High school students marching for changes, calling for tighter gun laws in the United States. High school students working for changes that their elders have been unable or unwilling to bring about.
It may be tempting to dismiss these protesters as naive and overzealous students driven by the idealism of youth, except for one sobering fact. These protesting students live in fear of their lives. The school shootings in Columbine, Sandy Hook, Brandenton and Cold Spring leave these young citizens persuaded that they cannot wait for others to bring about the needed changes. The actions of these young Americans also reflect basic principles of Catholic social teaching.
That teaching calls on all of us to work for the common good, to join with others who recognize that something in society needs to be changed and to struggle tirelessly for those changes even in the face of well-financed, powerful opposition. The high school students refuse to be intimidated by the political, economic and media personalities bent on ridiculing and dismissing their efforts. They recognize the simple fact that each of us has the right and duty to help make our communities healthy, strong and safe places for everyone (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” 65).
Catholic social teaching points also to the need for balancing individual rights with community responsibilities. On this issue it may mean that our legal right to own certain types of firearms has made it easier for those same weapons to be used by others for tragic purposes. There are times when our exercise of certain legal rights may have to be curtailed in order to protect the larger society, including children in schools. We must, in other words, bring our “own interests into harmony with the needs of the community” (“Peace on Earth,” 53).
No one needs to be reminded that this teaching of the Catholic Church places a high value on the right to life, that is, that every person has the right to live his or her life from conception to natural death. That life must not be ended by abortion, capital punishment or a school shooting. Our young people seem to get this better than most of us, and they are willing to act on their knowledge and beliefs.
The gun law changes these students seek are practical and limited. They are not calling for the end to all gun ownership.
They are not calling for an end to hunting or trap shooting or other sport uses that most gun owners enjoy.
Their request is for the banning of those weapons that can kill so many people in so short a time — the kind of weapons that have taken away their classmates. More specifically, they seek to outlaw private ownership of assault-style weapons like the AR-15, as well as large capacity magazines and bump stocks. They argue as well for the common sense requirement of universal background checks.
On many levels these high school students are doing what our church’s moral teachings call all of us to do — to work for sensible changes in our society’s laws and public policies that ensure the rights and dignity of all citizens and residents. The students recognize something else that most of us are reluctant to say. That is, that the gun issue being debated in our society today is a pro-life issue. If we believe that every human being is made in the image of God and bears a sacred dignity, then it follows that all persons have a right to live their lives in the manner God intends — both in the womb and throughout their entire life.
This right to life applies as much to children in the classroom as it does to those in the womb. We need to act on that belief, and thank God for the example given us by the high school students.
Bernie Evans is retired from St. John’s University School of Theology/Seminary in Collegeville, where he held the Virgil Michel Ecumenical Chair in Rural Social Ministries.