The church responds to Tucson

The good news out of Tucson is that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords continues to improve. Doctors report that she has been making spontaneous movements. Trauma surgeon Dr. Peter Rhee told reporters at the University Medical Center in Tucson: "She is getting better every day,"

"She was able to actually feel her wounds herself ... we are very happy" with her progress."


Giffords was shot once through the back of the head at a meeting with constituents outside a Tucson Safeway store on Saturday; six were killed, including a 9-year old girl and a federal judge (both buried by Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanis) and 20 wounded. Six victims remain hospitalized.

Outside of the Arizona shock zone, the rest of the states are pondering the import of this latest spasm of gun violence. Some have naturally turned to the church for direction. A Columbus Dispatch reporter spoke with one pastor who acknowledged it was hard to make a connection between the church and guns: "The gun issue is not a staple of discourse from the pulpit in the way of abortion and poverty."

I had a lot of trouble finding much that was especially wise or moving from our religious leadership on this tragedy or the problem of gun violence. In the aftermath of the shooting, Catholic News Service took a most practical route and reported on the church's perspective on gun control after blowing the dust off of some teaching documents:

The answer is resoundingly clear: Firearms in the hands of civilians should be strictly limited and eventually completely eliminated. But you won't find that statement in a headline or a document subheading....The most direct statement comes in the bishops' "Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice" from November 2000. "As bishops, 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."

That's followed by a footnote that states: "However, we believe that in the long run and with few exceptions -- i.e. police officers, military use -- handguns should be eliminated from our society." That in turn reiterates a line in the bishops' 1990 pastoral statement on substance abuse, which called "for effective and courageous action to control handguns, leading to their eventual elimination from our society."

U.S.C.C.B. President Timothy Dolan issued the following statement:

“We commend to God those who have died and we pray for the families who lost loved ones and for those who are suffering from their wounds. We also pray for the person who committed these acts and those who are responsible for his care.”

Bishop Dolan cautioned “against drawing any hasty conclusions about the motives of the assailant until we know more from law enforcement authorities. Violence of any kind must be condemned. When the target of a violent act is a public official, it shakes the confidence of the nation in its ability to protect its leaders and those who want to participate in the democratic process."

Likewise Knights of Coumbus Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said: “At a time like this, it is tempting to respond with anger, and for some, to attempt to use the tragedy to stoke the fires of division. That would only compound the tragedy.”

Both statements sound an odd tone, to my ears at least. Are they trying to help us through our shock and grief or are they awkwardly working in a pre-emptive strike (so much for nonviolent imagery) on the possibility of the left using this event to repudiate conservatives? (They did anyway.)

During his homily at Christina Green's funeral Bishop Kicanas stressed forgiveness, saying that God judges human worth "by how we react and relate to each other. We are to resist evil, to live with integrity, to speak with civility and respect,” he said. Bishop Kicanas had cut short a trip to the Holy Land as part of the Holy Land Coordination to respond to events in Tucson. At that time he issued the following statement: "In the Holy Land, violence is feared and expected. Violence, too often, tears apart both the Israeli and the Palestinian people. Each community knows well the result of senseless violence. Their families have mourned the loss of loved ones and cared for those injured.

"The people in Jericho, knowing well the life in their community and hearing about what happened in Tucson, asked me, 'Bishop, how can we prevent these acts of violence that destroy the lives of so many?' I wish I knew the answer. But, as the world continues to seek an answer to that question, we can, each in our own way, strive to respect others, speak with civility, try to understand one another and try to find healthy ways to resolve our conflicts."

Perhaps the most significant spiritual reflection on this tragedy that I was able to locate (and my apologies are offered to anyone with better luck googling for such wisdom, please note it in the comments section below) came in the form of President Obama's speech at the Tucson memorial service on Wednesday night:

"There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn in your hearts. But know this: the hopes of a nation are here tonight. We mourn with you for the fallen. We join you in your grief. And we add our faith to yours that Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the other living victims of this tragedy pull through.

"As Scripture tells us: 

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, 
the holy place where the Most High dwells. 
God is within her, she will not fall; 
God will help her at break of day."

Later the president said:

When a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations - to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless. ... But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized - at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do - it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, "when I looked for light, then came darkness." Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.

For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man's mind.

 So yes, we must examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.

 But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

At such times, people often wonder how God could allow such evil to exist: a difficult question and as indicated above not answerable in a manner that will truly satisfy many. It's easier to take a gander at how we free-willed beings go about it. Though it offers little spiritual insight, perhaps we can find the seeds of some civic wisdom in the Brady Campaign's pretty shocking scorecard for Arizona, which earned just 2 out of a possible 100 points, making it one of the least restrictive states for gun ownership and carrying.

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William Kurtz
8 years ago
In a related matter, a group of faith leaders from many denominations have written a letter to members of Congress in the wake of the Arizona massacre, calling for less rancor and vitriol in public debate. I saw 50 signers listed, but no Catholic bishops. Were they asked?
William Kurtz
8 years ago
I counted two Jesuits and two nuns on the list, along with the leaders of the National Council of Churches and several Protestant churches. It would have been nice to have a Catholic bishop or two of stature.
Bill Mazzella
8 years ago
The words of the CNS reporter are telling. It is clear that the American bishops are for strong gun control but you have to search for it. The same cannot be said for abortion which is also political dynamite. It is similar to the opposition to the Iraq war by the bishops. They were against it but it was hard to find that out. Dolan is spending much energy on deploring the people who leave the church. But he extends little effort in finding out why as his platform remains as sterile as others before him. A large part of the answer is their political friends are for the unrestricted use of guns and generally pro-war. Politics makes strange bedfellows indeed. It also reveals manipulation and insincerity.


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