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Peter M. J. Hess, Ph.D. Headshot

Murder, Blasphemy and the Quest for a Truly Pro-life Ethic

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The politicking began, not surprisingly, as soon as the sirens faded in Newtown. Ardent appeals for stricter control on assault rifles were met by equally strident calls to arm classroom teachers. Some claims were preposterous, such as that of Larry Pratt of Gun Owners of America, who said that "gun control supporters have the blood of little children on their hands." Speaking for Focus on the Family, James Dobson's proclamation was simply obscene, suggesting as he did that the murder of the Sandy Hook students and teachers was God's just judgment upon our apostate nation.

Mike Huckabee opined that the tragedy was caused in part by our permitting gay and lesbian people to be parents, and by schools teaching about human evolution. The shooting reminds us that "one day we will stand before a holy God in judgment; if we don't believe that, then we don't fear that."

It is of course blasphemous for a finite, fallible human to claim any sort of definitive knowledge about the divine views on complex theological questions such as sexual orientation, prayer in school, or the relationship between sin and judgment. Even worse, it is both blasphemous and obscene to insinuate that a "holy God" employed a heinous massacre of innocent first grade children and their teachers to call a sinful nation to repentance.

The complex and delicate question of gun control is inextricably bound up with a deeper moral question: what it means to espouse and live a genuinely pro-life ethic. In the course of the 2012 presidential campaign, Bishop Thomas Paprocki (Springfield, Ill.) declared that "a vote for a candidate who promotes actions or behaviors that are intrinsically evil and gravely sinful makes you morally complicit and places the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy." Naturally he was referring to supporting gay marriage and abortion, directly implying that voting for Democratic candidate Barack Obama places the eternal salvation of one's soul in serious jeopardy. But if Paprocki's pulpit rhetoric were applied with logical consistency, he would have to conclude that supporting a politician who has a record of opposing control of assault weapons - ̶ the only purpose of which is mass murder - ̶ "makes you morally complicit and places the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy."

To be sure, some people on the religious right who pride themselves on being pro-life ironically also approve of capital punishment. They finesse this inconsistency with the morally specious stratagem of arguing that a human being convicted of a capital crime has forfeited his inalienable right to life. In itself this is a rather feeble argument. But even less coherent is the claim that one can be pro-life and at the same time vote for a candidate who supports the National Rifle Association and its tireless defense of semi-automatic assault rifles. Some churchmen and politicians seem to blow the pro-life trumpet in the market square only when it suits their political agenda.

A necessary first step toward a resolution of our systemic problem of gun violence is to put an end to malicious rhetoric and small-minded arguments. A televangelist who sees in a school massacre the deserved wrath of an angry God makes a mockery of his own pro-life position. The voice of a bishop rings hollowly if he threatens excommunication of those who support abortion rights without also threatening excommunication of those who support assault weapon ownership. Such baseless and narrow proclamations are hurtful and destructive of community at the very time when a community is most in need of healing. Simplistic ascriptions of blame distract our national community from focusing on addressing the factors behind mass murder. They vitiate the power of responsible religious voices precisely when religion and ethics could be making necessary and substantive contributions to public debate.

Pope Benedict XVI takes a different tack in Blessed are the Peacemakers, his 2013 message for the World Day of Peace (Part 4): "Every offence against life, especially at its beginning, inevitably causes irreparable damage to development, peace and the environment. Indeed how could one claim to bring about peace, the integral development of peoples or even the protection of the environment without defending the life of those who are weakest, beginning with the unborn?"

Although his argument that the campaign for gay marriage "causes irreparable damage to justice and peace" reads like an odd side note in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, Blessed are the Peacemakers is a promising contribution to our urgent national dialogue about how we can identify and address the roots of our American addiction to bloodshed.

Pope Benedict offers an overview of the factors contributing to violence, including social, psychological, economic, structural and political factors. As a society we need to examine a wide range of questions from the very immediate to the long-term. These include - ̶ but are not restricted to -- ̶ outright banning or severely limiting access to assault weapons, fully funding psychological screening and treatment of persons at risk, studying destructive patterns of social interaction, and researching the evolutionary origins of violence for possible clues about how to address it. We need clear, honest and vigorous contributions from all stakeholders in society in our quest for a consistent and thoroughgoing pro-life ethic.