A Theologian’s Response to Death in Texas

A Theologian’s Response to Death in Texas May 25, 2022

New York Times photo after the massacre in Uvalde

Yesterday afternoon, in the final celebratory days before long awaited summer vacation in south Texas, a young man walked into an elementary school and began shooting children. At latest count, he managed to kill 19 people, including third and fourth graders and two teachers. Twenty, in that his actions led to his own death. This happened just over a 150 miles from where my daughter was, at that moment, celebrating the end of the school year with her own fourth grade class.

This morning, it’s hard to think about anything else. 

Our faith leaders, including my priest, bishop, and presiding bishop, are counseling us, first, to pray. While this is a frustrating thing to hear—I’m with Steve Kerr on this—it’s also theologically correct. We pray not as a way of denying our failure to care for our children. And let’s be honest, please: we have failed. We pray, rather, in hopes that the next thing we do, our response to this horror, will participate in God’s mission and not just express our own. 

Last night I gathered with my community and prayed. This morning I have a response to offer. It’s raw and imperfect. But it’s what I’ve got. 

Excommunication as a Pastoral Tool

Let’s back up to a few days ago, when the headlines were about the abortion debate. The nation is tense over what seems the imminent demise of federally mandated right to end a pregnancy. The Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco informed Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s that, due to her refusal to discuss her support for abortion rights with him, she would no longer be invited to receive communion in his diocese. 

This response is extreme and controversial, to put it mildly. It seems to me though to be appropriate. While the Eucharist is not, as the Pope recently reminded the church, a political weapon, it is the center of a communal and public —political in the classic sense—life of the church. Uninviting a person from communion is an ancient practice of Christian leaders who need a way to say “this act is not compatible with the celebration of God’s love.” It was once used to install a period of repentance among soldiers returning home from war. In Chile in the 1980s, the church effectively used it to condemn the tyrannical actions of the Catholic members of Pinochet’s regime. 

Catholic social teaching has discerned consistently that a human fetus is a vulnerable creature at the beginning of life. The fetus is not the disposable property of the one in whom it grows, anymore than the infant is the disposable property of the parents. The bishop does not—thankfully—have the authority to publicly shame or eternally condemn the Speaker. He does, though, have the authority to make a pastoral intervention. If she refuses his council, as he says that she has, then barring her from communion becomes the next pastoral response. 


Pro-birth is Not Pro-life

Ms. Pelosi clearly has a point when she condemns the blanket disregard for the vulnerabilities of women—especially poor women and women of color—on the part of those who oppose abortion rights. Catholic social teaching is quite clear on this as well. God has a prejudice for life, and policies that put life at risk are unholy things. 

We somehow lack the imagination as a country to care for both of these vulnerabilities—women and the unborn. And my governor’s move to criminalize those seeking or aiding someone seeking an abortion is not helping. A poor pregnant woman in East Texas needs to know there is a community around her who will help give her child a happy life. She does not need the added threat and shame of a police hunt. 

Life may not begin when the baby exits the womb, but it doesn’t stop there either. This is what Sr. Joan Chittister meant when she said that in the present political landscape, the anti-abortion movement is not really pro-life, but simply pro-birth.

Unholy Policies and the Holy God

I think that ex-communication is, if extreme, the appropriate final pastoral response to any of the current anti-life and pro-death policies for which legislators fight. Legislators who protect vulnerable fetuses but ignore the health care needs of women should get a call from their diocese. When Indiana Senator Mike Braun speaks out against protection of refugees from violence in Central America, his bishop should be prepared to send him a letter of excommunication. Senators who refuse to make health care for children and the poor a priority are in clear violation of any church teaching or biblical mandate I’ve ever encountered. Their churches should hold them accountable. 

Which brings me back to the horror in Uvalde, Texas. I’ll spare you the Kerr-like tirade about the well-funded blockade against common sense gun control. But surely it is obvious that putting assault rifles indiscriminately into more hands is an anti-life policy. 

I don’t know if my Senator, Ted Cruz, and my governor Greg Abbot, will follow through on their intentions to attend the National Rifle Association in Houston. If they do, I don’t know if they will ensure those gathered that they plan, after the massacre of innocents they represent, to continue in this pro-death policy. If they do, Bishop Vasquez should have a letter ready to deliver to the Catholic Governor. And Mr. Cruz’s Southern Baptist Convention should let him know that he is free to wait in the foyer while the church gathers for worship. 

Policies that put innocent lives at risk are unholy things. Such things have no place at the tables where the holy God is worshipped. 

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