I got a late start yesterday morning and didn’t hear the news until a few hours after it broke. My wife had an appointment, and so I made breakfast for our three (home schooled) children, ages four, eight, and twelve. When I first read of the assault and massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I felt ill. It was gut wrenching. I thought for a bit about our three children: “What if…?” I couldn’t fathom the horrible news, and yet, honestly, it didn’t shock me. Just a few days ago, a young man opened fire in the Clackamas Town Center in Portland, Oregon, just two hours north of us, where years ago my wife worked when we were first married. Three people were shot, two of them fatally; the 22-year-old murderer then took his own life.
I also thought back to May 1998, when a fifteen-year-old boy, Kip Kinkel, opened fire at Thurston High School, just a few short miles from where I lived and worked. Two students were killed, and many more injured, before Kinkel was subdued by seven of his fellow students. The evening prior, Kinkel had murdered his parents—both of them teachers—with guns his father had purchased for him, along with a stolen gun he had bought from a friend.
And then I thought back to another young boy, who had been raised around guns—lots of them. His father was a gunsmith, and there were numerous guns in his father’s shop, as well as guns—mostly hunting rifles—in the house. The boy assumed everyone had guns and used them for hunting and target practice, in large part because nearly everyone he knew did exactly that. There were two fatal shootings in his hometown during his childhood, both of them suicides by men overwhelmed by alcoholism and other problems. He was never tempted to shoot anyone with a gun; in fact, the very thought was as revolting and it was ridiculous, as he and his friends took seriously the privilege of having and shooting a gun, just as they took seriously the injunction, “Thou shalt not murder.”
Yes, I was that young boy. And I thought of my childhood again when, just a few hours after the shootings in Connecticut, I received an e-mail from the lefty group, Catholics United, containing the following:
Catholics United Executive Director James Salt released the following statement in reaction to this morning’s mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.:
“Today’s shooting is yet another horrific marker in a seemingly endless cycle of gun violence in America. As we mourn the dead and send thoughts and prayers to the families of the victims of this senseless act, we know prayer alone is not enough.
“As Catholics who support the social justice achievements of this President, we are disappointed in his lack of action in working to prevent these heinous acts of violence. We call on President Obama to find the courage to lead our nation and help bring a true and lasting end to gun violence.
“We need an immediate national dialogue on preventing yet another American family from having to go through Christmas without the loved ones they lost to gun violence. When will we stop setting the price of our freedoms at the blood of innocent children? We pray our elected leaders have the courage to face up to intransigent special interests and engage in a serious discussion of how to end–permanently–the cycle of gun violence in America.”
Yes, indeed—when we will have a serious discussion about the blood of innocent children? When will we face up to the violence that takes place on a regular basis against the youngest and most vulnerable among us? When will the cycle of daily violence against young boys and girls cease? When?
I’m not going to chastise or dismiss Catholics United for demanding stronger gun control laws. That is well within the group’s rights, and it is a legitimate position good Catholics are free to take, even if Catholics United also take a number of positions that are directly contrary to the clear and consistent teachings of the Church. What I do take exception to are the selective, perhaps even cynical, displays of concern by such groups.
To be fair, statements such as the one above are media-savvy mirrors of the broader culture and of the deeply engrained double-mindedness our nation has tolerated, then legalized, and now promotes with an irrational fervor.
Consider that when a man dressed in black comes into a room with unsuspecting children in it and takes their lives by violence and bloodshed, we are shocked, outraged, angered, saddened, confused, and deeply grieved. But when a man dressed in white comes into a room with an unsuspecting child in it and takes that child’s life by injecting him with poison, or ripping him to shreds, and removing him from his mother’s womb, we are usually one of three things: oblivious, apathetic, or supportive.
We recognize the actions of the man in black as a grave offense against life and goodness and the fiber of society. But we insist the actions of the man in white is a matter of choice and preference and even necessary for the good of—take your pick—the mother, the father, society at large, an overpopulated planet, or even the child! (“It would be cruel”, it is said with insane seriousness, “to bring a child into a life of poverty.” I suspect that our three children, all adopted, would disagree.)
We flirt with the angels and dance with the devil, and then insist that doing so is a sign of our courageous moral principles, our enlightened and sensitive souls, and our advanced rational state. The fact is, we are a nation with half a soul, embracing the good with one hand while clinging to evil with the other. The outpouring of grief, sympathy, and solidarity on Friday was a powerful display of America’s goodness, reminding me in many ways of the care and concern demonstrated by strangers and neighbors alike after the attacks on September 11, 2001.
But we are a deeply confused people, rightly denouncing the murder of innocents on one day while self-righteously defending (or even jubilantly celebrating) the murder of innocents the next. There are many reasons for our nation’s double-mindedness, beginning with the fundamental reality of sin, the age old and continual rebellion against moral order, justice, and truth. Another is that we often fail to comprehend how close we always live to the line separating civilization from chaos. False security has a way of breeding fuzzy thinking and flawed morality. “The barbarism of the new era”, wrote Abp. Fulton Sheen over sixty years ago, while World War II still raged, “will not be like that of the Huns of old; it will be technical, scientific, secular, and propagandized. It will not come from without, but from within, for barbarism is not outside us; it is underneath us. Older civilizations were destroyed by imported barbarism; modern civilization breeds its own.”
Our particular civilization also breeds choreographed political gestures and tightly constructed technocratic solutions. Sure, material solutions to social ills and spiritual crises have a place, but they only go so far. Sheen, again, is instructive: “Because the world assumes that evil is wholly external or social, it falsely believes that its remedy lies in the domain of politics and economics since they deal with the externals or with what a man has rather than what he is.” All of us are fallen creatures, possessing free will, capable of both great acts of love and stunning acts of evil. Which means that while practical steps can help limit some actions or contain certain consequences, they cannot eradicate the daunting mysteries of free will and evil.
Finally, Sheen’s statement that modern civilization breeds its own barbarism brings us to another fact often ignored or dismissed quickly, one that speaks directly to the crumbling of a civilization and the corrosion of spiritual life: the collapse of familial stability. After the Clackamas shooting, The Oregonian published a piece titled, “Mall gunman Jacob Roberts’ short life included family betrayal, fragile home life.” The details are unique to Roberts, but the basic issues are as familiar as they are sad: a young man who “endured the death of his mother, a family betrayal, a fragile home life marked by mental illness and marijuana and a series of failed career plans that left his future unsettled.” But perhaps the most telling line was simply, “He never knew his father.” How often does such a background result in a young woman deciding to abort her child? How often does it conclude abruptly with a young man exploding in rage, or snuffing out his life with drugs or with suicide? Mental illness, divorce, and family strife also appear to be key factors in Lanza’s short and troubled life.
In the end, it comes full circle, back to the nature of man and the reality of sin, something Bl. John Paul II discussed at length in his “Gospel of Life”. “In fact,” he wrote,
while the climate of widespread moral uncertainty can in some way be explained by the multiplicity and gravity of today’s social problems, and these can sometimes mitigate the subjective responsibility of individuals, it is no less true that we are confronted by an even larger reality, which can be described as a veritable structure of sin. This reality is characterized by the emergence of a culture which denies solidarity and in many cases takes the form of a veritable “culture of death”. This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency.
Gun control advocates insist that those who deny the importance of limiting or outlawing certain guns aren’t willing to face facts. But those who would condemn (rightly, of course) the murders of children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School while declaring abortion and euthanasia matters of “choice”, fraught with complexity and moral ambiguity are (wittingly or not) selling their souls for a mess of politically-expedient porridge. They will talk constantly of “making sense of what happened”—and some will also refer in some way to “being efficient” in doing so— but they cannot make sense of it without taking the true measure of sin, which is, as Sheen observed, “the deliberate eviction of Love from the soul. Sin is in the enforced absence of Divinity.” And until we admit as much and are honest about the culture of death, our nation will continue to lose its soul, one innocent soul at a time.