The Boston Marathon bombing on April 15th occurred while Washington politicians looked for ways to avoid restricting guns. The twining of events underscores the violence in U.S. society and the impotence of the political system. This tolerance for violence begs for institutional Catholicism to articulate a moral vision condemning the culture of death. But I am not optimistic that will happen any time soon.
Unfortunately, Catholics in America–who claim to follow the Prince of Peace–often mirror the culture at large when it comes to attitudes on violence. “I need a crucifix to save my soul and a handgun to save my ass,” said John M. Snyder, who wears one hat as ex-lobbyist for gun owners and the other as head of the St. Gabriel Possenti Society for Catholics exercising their Second Amendment rights. As with growing numbers of those in Catholic America – both left and right- – Snyder ignores pastoral statements he disagrees with, like the recent support from Bishop Stephen Blaire for the Senate’s gun safety bill. “I do feel a great loyalty to the church and the bishops and it pains me to see them behaving so foolishly,” he stated.
It would be easy to criticize this point of view as “cafeteria Catholicism,” but logic would require a similar judgment on those dissenting from the bishops on issues like same-sex marriage laws. Many in Catholic America do not know the church’s teaching on specific issues, and those who know generally feel free to pick and choose among the ones they like. I don’t know if “malaise” describes this circumstance for the church’s moral authority, but it certainly is one of the problems that Pope Francis I will have to address.
It is a papal matter, too, since the USCCB has trapped itself inside the Catch-22 syndrome of the Fortnight for Freedom. As I have described in this column, once the bishops started to work to rally Catholics before the 2012 election against President Obama’s health insurance reforms, they set a standard. The same amounts of money, mandated letters read in pulpits, Masses celebrated by cardinals and tee-shirts printed with slogans must be used for any new campaign to illustrate the importance of a public issue. In other words, if the bishops do not mount the same effort as they did in Fortnight for Freedom when it comes to immigration reform, gun safety, protection of social service funding, etc., they can be considered not to care as much for these other issues as they do about contraception being covered by health insurance.
Worse yet is how the bishops have linked the HHS mandate controversy to the constitutional right to practice (all) religion. It is if they did not know there are Catholic gun advocates and right-to-life extremists who espouse violence with the same reasoning as the right wing militias training to revolt against Obama’s “tyranny.” Comparing U.S. Catholicism today to last century’s Mexican Cristeros is dangerous when you remember that one of the Cristeros murdered President Álvaro Obregón in 1928, claiming that defending the faith legitimized the assassination. When a prelate compares Obama to Hitler – and goes uncensored by fellow bishops – all the episcopate has agreed that the U.S. president is a tyrant, since legal principle holds “Qui tacuit consentire” [Silence is agreement].
I am sure that the USCCB is against guns or bombs being used to kill or maim, even when the cause is our faith. But by using so many resources in the Fortnight for Freedom and not on other issues, the bishops have taken sides. Their relentless attacks on the Obama administration open the door to misinterpretation by those on the fringe who would resort to violence in the name of religion. What defense will Catholics have if– God forbid!– one day a bomb goes off and the perpetrators claim to be acting in obedience to the bishops’ denunciation of President Obama for enforcing laws “shameful and criminal in the eyes of Almighty God”?
I think Pope Francis has begun the shift in leadership style away from polarizing confrontation and towards inspirational example from bishops. A future pastoral effort at the grass roots that includes the passage “…learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart,” (Mt. 11:29) would be an excellent way to retract the recent resistance rhetoric.