For decades the city government of Washington, D.C., banned handguns among its citizens. Permits were given for special cases but, by and large, these lethal weapons were not to be in the possession of residents in a city that, tragically, has vied with other metropolitan areas to be the “murder capital of the U.S.” So the recent decision of the Supreme Court repealing the District’s handgun ban deserves our attention.
All of the majority votes in the Supreme Court’s verdict came from the five Catholic justices on the court: John Roberts Jr., Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito Jr. This highlights the irony that Catholic social teaching—which provides modern Catholics and others of good will with resources to apply biblical wisdom to many of the common problems facing us in 21st century life, including violence, arms production, and weapons proliferation—has remained the Catholic Church’s “best-kept secret.”
The facts of the court case are straightforward. Security guard Dick Anthony Heller, who had a permit to carry a gun when on duty, challenged the D.C. law, seeking permission to have a weapon in his home. The District Court threw out Heller’s case, but the D.C. Circuit Court reversed the lower court’s decision, and on June 26, in a 5-to-4 vote, the Supreme Court upheld that reversal.
Justice Scalia, writing the majority opinion in the case, ignored one Second Amendment clause—“A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state”—in favor of a literalistic application of the other clause—“the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” (For the record, Heller had no stated intention of joining a “well-regulated militia.”) Scalia’s logic, which struck some observers as fundamentalism at its worst, contradicted not only D.C. law but overwhelming local public opinion as well.
IN CONTRAST, Catholic social teaching, one of whose pillars is the life and dignity of the human person, encompasses the duty of nations to protect the right to life by finding increasingly effective ways to prevent conflicts and resolve them by peaceful means. When the assault weapons ban expired in 2004, the U.S. Catholic bishops repeated their 2000 statement, “we support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer,” going on to add, “we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns.” Pope John Paul II also addressed the subject of light weapons when he wrote in 1999, “governments must adopt appropriate measures for controlling the production, sale, and importation of these instruments of death.”
Yet Catholic social teaching’s impressive body of work done over the past 117 years—work that includes teaching on virtually every modern social issue, from human rights to poverty to ecology to war and peace—has somehow escaped the notice of most people, even within the church. It has not been read, taught, or preached to any significant extent in the church’s extensive network of schools and parishes. In fact, a graduate of a prominent Catholic university told me that she never heard Catholic social teaching mentioned in her four years there—despite taking a minor in religion!
One would think that well-informed Catholics might have made it their business to understand the broad contours of their church’s teaching on such issues. Surely they would know that one of the pillars of that teaching is peace and nonviolence at every level of society.
Without blurring church-state separation, or in any way advocating the imposition of a Catholic policy or practice on American life, we should be able to expect that those who avow allegiance to a particular religious tradition would reflect on what their religion has to say about issues affecting the common good.
As the legal way is opened for handguns to be brought into an already violent city like Washington, what a pity it is that Catholics—and others in public life—have seemingly failed to make use of this gift from their religious tradition.
Joe Nangle, OFM, a former Sojourners columnist, is associate pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace parish in Northern Virginia. His most recent book is Engaged Spirituality: Faith Life in the Heart of the Empire (Orbis).