When it comes to American politics, the Catholic Church has been unafraid to take bold stands. Over the years, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has weighed in on a wide range of policies, from highly publicized denouncements of same-sex marriage to less well-known statements on human trafficking and food stamps.
The bishops have condemned the use of nuclear weapons, called for an end to the death penalty and urged Congress to address the nation's dysfunctional immigration system. For decades, the Catholic Church has been the most consistent voice in opposition to legalized abortion, and, in recent years, much of the hierarchy's political advocacy has centered around issues of religious liberty.
And yet, when it comes to the epidemic of gun violence afflicting American society, the Catholic Church has been, for some time now, largely quiet. This needs to change.
Over the last 50 years, at least 1.5 million Americans have lost their lives to guns. More Americans have been killed by firearms on U.S. soil since 2000 than died during combat in World War II.
In the last year for which there is data, there were 819 firearms-related deaths in Germany; 207 in Australia; 146 in Britain; 96 in the Netherlands, and only six in Japan. The combined populations of those five countries is almost identical to that of the United States. They had a grand total of 1,274 gun deaths; the United States suffered over 33,000, a fatality rate 26 times higher. "Behind these numbers," a 1994 document from the U.S. bishops on gun violence says, "are individual human tragedies, lives lost, families destroyed, children without real hope."
During his historic speech to Congress last fall, Pope Francis challenged the leaders of our government to examine policies that facilitate the proliferation of firearms.
The arms trade
Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.
And lest anyone think that the pope's remarks were limited to international sales, Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago clarified, "Surely America's political leaders did not think the pope's comments were limited to arms trade outside of America's borders."
Cupich, who was appointed by Pope Francis, is noteworthy for being one of the few American prelates to press for legislation, writing in his Chicago Tribune op-ed: It is no longer enough for those of us involved in civic leadership and pastoral care to comfort the bereaved and bewildered families of victims of gun violence. It is time to heed the words of Pope Francis and take meaningful and swift action to address violence in our society. We must band together to call for gun-control legislation. We must act in ways that promote the dignity and value of human life. And we must do it now.
Not always eye to eye
Tuesday, President Obama delivered an address outlining the details of new executive actions to regulate the sale and possession of firearms. The president became noticeably emotional as he recalled the deaths of young children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, a tragedy that compelled representatives of the U.S. Bishops Conference to appear before Congress and press for legislation.
The Obama administration and the U.S. bishops have not always seen eye to eye. The White House and the Catholic hierarchy have clashed over the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act, and they differ in their interpretation of religious freedom for faith-based organizations in light of the legalization of same-sex marriage.
But the pope's recent visit to our nation's capital, following upon his significant role in helping to restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, has shown that the Church can be a powerful ally in breaking through the toxic partisan gridlock that too often impedes reasonable progress on important issues.
A call for action in 1994
The president's executive actions coincide neatly with the proposals laid out by the Catholic bishops in their statements on gun violence. In fact, the suggestions put forward by the bishops in 1994 in their most comprehensive pastoral message on the matter, "Confronting a Culture of Violence," go significantly further in delineating steps to address this crisis.
The document, which is now two decades old, is well worth revisiting, and this particular moment -- as the president outlines a response to the recent spate of mass shootings, and 2016 presidential candidates create their platforms on domestic policy issues -- would be a fruitful one for the bishops to update it.
When the bishops launched their campaign for religious liberty, it included rallies in cities across the country, exhortations from prominent bishops and a range of resources to be distributed directly at parishes. On immigration, the bishops have mobilized an extensive array of programs, from free legal clinics to grass-roots organizing, and its Office of Migration Services is one of the most well-established advocates for undocumented workers, refugees and trafficking victims.
Back in 1994, the bishops issued a call for action on gun violence, declaring that, "We believe silence and indifference are not options for a community of faith." They were right -- silence and indifference are not an option. It is time to speak up again.
Michael Bayer is a graduate of Georgetown University and The Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley.