One of the philosophy professors where I teach (The Catholic University of America) has an article taped up on his office door with the headline “Catholics Should Trust in God, not Guns.”
Despite the NRA sticker on my car, I would like to say that I could not agree more.
I don’t think the article means we should trust in God rather than guns in the banal sense that one should never “trust in” inanimate objects–in fact, it is one of the most basic tenets of gun safety, taught in every NRA-certified gun-handling course, that one must cultivate a healthy distrust of one’s guns: always keep guns pointed in safe directions, always store them safely, and keep them in good working order.
No, I think the article means that we should not trust in guns in a more expanded sense: as Catholic Christians we are in a relationship with God, and being a Christian means ultimately putting one’s life in God’s hands, not trying to take care of everything oneself. We have a perjorative term for that latter tendency: pride–as in the pride that cometh before a fall.
Furthermore, there is something a bit creepy about a Christian stockpiling guns. As Matthew 6:20 puts it, our focus as Christians must be on stockpiling treasure in heaven, not treasure on earth. If we spend more on guns than we do on charity, our priorities do not seem to be in order.
But despite these considerations, there are other considerations that would make it appropriate for Christians to own guns, provided their primary focus remains on God. Let me say that even more strongly: it is possible that it could be morally good for Christians to own guns, depending upon why they own them.
In a previous blog post, I have pointed out some of the relevant sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that would support the idea of Christian gun ownership, especially when combined with a principle one finds in prominent philosophers such as Immanuel Kant that “Whoever wills the end, wills (so far as reason has decisive influence on his actions) also the means that are indispensably necessary to his actions and that lie in his power.” (from Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. James Ellington)
However, in this post, I would like to approach the issue from a different angle, an angle I take–surprisingly, perhaps–from Pope Francis’s homily for the inaugural mass of his Petrine Ministry.
The mass occurred, providentially, on the Solemnity of St. Joseph, the foster father of the Lord Jesus. Pope Francis highlighted the special mission Joseph was given by God to be the protector of Jesus and Mary. The Pope goes on to point out–rather brilliantly, it seems to me–that the primary way Joseph exercised this protection was through prayer: that is, “by being constantly attentive to God, open to the signs of God’s presence and receptive to God’s plans, and not simply to his own.” Truly, God knows best what will protect us.
However, Pope Francis went on to point out that this mission of Joseph reveals something true about the mission of every Christian: we are called by God to be protectors of one another. Like Joseph, we should do this primarily through prayer. But Pope Francis also points out a more “incarnate” aspect of this protection: by forming holy friendships, we do much to protect one another. That topic could be a blog post in itself–allow me to mention only how much protection children receive through the holy friendship that is Christian marriage. Unfortunate familial situations–divorce, single parenthood, etc.–tend to involve higher rates of the abuse of children.
But to return to the topic at hand, I think this reminder by the Pope that the protection we give one another must not merely be spiritual, but also be made incarnate, would ultimately justify gun ownership by Christians in general, but especially for any Christians who share in this vocation of being “protectors” to a higher degree, such as parents and teachers. Consider, for example, the harsh words of the Apostle James to those Christians who merely wished other Christians well without doing anything about it:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:16, NIV)
Would not the same logic apply to our Christian vocation as protectors? Are we to just wish each other- especially, in the words of Pope Francis, “the poorest, the weakest, the least important”–to be safe, while failing to actually do anything about it? Where do the Scriptures counsel us to “pass the buck” on charity, to demand that others such as the police or the federal government do the task which God has entrusted to us? No, it seems to me that part of being a protector means to actually take some steps to be capable of actually protecting someone else, especially if that “someone else” is one’s child or one’s student.
Need that be done with a firearm? Of course not. But given the reality of the existential situation of most American Christians, a firearm would seem to promise the most effective, targeted form of protection for the least amount of money. Get a dog, you say? You obviously aren’t a dog owner. You can get a very good handgun for around $500. You will probably spend that much on a dog in one year alone, at least where I live in Northern Virginia. Take martial arts classes, you say? I don’t have a quote for that right off the top of my head, but I’m rather confident that to progress to the level of being an effective fighter probably takes some years, and quite a bit more than the $500 alternative. And it isn’t like the movies anyway; a roundhouse kick only goes so far against a group of armed men. Home security system? Security cameras? Barbed wire fence? Not bad ideas if you can afford them–but those only work for your home. They aren’t portable. You could not use them to protect your family or your students in public.
Which leaves us, as American Christians, with guns.
I don’t like them, by the way. I’m not a hunter, so I don’t really enjoy being a gun owner. I don’t enjoy having to constantly worry about the location of my guns and my ammunition, lest a child find them. I don’t walk around wearing a shirt inviting you to pry my guns from my cold, dead hands. But inasmuch as they enable me to protect the life of my wife and sons, guns are a good thing. That is to say, I value guns precisely because I value life. And in my judgment, building a true “Culture of Life” necessarily includes providing for the defense of innocent life. Guns are a powerful means of doing so.