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:


  • ANNE

    Whenever any Bishop or Bishops’ conferences make public statements that are not in full conformance with the ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition’ – – – we each must publically correct their errors by quoting the CCC accurately in the appropriate PUBLIC media.
    For those who may need further info – on the internet go to: “What Catholics REALLY Believe SOURCE”.
    We must not let deceptions stand.

  • Bill Kells

    The Church is NOT to be involved in politics unless the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of souls requires it.
    The means and the ONLY means, the Church may use are those which are in accord with the Gospel and the welfare of ALL men according to the diversity of times and circumstances.
    The Church respects and encourages the political responsibility of the citizen. (CCC 2245 & 2246)
    Get the USCCB and Bishops out of politics, and back to teaching the Faith and evangelizing according to the truths in the “Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition” – which all Catholics are required to adhere to.
    When Bishop’s conferences do not adhere in their public statements 100% according to the CCC – they make themselves irrelevant in the public square, cause scandal, and make evangelization more difficult.

  • Bill Kells

    There is NO Catholic Church teaching on any kind of “gun control” or gun ownership.
    If you do not believe me, ask anyone to prove it, by pointing to the correct paragraph in the “CATECHISM of the CATHOLIC CHURCH, Second Edition”.
    However there is Church teaching on the goodness of self defense. (CCC 2263 – 2267).
    **** “.…. the Catechism has raised throughout the world, even among non-Christians, and confirms its purpose of being presented as a full, complete exposition of Catholic doctrine, enabling everyone to know what the Church professes, celebrates, lives, and prays in her daily life.” – Pope John Paul II (CCC pg xiv) ****
    When the USCCB or their Staff, any State Bishop’s Conference, or any individual Bishop is dishonest regarding the Faith or promotes their own political point of view using their “Catholic” title – they teach falsehoods.

  • Luis

    Tom, agree with most parts in this article, but I think you might be taking the wrong angle and misunderstanding of Church teaching in one particular issue. Where does the Church state that it is legitimate for a citizen to have the authority to kill someone in self-defense? Because St. Thomas Aquinas didn’t think so.

    • Tom Crowe

      Luis— Check out the paragraphs of the Catechism that I referenced: 2263-7. The link is in the post where I mention defending the school from a would-be fertilizer bomber. And if you follow the footnote you’ll see that they actually quote Aquinas when explaining that killing in self-defense is legit.

      • Luis

        Intentionality is very important here. And using a gun on someone (specially in your example) has intentional killing affects. Which is not legitimate. I think we are on the wrong side of the rhetoric here. If we would have been defending gun ownership for the sake of the defense against a potential illegitimate Government (which is the true intention of the 2nd Amendment), we would be in a much stronger position to defend against these emotional based arguments.

        • Tom Crowe

          Luis— Intention is very important, indeed, but I still think you’re missing the point. It is double effect. If the person defending the school has no other means to stop the person blowing up the school then the intention of using the gun is to protect the school. The other effect of the action with the gun is the death of the would-be bomber. Killing the bomber was neither the primary intention nor sought for its own sake. My commentary in this post is not the purpose of the Second Amendment but the scandalous moral presentation of Sister Walsh.

          • Luis

            How is shooting someone not intentional? Double effect cannot be manipulated with mental substitution.

          • Tom Crowe

            Luis— This is not manipulation, it is Catholic morality. If your intention is to protect a school full of children and the only means available is lethal force then your intention of protecting the children makes lethal force entirely appropriate. I did not substitute anything, I recognized the double effect of protecting the school (primary, desired effect) and killing the person (secondary, undesired, but necessary effect). That is what the Catechism and Aquinas affirm in those paragraphs.

  • Antonio A. Badilla

    Tom, it is not the first time the USCCB has made quite a blunder in expressing official Catholic teaching, and, unfortunately, this might not be the last time they do this. I’m glad you bring this issue to all of us to read, but the damage has been done and many people reading Sister’s arguments will not make any difference between the taking of an innocent human life in the womb and the death penalty.

  • Mary Ellen Yannitelli

    If the USCCB were smart they should hire you as the Director of Media Relations!

    • Tom Crowe

      I don’t think they’d have me!



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