- - Wednesday, January 13, 2016


When President Obama announced executive actions that would require that all firearm sales undergo background checks, he did so with the blessing of more than 50 faith communities.

Vincent DeMarco, national coordinator of Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, a coalition of Baptists, Methodists, Catholics and Mennonites among others, said, “Since Congress won’t do anything, he’s doing the best that he can do, and we think that’s wonderful.” Archbishop Thomas Wenski said the nation’s Catholic bishops “welcome reasonable efforts aimed at saving lives and making communities safer.”

Mr. Obama’s move on guns also marked the reappearance of an old friend. Many will remember Michael Pfleger as the Catholic priest who in 2008 delivered a sermon from Jeremiah Wright’s pulpit that mocked Hillary Clinton, but Father Pfleger is perhaps more infamous for his outbursts on gun control. The activist priest mused at CNN’s “Guns in America” town hall that “if we cut back the easy access to guns, [it would mean] less money for the gun manufacturers, less money for the gun lobby.” He also wondered “why we can’t title guns just like cars.”

Father Pfleger’s pulpit politicking normally comes with a scolding from his bishop. But Chicago’s new spiritual shepherd doesn’t seem to mind.

After Blase Cupich’s first press conference, a reporter asked how he would relate to the Latino community in America’s flagship diocese. Archbishop Cupich took the opportunity to advocate for “comprehensive immigration reform.” In his first homily, he preached that such legislation would be on “God’s agenda.” Later, Archbishop Cupich endorsed the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” movement during Mass. He also recently allied with “leaders of the labor movement” in what seemed to be an attempt to influence the budget battle in Springfield.

It’s not clear whether the archbishop’s penchant for politics will make any difference in the church’s emptying pews. One 2012 survey reported that the religiously unaffiliated “overwhelmingly” think churches have become “too involved in politics.” That didn’t prevent Archbishop Cupich from writing in The Chicago Tribune to “applaud” the passage of city ordinances restricting gun sales and encouraged state and federal lawmakers to pass a “similar law.”

Archbishop Cupich may think this is “middle ground” when it comes to gun-control legislation, but he neglects to mention that his brother bishops have called for the “eventual elimination” of handguns since 1990. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace concluded in a 1994 pastoral letter: “Limiting the purchase of such arms would certainly not infringe upon the rights of anyone.” Pope Francis has called weapons manufacturers “merchants of death” and even suggested such businessmen can’t call themselves Christian.

But that might patronize the faithful. Catholics know the right to a legitimate defense is in the Catechism: “Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow.” The Catechism affirms such a defense as “a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm.”

For a time, Chicago enforced some the most restrictive gun laws in the country. It also led the nation in gun violence: 2,986 shooting victims were recorded in 2015. Father Pfleger and his ilk continue to hold rallies denouncing firearms, but to no avail.

Academics debate the reliability of gun violence statistics (and they are tricky), but the reality on the streets of Chicago during the height of the city’s gun ban demonstrates that the holy campaign to eliminate guns is imprudent. In the bishops’ gun-free paradise, only the criminals would be armed. Bishops admit that gun violence does “encompass many areas with various complexities,” but they go forward with their specific policy proposals anyway.

When it comes to street violence, religious leaders should stick to what they know. Pastors probably don’t have time to understand the latest crime statistics or parse any number of bills making their way through Congress, and nor should they. When prelates pretend to be policy wonks, it dilutes their authority on issues of faith and morals. Instead of endorsing specific gun-control legislation, faith leaders might do well to warn against the collapse of the family.

The crisis of children who are born out of wedlock and raised in single-parent households is a key contributing factor to urban street violence. Bishops know a thing or two about how to fix that, but it is rarely on their lips. They could take a cue from President Obama who remarked on Father’s Day 2010: “Government can’t be there day in, day out, to provide discipline and guidance and the love that it takes to raise a child. That’s our job as fathers, as mothers, as guardians for our children.”

Parents and pastors alike don’t have to agree about guns to say amen to that.

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the editor of RealClearReligion.org.

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