Smoky Mountains Sunrise

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Vatican Spokesman's Misguided Statement on Gun Control

By Philip F. Lawler

Let’s make something clear right away. Pope Benedict has not endorsed the Obama administration’s gun-control plans. The Pope has said nothing on the subject. But Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Vatican press office—has released a statement on gun control, in his weekly editorial commentary for Vatican Radio. Inevitably his editorial will be portrayed by careless reporters as an official statement of the Vatican’s position. It is not; Father Lombardi does not set policy for the Vatican, or make authoritative statements for the Catholic Church. 

Nor does the Catholic Church make authoritative statements about partisan political matters—especially partisan political matters in a country far from Rome, a country whose political affairs Vatican officials do not understand.

”The initiatives announced by the United States government in view of limiting and controlling the diffusion and use of arms are certainly a step in the right direction,” Father Lombardi pronounced as he began his commentary. Obviously he was referring to the executive orders issued by President Obama (who, by the way, is not “the United States government”) last week. The wording of the editorial is vague; we don’t know which initiatives in particular met with Father Lombardi’s approval. We don’t know, actually, whether the Vatican spokesman is actually acquainted with the specifics of the White House plans. In short—let’s not mince words—we don’t know whether Father Lombardi knows what he’s talking about.

Still, notice the word “certainly” in that opening sentence. Father Lombardi would have his listeners believe not only that the Obama plans are laudable, but that they are certainly good public policy. How can he possibly justify that claim?

Is Father Lombardi an expert on American constitutional law and/or on the history of gun-control efforts in the US? Has he studied the results of previous efforts to restrict ownership of assault weapons? Has he listened in on the current debates in Washington, and weighed alternative proposals? If not, on what basis does he proclaim—with certainty!—that the Obama plans deserve support?

Later in his editorial Father Lombardi makes another remarkably sweeping claim:
Therefore, it is necessary to repeat tirelessly our calls for disarmament, to oppose the production, trade, and smuggling of arms of all types, fueled by dishonorable interests for power or financial gain.
Certainly the smuggling of arms is morally suspect. (But even there, is the prohibition absolute? Could it be just to smuggle arms to oppressed citizens hoping to overthrow a tyrannical government?) And we can all agree that the trade in arms—or in anything else—is wrong when it is “fueled by dishonorable interests.” But Father Lombardi seems to be arguing that all production and sale of weapons should be banned. Just a few sentences earlier he conceded that guns can be “instruments for legitimate defense.” Now we would deny those instruments—not only to civilians, but also to soldiers and police officers!

Father Lombardi appears badly informed about the American debate on gun control, and his argument is badly framed. He goes well beyond what the Church teaches on the use of arms and the limits of legitimate self-defense, and offers instead his own ill-formed opinion. This is an unfortunate misuse of his position as spokesman for the Vatican.

The Catholic Church does not claim any special expertise on matters of public policy. Rather, the teaching authority of the Church sets forth general moral principles by which political leaders should be guided. Father Lombardi’s editorial is short on general principles and long on political prescriptions. As someone who deals with reporters daily, he should have foreseen that it would be interpreted as an endorsement of President Obama. How else could it be interpreted?

If he were attuned to the realities of the American political scene, Father Lombardi would have remembered that this week brings the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. This week tens of thousands of pro-life Americans will descend on Washington for the annual March for Life. This week of all weeks, the pro-life movement wants the attention of Washington focused on abortion. Instead the Vatican spokesman helps the White House to keep the gun-control issue in the headlines. This week of all weeks, pro-lifers want President Obama called to account for the policies he has espoused to protect the abortion industry. Instead Father Lombardi praises Obama’s work on an unrelated matter. The timing of the Vatican Radio editorial, as well as its content, shows that Father Lombardi has a tin ear when it comes to American political affairs.

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