April 11th is the 50th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s social encyclical Pacem in terris. Coincidentally, I reread it this week with graduate students taking my Social Ethics course, and it generated some thoughts and questions about the current debate on gun legislation in the United States. In Part I, John XXIII writes that

every human being is a person; that is, [human] nature is endowed with intelligence and free will. Indeed, precisely because he is a person he has rights and obligations flowing directly and simultaneously from his very nature. And as these rights and obligations are universal and inviolable, so they cannot in any way be surrendered (#9).

On this basis, the pope enumerates several human rights (e.g., the right to life, to bodily integrity, to a good reputation, to a basic education, to be able to practice religion privately and publicly, to establish a family, to assemble and associate with others, to emigrate and immigrate, and more), while also listing several human duties that correlate with these rights.  Pacem in terris maintains that rights and duties must go hand in hand. For example,

the right of every [person] to life is correlative with the duty to preserve it; [the] right to a decent standard of living with the duty of living it becomingly; and [the] right to investigate the truth freely, with the duty of seeking it ever more completely and profoundly (#29).

Do Americans today, including U.S. Catholics, put as much emphasis on human responsibilities as we do on our rights? Pope John warns,

Those, therefore, who claim their own rights, yet altogether forget or neglect to carry out their respective duties, are people who build with one hand and destroy with the other (#30).

John Courtney Murray, S.J., who authored the influential We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition in 1960, worried that Americans have become confused about rights. On freedom of speech and freedom of the press, Murray wrote:

In the American concept of them, these institutions do not rest on the thin theory proper to eighteenth-century individualistic rationalism, that a man has a right to say what he thinks merely because he thinks it…. [T]he proper premise of these freedoms lay in the fact that they were social necessities…. They were regarded as conditions essential to the conduct of free, representative, and responsible government. People who are called upon to obey have the right first to be heard. People who are to bear burdens and make sacrifices have the right first to pronounce on the purposes which their sacrifices serve. People who are summoned to contribute to the common good have the right first to pass their own judgment on the question, whether the good proposed be truly a good, the people’s good, the common good (pp. 34-35).

Rights are not merely freedoms from, but they are also freedoms for. In Murray’s view:

The philosophy of the Bill of Rights was also tributary to the tradition of natural law, to the idea that man [sic] has certain original responsibilities precisely as man, antecedent to his status as citizen (p. 37).

While there is room for debate about Murray’s reading of the American proposition, I think his and Pope John XXIII’s point about rights and social responsibilities raises important questions for us a half century later, even though neither Murray nor Pope John referred to gun rights. What might they have said about that?

Indeed, in the wake of the heartbreaking mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, there has been a lot of rights talk and not enough discussion of duties. Intense public debate has been underway about whether guns ought to be regulated in order to diminish the likelihood that such atrocities will happen again. Many citizens and groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) oppose proposals that are regarded as threatening to the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. The full text of the Second Amendment, which is part of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution, is:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Some Catholics are now even being called “NRA Catholics,” with John M. Snyder, for instance, asserting, “Advocating for the rights of people to defend themselves with the appropriate weapons is part and parcel of my Catholicism.”

To be sure, as noted above, Pacem in terris highlights every person’s right to life and every person’s duty to preserve life; however, unlike the Second Amendment there isn’t explicit mention of a right to keep and bear arms. According to the Catholic moral tradition, individuals may legitimately defend themselves and other innocent persons against unjust attack–that is, of course, if we follow the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas rather than St. Augustine (the latter prohibited self-defense but justified defense of others). Such a right to life and its corresponding duty to protect life may indeed encompass the ability to own certain appropriate weapons such as firearms, but the Catholic moral tradition emphasizes how such defense is primarily the responsibility of legitimate authorities, namely, the police and the military.  According to the Catechism:

The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing (#2263).

Letitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life, the common good of the family or of the state (#2265).

Again, there is no explicate reference in the Catechism to a right to keep and bear arms, though presumably such weapons may be necessary to defend innocent lives. According to Tomaaso Di Ruzza, the expert on disarmament and arms control at the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice, armed defense is more appropriate for nations, not individual citizens. Di Ruzza said that defense against aggressors is the responsibility of legitimate authorities, and that the Second Amendment was necessary in 1791 when “there wasn’t an army,” so that there was “a sort of natural right to defend the common interest and the common good….” Perhaps the Catechism‘s focus on the right to life and the duty to defend life–rather than on a right to keep and bear arms–allows us to ask, though: What if it is the easy availability of guns that poses a threat to innocent lives? Don’t we have a duty to defend life by regulating guns? As Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan put it in his message, “Advocating for Gun Control”: “regulating and controlling guns is part of building a Culture of Life, of doing what we can to protect and defend human life.”

The current gun control debate illustrates what David Hollenbach S.J. has referred to as claims in conflict. Although Hollenbach mentions the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution, like Murray, he does not highlight the Second Amendment when he lists some of the rights included among the first ten amendments (Claims in Conflict, p. 13). Still, as Hollenbach observes,

Claims often conflict…. The clarity of the rights vocabulary is far from being matched by our understanding of what human rights are, how they are interrelated, how they are limited by each other, and whether they can ever be subordinated to other social values (p. 7).

So goes the current debate: the right to life versus the right to guns. While the NRA has defended the latter as an absolute right, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) views gun control legislation as a right to life issue. According to Sister Mary Ann Walsh, who is Director of Media Relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in her piece “Catholic bishops: It’s pro-life to ban assault weapons,” which was published in The Washington Post on April 3rd, “the injustice of taking innocent life lies at the heart of the church’s pro-life position,” which includes “the innocence of pre-born children” but also the “primary grade children in Newtown, Connecticut….” She adds:

The church now sees that protecting innocent life also means limiting the means of taking it, that it, limiting weapons that pose a danger to anyone going off to kindergarten, strolling on a college campus, watching a movie at a cineplex or speaking at a political rally at a shopping mall.

In the USCCB’s testimony submitted for the record before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary on February 12th, the U.S. bishops’ 1994 pastoral message, Confronting a Culture of Violence: A Catholic Framework for Action, is quoted:

We have an obligation to respond. Violence–in our homes, our schools and streets, our nation and world–is destroying the lives, dignity and hopes of millions of our sisters and brothers.

Again, in 2000, the U.S. bishops issued a pastoral statement, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, which called on Americans to build a culture of life and to end violence in society. On preventing gun violence, the bishops wrote:

We support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or anyone other than the owner), and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns.

The measures the bishops have called for include:

  • Require universal background checks for all gun purchases;
  • Limit civilian access to high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines;
  • Make gun trafficking a federal crime;
  • Improve access to mental health care for those who may be prone to violence.

These seem fair to me. The editors of the Jesuit magazine America on February 25th have gone even further, though, by calling for the “Repeal of the Second Amendment.” They note that the Bill of Rights “belongs to a document that was designed to be changed; indeed, it was part of the genius of our founders to allow for a process of amendment.” Thus, since 1787, when the Constitution was adopted, it has been amended by the American people 27 times–including when the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment on Prohibition. The editors see the 21st Amendment as a precedent for their proposal, but an amendment to repeal the 2nd Amendment, thereby banning guns, may be more analogous to the 18th Amendment in some ways. I just don’t see it happening–or lasting.

Still, given what Pacem in terris emphasizes about the human responsibilities that accompany human rights, I think a couple of good questions are asked by the editors: “In our time, is a given constitutional provision a good law or a bad law? Does it promote the common good?” We Americans, Catholics included, need to engage in more conversation along these lines, including in this public debate about gun regulations.

On another note: This is my final post as a regular contributor at Catholicmoraltheology.com. I am grateful to have been a part of this venture and to have had the opportunity to collaborate with wonderful fellow contributors here. In 2010, when Charlie Camosy and I brainstormed about the possibility of a blog by Catholic moral theologians while we were enjoying a break sitting outside a cafe on the Piazza Duomo in Trent, Italy, I had no idea that it would lead to all this. For a few years prior to that, I had been blogging occasionally with the Ekklesia Project, and I thought it would be great if there were a blog devoted especially to Catholic moral theology. And here it is, and I think it is good. Why am I bowing out as a regular contributor now? In a nutshell, I just do not have the time or energy to write blog posts regularly. It’s a lot of work! Plus I have other commitments that are a higher priority for the foreseeable future, including co-editing the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics. When the muse inspires me to write, I may still post something occasionally at Catholicmoraltheology.com; however, I also post things now and then over at The Huffington Post or at There Is Power in the Blog for another journal, where I serve as book reviews editor, Political Theology. Again, thanks–and pace è bene.