Last fall, Chicago Archbishop Blaise Cupich said gun violence is “a pro-life issue and should be front and center with all of the others.” He makes an important point.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were some 33,636 gun-related deaths in the U.S. recorded in 2013. While some people, perhaps oversensitive to Second Amendment concerns, may recoil at calling gun violence a “pro-life” issue, the fact that it involves the taking of human life, whether intentionally or by accident, makes it one.
What to do about it? Faithful Catholics disagree. Some call for more regulation while others question the value of the same or contend such laws unjustly undercut gun owners’ rights. Archbishop Cupich himself is a strong gun-control advocate, as is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. We find here the challenging issue of disagreement on political matters among Catholics equally committed to Church teaching. I say “equally committed to Church teaching” because disagreement can also arise from rejection of such teaching. That’s not what I mean. Well-formed, knowledgeable, and committed Catholics sometimes reasonably disagree on a subject — even when they agree on fundamental principles. That fact doesn’t mean there is no right answer on the subject, although it may mean the answer isn’t obvious.
Regarding the political dimension of “pro-life issues,” the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago used the image of the “seamless garment” as his “take” on the more general notion of a consistent life ethic. (The term “seamless garment” comes from John 19:23’s reference to Jesus’ garment, often taken as a metaphor for Church unity.)
Most pro-life Catholics think a consistent life ethic is important — the alternative being an inconsistent one! But they sometimes disagreed about how to understand the Seamless Garment approach. Are all issues touching on human life equally important? Can we disagree about some approaches and still be committed to a consistent life ethic? Not all threats to human life are equally grave, acknowledge most Seamless Garment supporters. Nor, they admit, must everybody agree on the best way to protect human life in all instances. Critics reply that, in practice, the Seamless Garment philosophy often comes across as a list of policy stances on which everybody who wants rightly to claim the name “pro-life” must agree.
Moreover, we shouldn’t confuse issues — even those rightly included as “pro-life” concerns. Take gun control. A consistent ethic of life doesn’t create a set of obvious policy positions on gun violence. Within certain limits, reasonable committed to the dignity of the human person, might come to different conclusions about how to solve the problem.
In this regard, we should resist the temptation to hurl slogans at those with whom we disagree. For example, accusing someone who opposes abortion, but doesn’t accept strict gun control of being “anti-abortion” rather than “pro-life.” Or dismissing a gun-control advocate as a “peace and justice” Catholic rather than a “pro-lifer.”
It’s possible to be inconsistently pro-life — to affirm the principle of respect for human life in one instance, but to fail to do so in another: to be, say, anti-abortion but not consistently pro-life. But rejecting certain legal restrictions on guns as a means of reducing gun violence doesn’t automatically make one “anti-abortion” rather than “pro- life.” Likewise, it’s possible to pursue social justice and reduction of gun violence while ignoring the over one million abortions annually in the U.S. But just because one works against gun violence doesn’t necessarily mean one doesn’t care about abortion.
“Often enough the Christian view of things will itself suggest some specific solution in certain circumstances,” notes Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes. “Yet it happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that with equal sincerity some of the faithful will disagree with others on a given matter. Even against the intentions of their proponents, however, solutions proposed on one side or another may be easily confused by many people with the Gospel message. Hence it is necessary for people to remember that no one is allowed in the aforementioned situations to appropriate the Church’s authority for his opinion. They should always try to enlighten one another through honest discussion, preserving mutual charity and caring above all for the common good” (#43).
Some people may dislike calling gun violence a “pro-life issue,” but it is. Yet we mustn’t be quick to equate our political solution to the problem with the “pro-life” position and dismiss others as not “pro- life.” A thoughtful, vigorous, yet charitable discussion on the subject can also be “pro-life.”
MARK BRUMLEY is the author of “The Seven Deadly Sins of Apologetics” and the former director of Social Ministries for the Diocese of San Diego. He is also president of Ignatius Press.