USCCB SpokesSister Does Catholic Social Teaching a Disservice.

It’s this sort of inaccurate, irresponsible dreck that makes it difficult to promote “the Catholic position” in politics and to trust the spokesbureaucrats at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to lead well.

I would love to be able to just know that when the USCCB took a position and the bureaucrats promoted it they were responsibly and accurately communicating Catholic social teaching. Alas, no.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the director of Media Relations for the USCCB wrote a guest piece for the Washington Post promoting a letter by Bishop Blaire, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, in which he supports the gun control bill in the Senate. I’ll take issue with the content of His Excellency’s letter in another post, but for now let’s look at Sister Walsh’s maddening presentation of it.

Her opening:

Some things seem naturally abhorrent – forceps to crush a cranium in an abortion, a needle to deliver a sentence intravenously on death row, and an assault weapon in the hands of the man on the street. Each instrument may have a purpose some time, somewhere, but as used above, each reflects brutality in our society.

So forceps used in an abortion are equal to a needle used in the death penalty are equal to an “assault weapon” some random guy on the street is holding, whether or not he is using it. She tries to qualify this opener, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but let’s take a longer look at this trio first since she decided to start this way.

This is moral equivalency. And it is irresponsible and scandalous. If we want to be taken seriously and have a true Catholic impact on society we need to start by taking our own beliefs seriously and presenting them accurately and fairly. Sister Walsh did not do that here.

Abortion is always a gross violation of the dignity of every human life (CCC 2270-5). The death penalty is not (CCC 2267). Add all the caveats you want about whether it can be justifiable in today’s United States, the fact is it is not on the same level as abortion. Individuals, including those in government, can legitimately differ on the death penalty. Their decision according to their conscience is ultimately between themselves and God. That option is not available for abortion—abortion is always gravely immoral. That’s a huge difference.

But then there’s the guy on the street she talks about with an “assault weapon” in his hands … By her characterization there is no moral content to his actions, so I’m not clear at all how the mere presence of that weapon in that circumstance either  “seems naturally abhorrent” or “reflects a brutality.”

Perhaps he is gunning down a school full of children. The slaughter of a school full of children is naturally abhorrent and brutal, whether it’s with an “assault weapon” or a fertilizer bomb.

But perhaps he is defending a school full of children from someone who is driving toward the school with a fertilizer bomb. Seems the use of a weapon sufficiently powered to stop the would-be bomber, far from being “naturally abhorrent” or “brutality,” is laudable and would earn him plaudits—not to mention it is entirely consistent with Catholic teaching, (CCC 2263-7). Or, perhaps he’s merely carrying it on his way to go shoot target practice, simply because he likes to put holes in paper with accuracy. No discernable moral content there at all, and I cannot fathom how it is “naturally abhorrent” or “brutality.”

Now. After starting with that frustrating moral equivalency, Sister Walsh offers this paragraph as some sort of clarification:

The Catholic Church opposes use of all three instruments to take a life. The church’s pro-life stand against abortion is undisputed. So is its pro-life stand in opposition to the death penalty. It can only be justified if there is no other way to keep a deadly criminal from hurting more people. And in the most recent – and all too common – threat to human life, the church opposes the growing preponderance of lethal weapons on the streets. It stands as another important pro-life position.

Clears things up, right? I don’t think so.

First, the Church only opposes the use of all three instruments to take a life if the taking of the life is unjustified. If taking a life is justified in self defense or within a just war, any weapon will do. Forceps can legitimately be used in self defense or defense of others (though if that’s your last weapon you’re probably in trouble), as can a needle or an “assault weapon.”

That said, there is another significant problem with this attempt at clarification. She once again rhetorically ignores the difference between the Church’s opposition to abortion and our opposition to the unconscientious use of the death penalty. In the second and third sentences there she rhetorically equates our opposition to abortion and the death penalty. Therefore, when she offers the “it can only be justified…” in the fourth sentence to qualify the certainty of opposition to the death penalty, it has the rhetorical effect of allowing qualifications to the opposition to abortion. In other words, if there are caveats with the opposition to the death penalty, since she has heretofore treated the death penalty and abortion as the same, then it is reasonable to assume there could be caveats to abortion. Or at least someone looking for an out on abortion can rationalize one based on her irresponsible presentation.

Then the final two sentences bring us into the actual purpose of her article: pushing the USCCB’s support for some of the current gun control measures.

Her third paragraph:

The injustice of taking innocent life lies at the heart of the church’s pro-life position. There is no question about the innocence of pre-born children. And Americans are becoming more and more uneasy as we learn of people on death row eventually found innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. And surely, after the gunning down of primary grade children in Newtown, Connecticut, it is clear assault weapons stand out dramatically as a threat to innocent life.

Yes: ban abortion in toto, and work to reduce the instances of the death penalty as much as prudentially possible to both protect society and respect the dignity of the criminal’s life.

But the third point she makes is not so “surely” self-evident. For one, more people are murdered with handguns and with knives every year than with what she terms “assault weapons.” Why no outcry to ban handguns and knives?

Second, the kids in Newtown were slaughtered by a (1) mentally unstable man, who had been (2) bullied mercilessly as a youth, (3) spent hundreds of hours immersing himself in military-style first-person-shooter video games, (4) had a mind-numbingly irresponsible mother when it came to weapons, and (5) had apparently just has his hopes and dreams dashed of becoming a U.S. Marine, rejected by the recruiters because of his mental disability.

Had he not had the Bushmaster AR-15 available to him, methinks he would have found another way.

And yet, the big national discussion is about “assault weapons” and background checks rather than mental health, bullying, violent video games, and responsible gun ownership (which is, incidentally, the kind of gun ownership practiced by the vast majority of legal gun owners).

The USCCB, in this case Bishop Blaire, and following on him Sister Walsh, have just piled on. It’s the sticky part about the Church opining on matters where a clear-cut teaching is not at stake: There is great room for bad thinking, and policies that sound nice but cannot have the desired effect.

Folks, we tried banning “assault weapons” in the past. It did not work to reduce crime. In fact, once the ban expired, gun crimes actually went down. The disposition to break laws and kill people is the problem, not the instrument a very few people choose to do so.


P.S. The reason I keep putting “assault weapons” in quotation marks is because it is a made-up term with no clear or firm meaning. Rifles that are identical in every way except one small cosmetic difference that does not affect functionality will be treated differently by these laws, thus rendering the laws essentially moot. For instance, the recent disastrous New York ban had this effect:


  • Tom

    Your article is reactionary and clouded by your political agenda. A forceps, a needle and an assault weapon are all abhorent when used to take life. I cannot imagine how you can say she equates them because any Catholic with a degree of common sense could be appalled at abortion, assault weapons and capital punishment while admitting they are not equivalent. Still, all are abhorent. I am appalled by all violence, and as a Catholic am committed to working against it. THAT is what the Seamless garment is all about. Take your politics and remove them from your faith, because your faith calls you to uphold the dignity of ALL human beings, the ones that are innocent and the ones that are guilty. Throw your weight behind Abortion if that is what moves you, but don’t knock those who chose different battles that may not be as cut and dried for us as Abortion, but that are important nonetheless.

  • Joseph

    Sr. Walsh’s letter sounds like a revival of the abhorrent “seamless garment” promoted by the late Cardinal Bernardin during the 1980s, which, among other things, equated capital punishment and cutting spending for social programs with abortion. As a result, there was no strong, clear voice in the U.S. against the proliferation of abortion. Last year the bishops showed promise with their strong voice against the Obama-Sebelius HHS mandate. I hope they don’t get sidetracked again with issues that are doctrinally debatable while the social ills that are unambiguously wrong or evil continue unabated and carry us further down the slippery slope into a moral abyss.


    Hi Tom,
    Sister Mary Ann has gotten me upset too with some of the stuff she writes about gay marriage, however, she’s a nun and this many years later they still intimidate me.
    I look forward to your post on Bishop Blair’s letter. For now let me comment on the concept of assault rifles. The StG 44 (Sturmgewehr 44, literally “storm (or assault) rifle (model of 1944) was the first assault Rifle. It differed from the “battle rifles” common to the era (Mauser 98K, Enfield, US Springfield, and the magnificent M-1 Garand.) in that it was lighter shorter, fired a “Kurtz” or short round had a pistol grip and a high capacity detachable magazine. The AK-47, and ultimately own M-16 followed the basic concept. I would argue that the concept is relatively easy to define and that these features are not cosmetic.
    The pic of the Benelli MR 1 is interesting. I believe it would have been legal under the expired Assault Weapons Law because it had only one defined feature, the pistol grip, as long as it was attached to a moderate capacity magazine.
    I would personally not include pistol grip alone as prohibited feature in any legislation in that their advantage of firing from the hip is minimal and the gun makers can get around any ban by a piece going back to the stock and calling it a “thumbhole stock.”
    I’ll read Bp. Blair’s letter now.

    Pax tecum and best regards,


    • Tom Crowe

      Greg— I never had nuns or sisters as teachers though I went to Catholic grade school, K through 8. The last nun left the school the year before me. So I have no such intimidation, and considering the nature of my Catholic upbringing I’m not much intimidated by any clerics or religious. (Which does not, of course, mean I don’t respect them or their vows or positions and vocations.) Thanks for the info on actual “assault weapons.” I suppose I should have clarified that “as far as U.S. law has been concerned” the term “assault rifle” has basically meant “that scary looking thing that fires bullets that I don’t like.” I haven’t started the response to +Blair’s letter, but it will probably include the amorphous meaning of the term “assault weapon” in U.S. law, the ineffectiveness of such bans at actually reducing crime, the lack of outcry against other weapons—like handguns, knives, and even hammers—that are used in far more killings than AR-15s and the like, and the lack of focus on the other conditions that have contributed to recent killings involving guns—mental health problems, violent music, movies, and video games—and, yes, a bit on what might be responsible background checks or other measures that can reasonably be legislated to prevent another Adam Lanza getting such an arsenal at his disposal. God bless, Tom



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