The cardinal in charge of the archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey is calling on his fellow Catholics to voluntarily give up their right to keep and bear arms, arguing that we should “voluntarily set aside our rights in order to witness the truth that only peace, and never violence, is the way to build a free society that is lived concretely in our homes, our neighborhoods, our communities, our nation and our world.”
Cardinal Joseph Tobin issued his call to disarm in a letter entitled “Pray for an end to all instances of violence”, but he’s asking his flock to do more than offer up prayers to the Holy Trinity and saints seeking peace. Instead, he wants them to not only lobby lawmakers to pass all kinds of new restrictions on our right to keep and bear arms, but to give up their own guns before the government can take them away.
For many years now, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has called for action banning assault weapons. In the bishops’ 2020 statement, A Mercy and Peacebuilding Approach to Gun Violence” (see below), the bishops write, “We support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or anyone other than the owner), and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns.” I strongly agree with my brother bishops on the need to ban assault weapons and to control gun sales.Legislation and regulations are absolutely necessary, but they are not sufficient. Like all life issues, when it comes to the prevention of gun violence, we cannot legislate morality. However, we can, and must, regulate our behavior in order to protect the vulnerable and ensure the common good. This is why reasonable licensing of all gun purchases, and strict limitations on access to weapons whose purpose is clearly of a military nature, are so important. It’s true that we have a second amendment right to bear arms, but rights always involve responsibilities—in this case, the responsibility to protect the innocent and to secure public safety and good order. The mass shootings we are witnessing almost weekly now are a grave threat to the lives and well-being of all people.
And the individuals responsible for these acts aren’t going to be putting their guns down, no matter how heartfelt Tobin’s plea might be. We won’t stop these evil acts by condemning ourselves to defenselessness. I’d argue evil would only be emboldened if we followed Tobin’s advice.
Let’s voluntarily set aside our rights in order to witness the truth that only peace, and never violence, is the way to build a free society that is lived concretely in our homes, our neighborhoods, our communities, our nation and our world. This requires us to acknowledge that we are all sisters and brothers in one human family and that we have a responsibility to listen to one another, to respect everyone regardless of our differences and disagreements, and to work together to build a better, safer, more peaceful world. In the spirit of Pope Francis, let us together cry out from our hearts: Never again gun violence, never again so much suffering!
St. Paul, in his first letter to the Church of Corinth (1 Cor 8:8–9), addresses what I have called “voluntary self-restraint.” Paul is speaking to the controversy about eating meat that has been prepared for the worship of idols, and he acknowledges that the Corinthians have the right to eat whatever they choose, but he admonishes them to think of the impact their behavior will have on others. With this in mind, he says: “Now food will not bring us closer to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, nor are we better off if we do. But make sure that this liberty of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak.”Unrestrained gun ownership is a serious threat to the weak in our communities. Easy access to assault weapons encourages people suffering from emotional illnesses and those who have political agendas that are destructive of human rights, especially the right to life, to take out their rage on innocent bystanders and on first responders who give their lives to serve and protect our communities. The voluntary self-restraint that I am calling for will not solve the problem of gun violence all by itself, but it can help us change our culture from one that is obsessively focused on individuals’ rights to a society dedicated to ensuring the common good.