Guns in Church: The Divide Boils Down to Subsidiarity

Guns in Church: The Divide Boils Down to Subsidiarity May 3, 2014

File:Emanuel Leutze - Washington Crossing the Delaware - WGA12909.jpg

This week Archbishop Gregory of Atlanta announced that there’d be no concealed carry in his parishes. The context was a recently passed Georgia law that gave the pastors of churches the discretion to decide whether their facilities were or were not legal concealed carry locations.  It is unclear whether the Archbishop’s decision applies to the other dioceses in the province as well.

–> A quick Google indicates that while the state laws vary, pastors do have the power to prohibit firearms onsite in all three states.  What is new in Georgia is that pastors (the bishop, in the Catholic case) now have the ability to permit civilians to carry weapons in their churches if the pastor so desires.  So essentially what has happened here is that Georgia said, “Bishop, if you want some guy to carry, you can,” and the bishop said, “No thanks.”

Fair enough.

For my very firm opinion on what catechists should tell their students when the question comes up in religious education class, take a look at my piece at  Summary: Just the facts, no editorial.


This is not your child’s catechism class, this is my blog.  You, my reader, are a grown-up, or you are here with your parent’s permission.  Go ask your mom right now if you’re allowed to keep reading.


Great.  So today we’re going to look a the great gun debate divide, and I’m going to explain why gun-lovin’ Catholics think Archbishop Gregory is nuts, and why that thinking is grounded in Catholic social teaching.

Quick Review: What is Legitimate Self-Defense?

There is a pacifist charism within the broad and diverse spectrum of Catholic spirituality, but Catholic moral teaching by no means requires pacifism, and sometimes prescribes a grave duty to defend those in our care.  The money quotes:

2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:

If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful…. Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.

2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life. Preserving the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. To this end, those holding legitimate authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their charge.

Read the whole thing hereFor an explanation of the principle of double-effect, on which this concept of legitimate self-defense is grounded, see my post here.  For a quick knock in the head to remind you what it’s all about, see here.

Do Most Opponents of Concealed Carry Decline the Right to Self-Defense?

In conversation following the archbishop’s announcement, it quickly became apparent that those who agreed with the decision were not, generally speaking, doing so on the grounds of a personal pacifist-spirituality. Some even cited the happiness with which, say, a local police officer (armed) was present at Mass as a parishioner, and how good it was to have that protection.

There did not seem to be a sentiment along the lines of, “If a madman entered my church and started shooting people, we’d never dial 911. We’d assume it was our chance to give our lives gloriously for the Lord.”  Such thinking does not seem to be the underlying logic of those who don’t want armed civilians in church.

The overwhelming sentiment seems to be quite the opposite: We don’t want violence, but if trouble comes, we’ll ring the guys with the guns, yes.

Subsidiarity: Who is that Guy with a Gun?

Thus the source of the divide comes down to an essential agreement: When trouble comes, we want a guy with a gun on our side.  The disagreement is in the question: But which guy?

Subsidiarity is the principle of Catholic social teaching that says, “a matter ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized authority capable of addressing that matter effectively.”

Gun-lovin’ Catholics take legitimate self-defense and combine it with subsidiarity, and conclude: I am that person.  I could defend myself.  I’m an upright citizen, authorized by the laws of my state to carry a weapon for self-defense . . . shouldn’t I do that?

Now We Make Atlanta Jokes

I don’t live in Atlanta.  I live in that vast swath of the South that makes fun of Atlanta.  We avoid the place as much as possible, but can tell you where in the Atlanta airport to get the best sandwich.  We secretly suspect that maybe the archbishop is right, perhaps the people of that fair city shouldn’t be trusted with weapons. They certainly shouldn’t be trusted with highways.

But if gun-lovin’ southerners (and other Catholics) think the archbishop is mistaken in his decision, it’s not because anyone thinks that southerners are the picture of caution and careful thinking.  Quite the opposite: When you know all the bazillions of people who own and regularly use guns, legally, and you realize that they mostly don’t end up shooting each other . . . you begin to think maybe the lowest authority capable of defending innocent civilians is . . . innocent civilians.

That’s all.  Bubba hasn’t shot anyone, ever, even though he carries a gun regularly, and uses one to shoot dinner (or sit in a tree thinkin’ about it) every weekend State U isn’t playing State Ag College.  He’s been thoroughly background-checked, and since he attends your parish every Sunday, you actually know the man.

Georgia just made it legal for pastors, at their discretion, to allow trusted parishioners, who’ve been background checked and authorized per Georgia law, to do what the catechism and subsidiarity suggest they might ought to do.

That’s all.  That’s the other side of the story.

Artwork: Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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