THE INTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY FOUNDED IN 1840
IN THE US
THE DARK SIDE OF THE AMERICAN
America’s love affair with guns would have mystified the drafters of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. Ratified in 1791, the amendment declares: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Only the second part of it is widely quoted, and the courts have refused to regard the first part as the qualification it was clearly intended to be. It represents the belief that citizens have the right to participate in a “well regulated Militia” which can rise up to overthrow tyrannical rulers, which in 1791 the British were perceived to be.
The obsession with the right to bear arms has been taken to the point where it applies even to those suffering mental illness. The United States Congress has so far failed to legislate even for this modest restriction, though the issue has taken centre stage again after the appalling events in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, the first of which killed 22 people and the second, another nine. Even President Donald Trump, usually a staunch ally of the pro-gun lobby, has in the light of these massacres called for gun ownership restrictions in cases of mental illness, though it appears that neither of the two suspects would have been covered by them.
The suspect in the Texas case, who was taken into custody, had allegedly posted a racist diatribe against the “invasion” of Texas by migrants crossing the Mexican border. If the use of such inflammatory language is a sign of mental illness, then that would also apply to Mr Trump himself. He has repeatedly referred to an alleged “Hispanic invasion”, and has stirred up racist feelings, not least by telling a group of four non-white females in the House of Representatives to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” – despite three of the four having been born in the US.
But Mr Trump did not invent the US gun lobby, which managed to defy President Obama’s best efforts over eight years to rein it in. Nor can he order the Republican majority in the Senate to endorse the very modest gun controls being proposed in the Democratcontrolled lower house. There is clearly something deeply rooted in the American collective psyche that politicians cannot shift. In most of the world, it is almost axiomatic that the state should have a monopoly of violence; only in the United States is the opposite proposition treated as sacrosanct. And even if 99.9 per cent of Americans can be trusted to own and use guns responsibly, that still leaves a third of a million people who cannot. It is no wonder the murder rate by firearms is through the roof. Mass shootings which kill innocent civilians are the dark side of the American soul. In such circumstances politicians need to be reminded of a basic political truth – that words have consequences. Talk of a “Hispanic invasion” will not trigger violence among sensible, decent Americans. But also listening to it are the tiny minority who are militantly racist bigots, some of whom might also be mentally ill – and all of whom own guns.
POPE’S LETTER TO CATHOLIC PRIESTS
PEOPLE AND OF THE
The victims and survivors of child sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy are almost invariably Catholics themselves, at least at the time of the offence. And others in the household of the faith are wounded too – parents or siblings who are disgusted and angry with the perpetrators, and indeed the wider Catholic community, which feels its faith in the goodness of God has met a serious challenge.
Priests are a particularly vulnerable part of that wider “victim” group. They report feeling dejected and embarrassed, of walking down the street head down, avoiding eye contact, even of leaving off the clerical collar to hide their identity. This is what Pope Francis is talking about in his new letter to Priests, observing that they are often held guilty – even by themselves – of sins they have not committed.
The Pope is right to be concerned. Priests need to be, and deserve to be, cherished, respected and cared for. Ordination to the priesthood is a fount of amazing grace, and Francis wants the clergy to be sustained in their ministry by the joy it can bring. Francis once identified the right sort of ministry as that where the clergy, like good shepherds, know “the smell of the sheep”. In a key passage of his letter, he thanks priests “for the times when, with great emotion, you embraced sinners, healed wounds, warmed hearts and showed the tenderness and compassion of the Good Samaritan. Nothing is more necessary than this: accessibility, closeness, readiness to draw near to the flesh of our suffering brothers and sisters … the pastor who never forgets that he has come from them and that by serving them he will find and express his most pure and complete identity.”
He warns against “the sin of the mirror”, the temptation to navel-gaze, to become self-centred and to believe that everything depends on himself. Growing a thicker skin and avoiding close relationships may be one way of surviving in a suspicious or hostile world, but it is not the way of the Cross. Relationships bring vulnerability and some degree of risk, but they also bring emotional nourishment and fulfilment. It is an oversight of the Pope’s letter, perhaps, that he does not directly refer to the mental health of the clergy, though he implies it when he says a good bishop will be a good pastor to his priests, which means having a concern for their emotional as well as their physical wellbeing. Loneliness and depression, and the temptation to deal with them by over-indulgence in alcohol, are well known psychological traps the clergy in particular have to be aware of.
But it is in their relationship with the flock entrusted to them that the deeper satisfactions of the priestly life will lie, though some priests may need example and encouragement to fully explore the possibilities. A close bond of co-responsibility with the parish, perhaps through lay-led parish initiatives and structures, is not only a good way to empower the laity but also to enrich the life of the priest. It offers a more equal and rewarding way, a way closer to the Gospel, of handling parish relationships – not priests and the people, as different entities, but priests of and from the people.
2 | THE TABLET | 10 AUGUST 2019