August 4, 2019

Every time news breaks of another public shooting, I’ve come to have the same sinking thought: “What? No, not another one.” And then I automatically say a Hail Mary, a habit I’ve adopted on hearing news of any violent or otherwise untimely death.

I have little more to add, having grown weary of trying to come up with something new to say time after time after time after time. But after a week when the US has been hit especially hard by gun violence, the leadership of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops does have something to say.

These statements – from Bishop Frank Dewane, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, with the latter two issued jointly by Bishop Dewane and USCCB president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo – diagnose the country’s gun violence problem as a plague, an epidemic against life, a social disease. They include calls for prayer and action, for legislative change and cultural change. We need all of these, and have for a long time.

Except for the references to the specifics of each tragic situation, these are the full responses.

To the shooting in Gilroy, CA:

The Lord calls us to comfort those who mourn and to be peacemakers in a violent world. We pray, and we must, for the victims and their families. The Church should act in ways that heal and support all those affected by gun violence. It is disturbing that our society would seem to allow some to feel comfort in being violent. Our legislators must make changes to our gun policy to prevent the loss of life. As Americans, we must be honest with ourselves that we have a sickness, almost a plague, with the problem of gun violence. As Christians, we must look to the cross, repentant of the ways that have led us to this point and, with God’s grace, abandon such senseless, inhuman acts. Let us resolve to make the sacrifices necessary to end the violent killing that saturates our nation.

To the shooting in El Paso, TX:

Something remains fundamentally evil in our society when locations where people congregate to engage in the everyday activities of life can, without warning, become scenes of violence and contempt for human life. The plague that gun violence has become continues unchecked and spreads across our country. 

Things must change. Once again, we call for effective legislation that addresses why these unimaginable and repeated occurrences of murderous gun violence continue to take place in our communities. As people of faith, we continue to pray for all the victims, and for healing in all these stricken communities. But action is also needed to end these abhorrent acts.

To the shooting in Dayton, OH:

The lives lost this weekend confront us with a terrible truth. We can never again believe that mass shootings are an isolated exception. They are an epidemic against life that we must, in justice, face. God’s mercy and wisdom compel us to move toward preventative action. We encourage all Catholics to increased prayer and sacrifice for healing and the end of these shootings. We encourage Catholics to pray and raise their voices for needed changes to our national policy and national culture as well. We call on all relevant committees of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to outline a reinvigorated policy agenda and pastoral campaign to address ways we can help fight this social disease that has infected our nation. The Conference has long advocated for responsible gun laws and increased resources for addressing the root causes of violence. We also call upon the President and Congress to set aside political interests and find ways to better protect innocent life.

Some will surely accuse the bishops of speaking out too much on this issue, and others, of not speaking out enough. But while it remains to be seen whether and how it will unfold into further action, I am thankful that they have spoken in this way. From a Christian perspective, this is not, or shouldn’t be, a partisan issue. For the Church’s shepherds in a society so plagued by this “epidemic against life,” it is a pastoral issue – and for all of us, a life issue.

Lord, giver of life, have mercy on us.

January 19, 2015

In response to a question from a French journalist on the plane from Sri Lanka to the Philippines, Pope Francis said something that may sound shocking to those of us from liberal societies.  I’m using the word “liberal” here in a classical sense; that is, not merely in reference to the political left, but to the over-arching social ideal of personal choice and autonomy as being among the highest goods, based on an implicit definition of freedom as essentially the right to do or say as one pleases.

“In freedom of expression there are limits.”  That’s the potentially startling comment in soundbite form, if you will.  As always, context matters, although in this case it doesn’t necessarily make it less startling to either French or American ears.  The context was a question about possible tensions between religious freedom and freedom of expression, which the pope immediately heard – and unpacked – as a reference to recent deadly attack on the office of the Paris-based magazine Charlie Hebdo in revenge for its ridicule of the prophet Mohammed.  In response, Pope Francis first of all reiterated what he has said several times before: killing in the name of God is never justified.  And he went on to add that neither is insulting other people’s faith.

Somehow, because of a slightly odd but lighthearted illustration about hypothetically punching his friend and colleague next to him for insulting his mother, the response was read by some as justifying the attack.  (more…)

July 22, 2014

I’m not usually a big fan of Nicholas Kristof, but he has written a perceptive New York Times column on the symmetry of the rhetoric on either side of the Israel-Palestine conflict and its latest flare-up.  Perceptive, that is, in a way akin to pointing out the emperor’s nakedness: stating the obvious, which is less obvious than it should be.

Here are his counterpoints to three of the “oddly parallel” clichés of the cycle of violence being thrown around yet again.

This is a struggle between good and evil, right and wrong. We can’t relax, can’t compromise, and we had no choice but to act.

On the contrary, this is a war in which both peoples have a considerable amount of right on their sides. The failure to acknowledge the humanity and legitimate interests of people on the other side has led to cross-demonization. That results in a series of military escalations that leave both peoples worse off.

Israelis are absolutely correct that they have a right not to be hit with rockets by Hamas, not to be kidnapped, not to be subjected to terrorist bombings. And Palestinians are absolutely right that they have a right to a state, a right to run businesses and import goods, a right to live in freedom rather than relegated to second-class citizenship in their own land.

Both sides have plenty of good people who just want the best for their children and their communities, and also plenty of myopic zealots who preach hatred. A starting point is to put away the good vs. evil narrative and recognize this as the aching story of two peoples — each with legitimate grievances — colliding with each other.

Without disagreeing with Kristof’s fundamental point here, I would nuance it to say that it is about good and evil, just not in the way we’re tempted to think.  That is, it is not a struggle between good and evil people, but between good and evil in people – in thoughts and words, doings and failings.  As Solzhenitsyn once said, “The line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” (more…)

May 18, 2014

This weekend, I stood with my local Pax Christi chapter, as well as a sizeable number of parishioners at the church where we meet, to take Pax Christi USA’s Vow of Nonviolence.  The text of the vow is available through the above link, but I will also reproduce it in full here.

Recognizing the violence in my own heart, yet trusting in the goodness and mercy of God, I vow for one year to practice the nonviolence of Jesus who taught us in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons and daughters of God…You have learned how it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy’; but I say to you, Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. In this way, you will be daughters and sons of your Creator in heaven.”

Before God the Creator and the Sanctifying Spirit, I vow to carry out in my life the love and example of Jesus

  • by striving for peace within myself and seeking to be a peacemaker in my daily life;
  • by accepting suffering rather than inflicting it;
  • by refusing to retaliate in the face of provocation and violence;
  • by persevering in nonviolence of tongue and heart;
  • by living conscientiously and simply so that I do not deprive others of the means to live;
  • by actively resisting evil and working nonviolently to abolish war and the causes of war from my own heart and from the face of the earth.

God, I trust in Your sustaining love and believe that just as You gave me the grace and desire to offer this, so You will also bestow abundant grace to fulfill it.


August 2, 2013

Over at America, William Cavanaugh has a thought-provoking essay on the nature of violence. His musing is prompted by the coverage of the Chechen background of the Boston bombers – a coverage that plays up Islamic violence and plays down nationalistic violence. As Cavanaugh puts it:

“There will be no debates over the fanaticism caused by devotion to the idea of a Chechen nation, nor the violence caused by Russian insistence that Chechnya remain a part of greater Russia. Why is this so? Why does devotion to jihadism strike us as peculiarly dangerous, while the much better-armed devotion to Russian national pride strikes us as mundane and generally defensible? Why do we prefer to talk about the Tsarnaev brothers’ relation to Islam and not about their stated political opposition to the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan?”

The answer lies in the religious-secular divide, that central divide of modernity. Under this dominant worldview, religion is consigned to the private sphere, with civil religion taking the place in the public sphere that was once occupied by traditional religion.

This has some dangerous implications, especially when it comes to the legitimacy of violence:

“We have been habituated to think that devotion to one’s religion is fine within limits, while public patriotic devotion to one’s nation is generally a good thing. We are appalled at violence on behalf of religion, but we generally accept the necessity and even the virtue of killing for one’s country.”

And in the United States, this civil religion takes on a particularly dangerous form, as it is “based on a heavily ritualized devotion to the salvific role of the United States in world events”. Traditional religion remains strong, but subservient to – and supportive of – this modern civil region.

This leads to Cavanaugh’s main point about the role of violence:

“What is important for our present purposes is to see how the religious/secular divide functions in our public discourse about violence. It serves to draw our attention toward certain types of practices—Islam, for example—and away from other types of practices, such as nationalism. Religion is the bogeyman for secular society, that against which we define ourselves. We have learned to tame religion, to put it in its proper, private place; they (Muslims, primarily) have not. We live in a publicly secular and therefore rational society; they have not learned to separate secular matters like politics from religion, and so they are prone to irrationality. We hope they will come to their senses and be more like us. In the meantime, we reserve the right periodically to bomb them into being more rational.”

Although it is not the point of his piece, I think there is a lesson here for those American Catholics – including some bishops – who are too quick to invoke the tenets of the civil religion, especially when they talk about the constitution. Ironically, they make these arguments to support religious liberty, while they are in effect accepting the dominance of the civil religion and the concurrent private and limited role for religions like Christianity. It’s a false path and a dangerous path.

December 25, 2012

My wife and I have many customs at Christmastide.  Some are silly:  for example, on Christmas Day we always cook hotdog wraps (hotdogs in a shell of biscuit dough) for our main meal.  This started when the kids were really young:  after going to midnight mass, putting all the presents out, and then getting up at 6 AM when the kids did, we were too tired to cook the elaborate meal we had planned.  Hot dogs were quick, the kids loved them, and pretty soon it became a tradition.  Our oldest is 20 and to them this is what MUST be served on Christmas.

On a more serious note, my wife and I always listen to the following song by John McCutcheon:

This year, after the bloody massacre at Newtown, followed by the senseless killing of two firemen in upstate New York, it took on a special poignancy.   It calls to mind another time when violence was deemed necessary, when families and homes were threatened by “sociopaths” and “evil-doers”, when failing to respond with violence meant surrendering to the “enemy.”    And so the last war of European imperialism played out, leaving 16 million people dead and accomplishing little except to pave the way for the rise of Hitler and Stalin.

This drives home, for me, the point (being debated here) that our nation has placed a misguided trust in violence.  Is violence in self-defense sometimes necessary?   The Church teaches that it is, but has placed many strictures around it to make clear that it is the exception, not the rule.   As a culture, too many Americans look at these not as guidelines to turn them away from violence, but as legal obstacles to be overcome.   They are straining out gnats and swallowing camels, invoking Augustine and Aquinas and fine points of theology while turning a blind eye to the love and grace made present in the Incarnation.

In this Christmas season, we need to remember how Christ emptied himself for the sake of us sinners, so that the peace which is beyond all understanding is in our heads, in our hearts and on our lips.

December 21, 2012

President Obama got it right: we can’t tolerate this anymore.

In his speech at Newtown’s interfaith prayer vigil on Sunday, while appropriately keeping the primary focus on voicing and responding to the nation’s grief, Obama showed a hint of political courage that hasn’t been seen on the problem of public shootings from either side of the aisle for as long as I can remember:

Since I’ve been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims.

And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and in big cities all across America, victims whose — much of the time their only fault was being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.

We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.

If there’s even one step we can take to save another child or another parent or another town from the grief that’s visited Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try.

In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine.

Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?

Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

Whether this hint of courage will be realized in action of course remains to be seen.  In any event, it should not have taken a tragedy of this magnitude to get us to start publicly acknowledging that maybe we should rethink our legally mandated national firearm fetish, an all too deeply embedded piece of the culture of death that enslaves us.  Sadly, it’s too late for the 26 children and teachers who were killed last Friday.  All the more reason we need some serious national introspection now.

We need to talk about violence. (more…)

November 30, 2011

René Girard certainly is one of the more interesting, and important, thinkers on violence in contemporary Christian thought. The sacrificial reading of the cross, to him, errs because it helps promote the violence, and indeed, repeat the violence, which is ended on the cross itself. Christ as the scapegoat is to bring us out of the cycle of violence, but Christians have not properly followed Christ and have turned back to pre-Christian, sinful, ways of thought:

The task is to show that the Christian sons have repeated, even aggravated, all the errors of their Judaic fathers. The Christians have condemned the Jews, but they themselves are condemned by Paul’s statement in the Epistle to the Romans: ‘In passing judgement upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things’ (Romans 2,1).

In a remarkable paradox, but one that accords well with the sacrificial course of mankind, the sacrificial reading (that is, the logic of the violent Logos) refashions the mechanism that has been revealed and thus of necessity annihilated – if the revelation were genuinely accepted – into a kind of sacrificial cultural foundation. This is the foundation that both ‘Christianity’ and the modern world have rested upon, right up to our own time.[1]

Christ did not go wrong, but his followers, in trying to understand him, were able to find their thought subverted by the very system which Christ overcame. The world and its black iron prison, the world of violence, the world of sin, was overcome by Christ. (more…)

August 17, 2011

I’ve often pointed out that current incarnation of the Republican party is incredibly – and most imprudently – cavalier with the rhetoric of violence. A standard response is to dig up some left-wing violent rhetoric. But this really misses the point, which that violent rhetoric on the right is now mainstream – so mainstream that it barely warrants any comment. It is now the case that a good number of leading Republicans, including president candidates, have used violent imagery or threatening rhetoric.


July 22, 2011

A Guest Post by Josh Brumfield

As a father of a 2 and half year old boy and a newborn baby girl, the recent posts on the disciplining of children caught my eye. Nathan attempted to show that spanking done “properly” need not be violent but can be a useful tool for disciplining young children. At least one person (Sofia Loves Wisdom) felt that adults only employ such methods of discipline against children because children are smaller and can’t defend themselves. They’d never attempt to discipline an adult child in the same manner. Sam was interested in emphasizing the need for caution in making certain kinds of claims and generalities.

However, I wonder if Sofia’s critiques might be able to transcend her personal experiences. Might there be some parenting transcendentals to guide us in this discussion? Certainly we could draw brackets around the obvious abusive situations, but it may be helpful to attempt an approach that recognizes the truth about children and the truth about discipline, admittedly in general and abstract terms, so that we can think about discipline, spanking, and violence within a proper (“Catholic”?) framework.

In my mind, the Church has “canonized” (at least) two approaches to the disciplining and education of children in the last two centuries. In canonizing St. John Bosco and approving his Salesian order, the Church has essentially put her stamp of approval on Don Bosco’s approach, which he called the Preventive System, which he distinguished from the repressive system of education which prevailed at the time (and probably still prevails). He summed up the basic attitude of Salesian educators toward children with the motto “reason, religion, and loving-kindness.” (Don Bosco primarily ministered to boys older than those focused on in the aforementioned posts, so I will not go into further detail on the Preventive System here).

A second “method” which the recent popes have commended is commonly known as the Montessori Method. Dr. Maria Montessori was a Catholic scientist who based her approach to education and discipline on the scientific observations of children and on her knowledge of St. Thomas. She and her work have been recognized, authorized, and/or commended by all the recent popes going back to Benedict XV.


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