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Would Jesus Carry an Assault Rifle?

January 28, 2013, 3:03 PM

A few days ago, 64 influential Catholics appealed to their co-religionists in Congress to support gun-control legislation. They laid down a pretty solid Catholic guilt trip:

Members of Congress who take pride in their pro-life stance and appeal to family values have no excuse for inaction, and neither do any of us who share a firm commitment to these values.

Speaking directly to John Boehner, Paul Ryan and other legislators, the letter writers preached holy consistency:

We urge you to reflect on the wisdom in our church’s call for a “consistent ethic of life” as you consider legislation in the coming months that can provide greater protection for our families and communities.

For Ralph Waldo Emerson, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” but for philosophers like John Rawls, the pursuit of greater harmony among one’s ethical positions is a hallmark of moral justification. In a Praxis post a few months ago, “How to Be More Reasonable,” I explained the heuristic of “reflective equilibrium”: a tool for thoughtful people who seek greater confidence in the cogency of their moral and political views:

In a nutshell, reflective equilibrium is a method of testing our judgments vis-à-vis our moral principles and, where a disjuncture is found, tweaking our convictions and principles so that all fit together more snugly and more intelligently.

This is exactly the idea animating the pro-life, anti-gun letter. “Think about how committed you are to the sanctity of life when it comes to the abortion issue,” the letter implies. “Now apply that same zealous advocacy to another life-and-death policy matter: gun legislation. You’ll see, on reflection, that Catholicism requires reasonable gun control laws.”

Today at the Economist, I take issue with this conclusion by showing a logical error at its root. But there is another questionable premise in the letter: the claim that “the church’s call for a ‘consistent ethic of life’ ” constitutes a straightforward case for gun control. It does not, at least not explicitly.

The term was coined by Joseph Bernadin, the late American cardinal, in the heady nuclear scare days of 1983. “I am convinced,” he wrote, “that the pro-life position of the Church must be developed in terms of a comprehensive and consistent ethic of life”:

War has been a perennial threat to human life, but today the threat is qualitatively different due to nuclear weapons. We now threaten life on a scale previously unimaginable. …[T]the dangers of nuclear war teach us to read the Book of Genesis with new eyes. From the inception of life to its decline, a rapidly expanding technology opens new opportunities for care but also poses new potential to threaten the sanctity of life.

In the face of the nuclear threat, Cardinal Bernadin highlighted “the principle which prohibits the directly intended taking of innocent human life.” This teaching, he wrote,

is at the heart of Catholic teaching on abortion; it is because the fetus is judged to be both human and not an aggressor that Catholic teaching concludes that direct attack on fetal life is always wrong. This is also why we insist that legal protection be given to the unborn. The same principle yields the most stringent, binding and radical conclusion...that directly intended attacks on civilian centers are always wrong. The bishops seek to highlight the power of this conclusion by specifying its implications in two ways: first, such attacks would be wrong even if our cities had been hit first; second, anyone asked to execute such attacks should refuse orders.

The logic of a “consistent life ethic” applies whenever the state contemplates an action constituting “the directly intended taking of innocent human life.” It is thus relevant to the death penalty debate, questions about euthanasia and assisted suicide and the question of what constitutes a just war. In these cases, the government asks (1) whether it may legitimately end a life or (2) whether it can legally permit citizens to end another person’s life.

Neither condition holds when it comes to criminal use of a semi-automatic weapon. It may well be that gun control legislation would save lives, but then again so might lower speed limits, more widely available public defibrillators, and even regulations on sugary drinks. These ideas and many more might make great public policy, but none constitutes a direct application of the Catholic “consistent ethic of life” as articulated by Cardinal Bernadin. It distorts and dilutes Catholic doctrine to claim that it does.

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