Lobbyists for Catholic bishops across the U.S. told The Pillar Wednesday that working for effective policy solutions amid a wave of mass shootings isn’t easy, and that trying to address a complicated and often divisive set of policy issues involves both practicality and prophetic Christian witness.
The murder of 19 children at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas was the latest in a string of shootings this month, which also includes the racially-motivated murder of 10 black people in a Buffalo, New York grocery store, and an anti-Taiwanese attack at a California church that left one person dead and 8 injured.
The shootings have led to an outpouring of grief from victims’ families, and an at times unseemly partisan political debate about how to address the problem of gun violence and stop the pattern of mass casualty events.
The U.S. bishops have for years advocated for stronger gun control laws, while stressing that such policies are only part of the broad response needed to address societal violence and a culture of death.
Despite their advocacy, bishops and Catholic agencies are often accused of speaking with less conviction on gun violence, and on attendant issues like mental illness and racism, than on abortion and religious liberty. State Catholic conference leaders told The Pillar that while the Church’s policy engagement is necessarily more complex than on abortion, it is not lacking in urgency.
And some said that to address the endemic partisanship in conversations about guns, the Church is applying lessons from the abortion debate.
No simple answer
“The reason that the Church is often seen as less vocal on gun issues is that, unlike abortion for instance, there is not a consensus on the solution,” Jamie Morris, legislative counsel for the Missouri Catholic Conference, told The Pillar on Wednesday.
“While everyone can agree that something must be done, there can feel like there is a certain helplessness in crafting a solution.”
“The type of violence we have seen in recent weeks is a reflection of a culture that does not value life. But you cannot pass one specific piece of legislation to ‘fix’ gun violence, which again, is why I think the Church is viewed as less passionate about the issue,” Morris said.
Dennis Poust, executive director of the New York Catholic Conference, agreed.
Poust told The Pillar that addressing shootings like those in Texas and Buffalo requires acknowledging both the possibilities and limits offered by a policy response.
“Unfortunately there's no one simple answer to this problem that just seems to be getting worse and worse,” Poust said. “You can't legislate away, for example, racism, which was the motivation in Buffalo, you can't legislate away mental illness, or whatever proves to be at the root of this awful incident in Texas.”
“There is a crisis and, post COVID, it seems to be worse than ever. There's a mental health crisis in this country, I think particularly among younger people,” said Poust. “Right now in New York, we're still grappling, in the wake of Buffalo and now the Texas tragedy on top of that, with how to respond.”
But Poust emphasized that there are things that can be done about guns themselves — and that some policy approaches could gain broad support.
“I think it's incumbent on us to look deeper, past something as simplistic as being ‘pro Second Amendment’ or ‘anti Second Amendment.’ I think there are probably common sense things that people can support if there was good will between the parties to actually get things done.”
“That,” said Poust, “is where it all breaks down, and that is where we have to go to work. We are pro-life and I don't think it cuts it to just stand idly by and say ‘there's nothing we can do about it.’ We just have to try, and it seems like perhaps lawmakers around the country haven't tried hard enough to do some of the things that the bulk of the population would support.”
Poust said there may be lessons to draw about gun lobbying from the Church’s advocacy on abortion.
“If you look at the surface level numbers of people who consider themselves pro-choice or pro-life, more people consider themselves ‘pro-choice,’ but when you dig deeper, you see most people actually support pretty restrictive laws against abortion, including those who identify as pro-choice,” he said.
In the same way, “there is widespread support for some kinds of gun restrictions, just like we’ve talked about with abortion,” he added.
Morris told The Pillar that working for practical solutions requires recognizing that the Church has to navigate a highly politicized public debate, one which often colors people’s perceptions of what the Church teaches and wants to accomplish.
“People tend to view the Church's priorities based on their political leanings,” Morris said, further clouding Catholic calls for reform. “Those on one side think all the Church does is oppose abortion. Those on the other side wonder why the Church isn't focusing on abortion instead of getting involved in gun issues.”
Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, agreed. He also told The Pillar that the mass shootings of the past weeks are indicative of a deeply broken American society.
The Buffalo and Texas shootings, Adkins said, are “troubling on a deeper level because of the youth of the perpetrators.”
“These are symptoms of a society that is sick at its core, and which too often relies on violence to both solve conflict and to unleash the existential crises of the soul,” said Adkins. “It is a primal scream. Poison in many forms continues to pour into the human ecology, warping the minds and hearts of our people.”