ROME— Gun control is a social justice issue of concern to America’s Catholic bishops, according to Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, who was recently at a Vatican conference to talk about the contributions the Catholic Church can make regarding nuclear disarmament.
“One of the problems is the organized opposition to gun control, taking the position that any limitation against guns is a limitation on the core rights of individuals,” McElroy told Crux on Friday.
“The notion that to restrict automatic and semi-automatic weapons is a restriction on personal rights that should be given to society, to me, seems unacceptable,” said the 63-year-old McElroy, a former secretary to the late Archbishop John Quinn in San Francisco.
McElroy also charged that the international arms trade “robs the poor,” because it diverts resources in impoverished nations into conflicts and away from projects that would serve the interests of ordinary people.
Among other things, McElroy discussed an upcoming trip to South Korea to participate in a conference organized by the local bishops to explore the possible contribution of Catholic principles of non-violence to the pacification of the peninsula.
In this regard, the prelate said he believes the ongoing situation has to be resolved by the Koreans, and not by military action by the United States.
“Hopefully, peace can be achieved that way, because the alternative is simply catastrophic,” McElroy said.
McElroy spoke with Crux on Friday, also touching on the Catholic’s just war tradition, the role of nationalism in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the role the Vatican can play in nuclear disarmament. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.
Crux: Why, do you believe, is it important for the Holy See to engage on the issue of disarmament of nuclear weapons?
McElroy: I think there are two important elements of the Holy See’s engagement on this issue. One is to contribute its own insight, reflective of the tradition, to look at the situation as the world exists today and the challenge of nuclear weapons, and to provide a distinctively Catholic solution to solving this problem hanging over our heads.
I think that the pope’s address on Friday points to that. It’s another step forward in recapitulation and application of Catholic teaching with a new conclusion today, namely that the possession itself of nuclear weapons is to be condemned. That is a step farther than questioning the ethics of nuclear deterrence, and it’s an important step for the Church to take and contribution to make at this moment.
Secondly, the importance of bringing together the variety of communities around the world that are seeking to address the proliferation of nuclear weapons and seeking a long-term solution, using the Church’s historic role as a convener.
You’ve been tasked with talking at this conference on, “What should the Church’s contribution be on the question?” Can we have a preview?
My suggestion is that whenever the Church speaks within the world, it does so from a religious perspective. Catholic teaching says that part of the ministry of Christ is to help bring peace to the world. In addressing this question, the Church must always do so from a sense of grace and conversion in Christ.
I think there are three elements of grace and conversion that the Church should be calling the world to. I mean internally, in the Catholic community, calling the Church itself both in its institutional life and the Catholic community as a whole, and the world too.
One is a conversion from a sense of nationalism to a sense of understanding the importance of the international common good, and what that has to say about how we construct an ethic of nuclear weapons that is in keeping with our fundamental humanity that we share.
One of the great problems, in my view, is the deterioration of the nuclear arms control regime. The wonderful aspirations of the original agreement, which were that the great powers would diminish and ultimately reduce their arsenals and, alongside that, there would be no proliferation of new nuclear powers, has failed. The agreement has been violated both by the great nuclear powers and the new, because of national interests prevailing over the wider interest of the common good.
So the first conversion is that, the conversion to an understanding of what the international common good calls us to at this moment.
Second is the conversion from the illusion that nuclear weapons really bring us security, to the reality that they introduce a very precarious and perilous element to international relations and they rob us of our security.
And the third conversion is that of moving from the inclination to find resolution by war, to finding resolution by peaceful, nonviolent means.
At the end of the month you’re going to South Korea to talk about the pacification of a peninsula that is today in conflict. What can you, as an American, bring to the table there, when you have one key American [President Donald Trump] who has an important role in the conflict?
This is a conversation that has been launched by the Korean bishops and the Korean Church as a whole, part of a larger conversation, certainly with South Korea. They wanted to hold a conference to look at how Catholic peace-building principles can contribute.
It’s very much focused in the present moment, the present tensions, but it comes from the South Korean bishops’ conference. They wanted to have bishops from different countries there, so I come from the United States, and there will also be bishops from Japan and from China. I believe there will also be a representative from North Korea too, but I don’t have confirmation of that.
The Korean bishops have done a lot of work on utilizing non-violence Catholic principles. Their perspective is that this problem has to be solved in a peaceful way, because the alternative would be so catastrophic for their society in particular. They have a history of being very weary of outside powers that tend to dominate the situation on the Korean peninsula, powers of all kinds throughout history that have, at times, been brutal.
Personally, I’m going there to listen. I did have to write a paper, but I’m really going to listen and help be a resource from an American perspective insofar as it’s useful for the Korean church in addressing these questions.
I think one of the things that is very important, to get back to this question of nationalism and the common good, in the case of South Koreans, is that they’ve also lived for many years with the specter of conventional arms that could create havoc in their lives.
It can be shocking to see in the metro the masks and the suits and explanations of what to do in the case of an attack …
Yes, and they’ve been living with that for a long time, while in the U.S., we have not been subject to an attack from North Korea. The South Koreans have. Hence, this nuclear question hits the Americans differently because it’s a new threat, with an unstable leader in the north.
But the key is, in my view and I think it’s the Church’s view on this, that this is a question the Korean people and church have to handle. It’s not primarily a question for the United States, but for the Koreans.
Hopefully, peace can be achieved that way, because the alternative is simply catastrophic. There’s no good alternative that uses violence on this issue, it would simply be catastrophic.
Do you think the Church is moving away from the idea of the just war?
Whenever the Church talks about issues of war, it’s always operating in the tension between Christ’s call to use nonviolent means, and certain situations in the real world that seem incapable of being resolved justly without some violence.
One of the problems with the just war as it has become utilized in the present moment, is that the jus ad bellum is frequently used as a justification for going to war, rather than how it was meant, a constraint against going to war.
The jus in bellum, that is, the structures of operation during war, have a robustness in many countries. For instance, for the United States military they do erect principles, limits of what you can do during war. This is a challenge that tends to be observed in the U.S. in the military.
But on the jus ad bellum, those requirements that have to be satisfied before going to war, people have found ways of interpreting several of those key elements so that they give a very easy greenlight to war. But that’s not what it was supposed to be, it was supposed to be a strong constraint on war. The problem is that it’s ceased to be that.
Changing gears a bit, but still on the issue of violence. The United States saw a terrible event last weekend, with 26 people being killed as they were attending church. The USCCB issued a strong statement calling for a serious conversation on gun control. Are we seeing the time in which the USCCB adopts gun control or the talk about weapons as a social justice issue?
It think it is a social justice issue. A number of bishops have talked about this with great energy and depth in recent years. One of the problems is the organized opposition to gun control, taking the position that any limitation against guns is a limitation on the core rights of individuals. The notion that to restrict automatic and semi-automatic weapons is a restriction on personal rights that should be given to society, to me, seems unacceptable.
It’s a matter of justice, because we see what comes from it. The problem of guns in our culture leads to so many deaths by guns. We need to move towards well thought-out and articulated pieces of legislation that would command broad support.
There’s tremendous support in polling data for specific pieces of legislation that would bring sensible targeted and effective gun control. The problem is that in Congress, it gets blocked by the lobbyists there. But even the majority of gun owners are supportive of such laws.
I insist, I believe this is an issue of social justice, and the conference should be supportive of that.
We’re here at this conference talking about disarmament of nuclear weapons, and even beyond. But we have governments such as the United States, France, Russia or the UK that refuse to do so. We saw it when they refused to join the United Nations’ recent treaty on this. On the other hand, we’re telling civil society that guns are bad…
I think that when you talk about guns, you have to get into the different uses of guns. In the United States, police use them in certain situations. I wouldn’t say that the cause of justice demands an end to armaments. We can’t get into that level, because there are certain sad cases of police actions where guns are necessary.
But the notion of integral disarmament, to me means nuclear, because of the level of devastation that it can cause. It’s also integrated with the sense of the arms trade as it exists today, which truly victimizes the poorest of nations. The arms come, of course, from wealthy nations, who make money off [the trade], and that is really a crime that cries out to heaven.
We rarely talk about the fact that most of the countries today in conflict don’t produce weapons …
Right. That’s why this question of integral disarmament is aimed at the question of arms trade. Not only does it produce the arms to do such terrible things, but it also robs the poor, because the governments that buy those guns are doing so instead of helping their own poor.