of others.

"Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility." (CCC 2265)

As a parent, I hold legitimately authority over those whom God has trusted to my care. It is my "grave duty" to protect them from harm.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes no mention of the morality of gun ownership. Certainly it covers the use of deadly force, but the Church has no official teaching on the tools employed in legitimate defense. Despite the twisting of words, and misunderstanding of these documents, faithful Catholics are not obligated to give up their personal firearms in order to remain in good moral standing with the Church.

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