Recently, while preparing my thoughts for an upcoming presentation on euthanasia for those in the Permanent Diaconate Program for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, I could not help but to think about Catholic Church teachings in light of many deaths resulting from the misuse of guns or firearms in the United States. A culture of death seems an apt way to describe these tragedies, where large numbers of mass shootings and subsequent police or vigilante killings of perpetrators and others have persisted for decades. Whether active euthanasia or mercy killing or the mass shootings and murders of innocents, the primary intention of death is my operative framework for these reflections. I maintain that in the Catholic Church and US society, there seems to be a good deal of loud voices monitoring end-of-life desires to prevent active euthanasia or mercy killing while, even though the bishops have spoken out on the need for gun control, there seems to be more loud silences from them in light of the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights that protects “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” rather than to offer reasonable limits with gun control.
More Loud Voices on Active Euthanasia and Mercy Killings
I understand active euthanasia and mercy killing to be undergirded by a physician or other moral agent intent on inducing death. Through the injection of lethal substances, their purported aim is to relieve someone in extreme pain, suffering from an incurable disease, or in an irreversible coma. However, the primary medical purposes of relief for active euthanasia or mercy killing, the proximate intention of those means, is death.
Over the last four or five decades, a growing number of loud voices have expressed deep concerns over the moral wrongness of active euthanasia and mercy killing. These voices not only espouse the sixth commandment, “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13), but numerous theological, philosophical, and medical ethical research, symposia, seminars, courses, and publications have been dedicated to debating these intentional death-producing processes. As a result, strict controls and guidelines have been instituted to prevent a slippery slope that, nevertheless, gradually accepts active euthanasia and mercy killings. There is a moral responsibility for them not to become the norms in Church and society. For Example, Pope John Paul II writes against euthanasia in “The Gospel of Life” No. 15, and The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the topic in no. 2277. For the general population, there are common and legal documents widely available, such as the living will, Advance Directives, and the Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care, to express one’s end of life desires but that in general someone might look askance at requests for euthanasia or mercy killing.
More Loud Silences
Given that significant time and effort in both the Church and society were spent seeking strategic ways to place controls on active euthanasia and mercy killing so that, even by default, these means of death would not become normative, significant time and effort needs to be put into place for serious discourse, theological symposia, research etc. that promotes common sense gun control. It is important to note a January 14, 2011 Catholic News Services article, “Gun Control: Church Firmly, Quietly Opposes Firearms for Civilians,” that observed the Church’s position on gun control is not easy to find. Apparently, loud silences prevailed then. However, after the December 14, 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut where twenty-six school children and staff were killed, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, submitted “Proposals to Reduce Gun Violence: Protecting our Communities while Respecting the Second Amendment” to the US Congress on February 12, 2013. In “Proposals,” the bishops proposed controls that would 1) require universal background checks for all gun purchases, 2) limit civilian access to high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines, 3) make gun trafficking a federal crime, and 4) improve access to mental health care for those who may be prone to violence. Still the debates driving gun and firearm control versus the right to bear arms persist, perpetuated and trumped by a presumed liberal democracy and the National Rifle Association, and by fears and suspicions of the other, by an ethos or culture of violence, and by popular slogans such as “Guns do not kill, I do,” “When reason fails, force prevails,” “Keep guns out of the hands of criminals, by them for yourself,” among others.
Furthermore, even despite the proposals by the bishops after the Sandy Hook Elementary School murders, their written actions were not enough to stop mass shootings and murders. For example, consider the June 17, 2015 killing of nine church members inside Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; the June 12, 2016 mass murder of fifty people inside Pulse Night Club in Orlando, Florida; the November 5, 2017, mass murder of twenty-six church members inside First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. This list is not exhaustive; there are many other mass shootings and murders. Nevertheless, all of these mass murders involved single handed shooters intent on killing innocent human beings for a variety of psychosocial reasons—anger, hatred, insecurity, white supremacy/racism, homophobia, etc.
The bishops’ loud silences on gun control need to be exchanged for loud voices similar to their volume on euthanasia –both urgent moral issues. Just as the Church stepped up to do what was needed strategically to promote a culture of life as it relates to active euthanasia and mercy killing, likewise, the Church needs to step up and raise its loud voice to find ways to institute strategies for gun control. The bishops can start with breaking the silence around this moral problem by drawing on their “Proposals to Reduce Gun Violence.” Further, we, theological ethicists can examine mass shootings and murders under the rubric of active euthanasia and mercy killings, exposing them for their intentions of death. Where the Church intends life silence no longer satisfies.